Maren Morris
There was a time when I felt the unrelenting urge to justify and defend the fact that I love country music. Plenty of people listened to the genre in the small town in Oregon I grew up in, but by the time I went to live in Los Angeles as an insecure college student, I hid the fact that I knew all the words to Faith Hill and Martina McBride. Hiding my love for country was another way of hiding my working class roots, an aspect of my identity that felt beyond foreign in the milk and honeyed land of wealth and privilege that was Malibu, California. I felt the same way about my Christian background; that no matter how far I distanced myself from the language of liturgy, there were whole swathes of Biblical passages embedded in my memory. I piled dirt on those memories and furtively guarded the heap of my past. I was searching, insecure, lost–and it took a move to another city for me to reconcile the girl I was with the woman I wanted to become. It took that move to Brooklyn for me to start listening to country music again, basking in the memories of my past and forging ahead toward values I still held. This reconciliation is the first heroic act any adult embarks on.

I can’t speak for her, but it seems like Maren Morris went through a similar transition when she moved from Texas to Nashville. Today, her debut album Hero is coming out to a host of acclaim, but as little as a year ago, she didn’t see any of this happening for herself. She grew up singing in bars in Texas as a kid, as good a place as any to get performing experience, so that at 25, Morris has more poise than many seasoned performers because of those early years. But her past as a kid performer burnt the singer out by the time she was at the age that most college students convince themselves they’re more than equipped to pick up an acoustic guitar. She spoke to NPR a couple months ago about feeling divorced from her identity as a performer. She was confident as a songwriter, sure, but the idea of putting herself back on the line was daunting. Except, every song she wrote was so decidedly a Maren Morris song that eventually, there was no other choice.

I can explain this to you, but you won’t really feel it yourself until you hear “My Church,” a driver’s seat sanctuary that fills the windows-down-rush of a freeway with the grace and redemption of an altar call. It is a one-of-a-kind gospel stunner with a clap track and a golden snarl of defiance–just the slightest hint–to cement her rebellion. It’s not a kiss off, but it’s a kiss goodbye to the stifling haughtiness incurred by many a congregation. Those of us raised with stiff spirituality find a touchstone, and a pivot–Hank’s the only one preaching in Morris’ world. I thought I’d sifted through my own hangups about Christianity, but “My Church” let them loose in a new way. It doesn’t have to be one or the other scenario, it’s totally possible to incorporate even the bad parts of your past into your own definition of the future.

Maren Morris Hero

I certainly wasn’t the only one “My Church” resonated with. This song was her toehold, a long-shot twin sister to Cam’s “Burning House,” (that took off when a radio DJ played it because he liked the song, not because it fits the formula that country radio DJs seem to have inscribed on their own skin, to everyone’s detriment) two songs that resonated not just because the lyrics and production are impeccable, not only because both artists wrote them, but because they each sound like someone’s thoughts–they sound like songs made by a person. They’re both stories about becoming, a process so powerful and resonate that it still outdoes any algorithm.

The rest of Hero, Maren Morris’ debut album out today, unfurls with the same offbeat singularity as the secular “Church” Morris built. “Rich” and “Sugar” are two other standouts, the first simmers a sunny side up sing-talk melody to ruefully reflect that betting on an ex’s inconsistency would lead to wealth incarnate; the second lets a rumbling, bluesy guitar line carry a love-as-sweetener metaphor all the way through the flawless specificity of “a Coca Cola on Christmas Day.” They’re off-kilter and individual, songs that flirt with pop while rolling in the dirt with Americana, stubborn and vocal-fried, Morris’ style is peppered with carefree profanities, eternally a wink away from an eyeroll. “Second Wind” is an ashes-to-phoenix earworm that’ll still make you tear up, while “80s Mercedes” successfully cashes back in on the car-as-spiritual-experience trope, one that we’ll see lesser songwriters try to rope in all next year. Not that Morris will be concerned with knockoffs by then, especially considering she can also dole out ballads full of longing like “I Could Use A Love Song,” that imagines a full-hearted melody bright and clear enough to restore her faith in love itself. This is belief divorced from a higher power, rooted in self-reliance and individual hope.

Whatever her thoughts on the monolith of organized religion itself, Morris has a naked commitment to spirituality and vulnerability that imbues her work with unspeakable emotional power. It is rare to encounter a songwriter able to imbue songs about mundane things with such regal force, she’s in good company among many other capable of this–John Prine, Guy Clark, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton. Morris joins a cohort of those who will hang around rock bottom long enough to find that a lot of gold can be pulled out from under the dirt, gold you’ll never see until you get your hands dirty and dig for it. Of course, the most valuable gold is always the shit you pull out of your own mud, and Morris isn’t afraid to excavate the murky depths of her own heart. That’s heroic, no matter who you are.
Hero is out today, 6/3, via Columbia Nashville. Get it here.

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