Grammys: Maren Morris on her pivot to pop and what comes next
The 2019 Grammy nomination list of Nashville artists included Maren Morris and Chris Stapleton The Tennessean
Don’t call Maren Morris a pop singer.
The Nashville-based singer's hit on EDM artist Zedd's "The Middle" raised questions about whether she would follow Taylor Swift's path from country darling to pop star.
Spoiler alert: Morris, in an interview with the USA TODAY NETWORK, repeatedly dispelled the notion, promising not to abandon her country roots. She cherishes the genre’s penchant for storytelling. And she can’t imagine moving to Los Angeles.
“I’m not claiming myself a pop star,” Morris said. “(Recording ‘The Middle’) was a risk, but it was a risk worth taking because it paid off. I think I’m a very rooted country songwriter who grew up listening to everything and … vocally I love singing everything.”
Billboard ranked “The Middle” as the No. 2 pop song of 2018, and when Grammy nominations were announced, Morris nabbed five. Two of the singer’s nods are tied to “The Middle,” but like her artistic loyalty, the other three fell in country music. Morris will learn the size of her Grammy haul on Sunday. The Recording Academy’s 61st Grammy Awards will air live from Los Angeles’ Staples Center at 7 p.m. on CBS.
“I feel like Chris Stapleton must feel all of the time,” Morris quipped in a nod to Stapleton’s habit of being top-nominated at most country music awards shows. “I feel really at home in the list of nominees this year because this list of nominations is very reflective of where music is headed. It’s boundary-less, it’s genre-less, it’s female.”
“The Middle,” featuring Morris on vocals and EDM artists Zedd and Grey, was practically born at the 2018 Grammy Awards. The artists partnered with Target, and the song’s video debuted during the award show’s telecast. “The Middle” was a seven-week No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 40 Radio chart and spent five weeks atop the adult contemporary radio chart.
At the same time, Morris’ country single “Rich” was working to find its way on country radio. “The Middle” enjoyed a faster rise and broader international success. “Rich” topped out at No. 2 on Billboard’s country airplay charts in November.
Sony Music Nashville Chairman and CEO Randy Goodman said the cross-genre interplay was always part of Morris’ plan.
'Elvis or Johnny?'
Goodman remembers meeting Morris in his office 3½ years ago. He said that Sony was able to snag the singer from another label just before she inked her deal. Goodman asked her to articulate the vision for Maren Morris. She pointed at a photo on the wall — one of Elvis Presley with Johnny Cash.
“I said, ‘Which guy, Elvis or Johnny?’ Either one is good,” Goodman said. “She said, ‘Johnny Cash. I want to live in Nashville. I want to be rooted in country music. I want to be on other formats when it’s appropriate, and I want to tour the world.”
In the moment, Goodman said he thought: “Wow, I can play into that.” He just didn’t realize the genre-jumping would start so early in her career. Now Goodman admits that Morris does things that “completely unnerve and freak me out.”
“She would call me and go in a very soft but firm, knowing voice say, ‘Randy, this is going to work. I feel really good about it,’ ” he said. “I would say, ‘OK, here we go. We’re going to make this work.’ ”
Goodman’s response to “The Middle”?
“You’re sitting there going, ‘Oh my God, will this cannibalize what we’re doing at country radio?’ ” he admitted. “It was like OK, this is really, really early in the career of a country female artist that you’re trying to establish at country radio. When an artist wants to make a pivot into the pop world in that kind of way, that’s breaking the rules.”
Morris has shown her dedication to the country format through her presence and her music. “The Middle” debuted during the same show in which Morris paid tribute to Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting victims with fellow country stars Eric Church and Brothers Osborne. “Dear, Hate,” her Grammy-nominated duet with Vince Gill, was released to country radio a few months prior.
“It showed country radio that I’m not abandoning anyone,” she said. “I’m just a versatile artist, and I think they knew that from the beginning anyway.”
It was at the Grammys two years ago that Morris demonstrated that versatility on front of a national audience, holding her own in a duet with Alicia Keys in a performance that went viral on social media.
She believes that having her voice showcased in songs in separate genres at the same time bolstered the listening audience’s familiarity with her art, which allowed each song to help drive the success of its counterpart.
At this year’s CMA Awards, Maren Morris, Ryan Hurd, Rita Wilson and Cassadee Pope talked about seeing musicians on the big screen in “A Star is Born” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (Dec. 20)
“You can’t really plan for those things,” Morris said. “You just have to take a shot in the dark and hope that it all works out, and luckily it did.”
Beverly Keel, co-founder of Change the Conversation and chair of the recording industry department at Middle Tennessee State University, said it’s Morris’ independence and crossover appeal that make her one of the most important artists in country music today.
“She is such a wonderful role model,” Keel said. “If she didn’t exist, we’d need to create someone just like her. She’s making some of the best music that’s out there, lyrically, sonically. She is bringing fans to country music. And she’s fearless. But every move she makes is the right move. She’s bold, and she’s brave, and she’s very supportive of other females.”
Maren Morris is a 'GIRL' on fire
When Morris released “GIRL” in January, the self-titled debut single from her highly anticipated second album, the female empowerment anthem set record streaming numbers. With 3.3 million audio streams, she had the highest debut on Nielsen’s Country On-Demand Audio Streaming chart by a female artist and the highest weekly streams by a female country artist in chart history.
Morris co-wrote “GIRL” with Sarah Aarons, who also co-wrote "The Middle," and Grammy Award-winning songwriter and producer Greg Kurstin (Adele, Sia), who also co-produced the track with Morris.
Lyrics include: "Drawing your comparisons/ Trying to find who’s lesser than/ I don’t wanna wear your crown/ When there’s enough to go around."
“I just want to keep taking risks and growing closer to my fans and making new fans,” Morris said. “I think the only way you can do that is by scaring the s--t out of yourself, and that’s what this song does to me. This is going to fail miserably or it’s going to open up a completely new side of myself and the world that I haven’t been introduced to yet.”
Morris explained she started writing “GIRL” as an encouragement for others but quickly realized she was writing it to herself. She was trying to encourage herself to see beyond the well-documented lack of women on country radio right now and the constant commiserating and keep her eyes on the future.
Morris said “GIRL” sets the tone for her all-important sophomore album. But like her debut project “Hero,” no one song encapsulates the collection. She sees the first half of “GIRL” as a self-reflective continuation of “Hero,” wrapping up loose ends from her first album. The second half of the album, she said, is about allowing herself to be loved by another. She married fellow country singer Ryan Hurd in 2018.
“If you’re between a rock and a hard place, sometimes you have to blaze another trail because the hard place and the rock both suck,” she said. “On this album, I feel really fearless. I want every song to matter. I want to tell a story. I want the track list to take the listener on a journey, and I feel like it does that.”
As for what happens next, Goodman said he doesn’t know and would be “foolish” to guess.
“What I do know is it will be unorthodox, unnerving; it’s going to be exciting and big,” he said.
Reach Cindy Watts at email@example.com or 615-664-2227 and on Twitter @CindyNWatts.
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The Recording Academy’s 61st Grammy Awards will air live from Los Angeles’ Staples Center at 7 p.m. Sunday on CBS.
Maren Morris will release her highly anticipated sophomore album, "GIRL," on March 8.