"Can I get a hallelujah, can I get an amen?" sings Texas-born, Nashville-dwelling Maren Morris on "My Church," the lead single from her debut full-length, HERO. Though "sing," however, might not be the most appropriate verbiage - she belts, more like it, in her dynamic range that can growl soulfully one moment and twangily howl the next. It's an honest performance from an artist and writer who stands out for the singular point of view, sheer creativity and fearless approach to music she's developed since she began performing and writing as a young child. Using the boldest colors from across many genres as her palate and country as her canvas, Morris' stories are vivid paintings that can be gleefully fun, tearfully heartbreaking and a perfect balance of modern and timeless.
With HERO, her first LP for Sony Music Nashville, Morris starts with a bang, not a whimper: opening with a mysterious vamp full of swampy swagger, "Sugar" seamlessly blends the attitude of R&B with a catchy, countrified chorus. In other words, it's Maren Morris in a perfect nutshell. "I don't want to ease anyone into this record," she says. "It's not my personality. It feels so good to start the album out that way, and the music itself is not shy. But then it goes on to these really internal moments, too." Indeed, she bounces from "Sugar" and the next track, the equally infectious, spitfire spirit of "Rich," to the pristine glimmer of "I Could Use a Love Song" and later, the poignant balladry and awe-inspiring vocals of "Second Wind" and "Once." It all results in one of the more inventive and engaging perspectives in country music to come along in years, conjuring a special, wildly different world where salvation comes through the FM dial and the stage is a place both to party and pray.
Morris built buzz at a breakneck speed with her self-titled EP, which introduced all of the diverse and dynamic sides that comprise her - from the confident, danceable swagger of "80s Mercedes," to the island jam of "Drunk Girls Don't Cry," and the soulful confessions of "Wish I Was." And, of course, the thrilling pop-country-gospel amalgam of "My Church," a track about the spirituality that comes with to letting your body and mind be enveloped by the power of music.
"My Church" has risen fast and furious: it entered Billboard's Heatseeker's chart at number one and has been bounding forward ever since, earning millions of digital streams and scoring Morris numerous accolades like an induction into CMT's "Next Women of Country" and a spot as one of Rolling Stone Country's Artists You Need to Know. "Country listeners have been needing something meaty, and to know a song like 'My Church' can be played on radio and very quickly resonate feels amazing," she says. "I think the message behind it is so universal - I don't feel like it's preaching, and it's not at all judgmental. It's not telling you to do anything but enjoy the moment."
It's an honest reflection on one of Morris' most simple pleasures - driving along in her car, being absorbed by the power of music. It's a theme that carries through HERO, too, an album named after a pivotal line in "I Wish I Was," one of the most personal songs on the LP: "I'm not the hero in the story, I'm not the girl that gets the glory." "After we wrote that song, it was a punch in the gut - emotional, cathartic," she explains. "I was definitely not the hero there. But in the journey from that song to today, I have become my own hero."
Born in Texas, Morris would often dominate the karaoke machine when her parents, who owned a local hair salon, would throw parties - and she'd belt LeAnn Rimes and Patsy Cline to the bewilderment of guests. Her writing prowess began with stories and poems in school and blossomed into lyrics when her father bought her a guitar at age twelve - and she took to it instantly.
"I started playing all around Texas - any bar or club that would let me in there," she says. "I was the only kid in school that had a job on the weekends!" The albums that shaped her early life were varied - like Patty Griffin, the Dixie Chicks, Sheryl Crow - but she also grasped quickly that while she loved country and roots music, she felt most at home when bending genre lines. It wasn't uncommon for her to spin both Clint Black and Chaka Khan, developing into what she calls a "gangster June Carter," with a laugh.
At barely twenty, she moved to Nashville, leaving behind a resume that boasted three hits on the Texas Music Chart: and while many arrive in town with a dream of their name in lights, resting on the marquees of the biggest and brightest venues, Morris simply wanted to work on her songwriting craft. And it's not that she didn't have aspirations as a performer - Morris had actually already logged years doing just that. But being a celebrity wasn't the goal - spending her days and nights in the writing room, working with as many cowriters as possible and composing hundreds of songs, was. And though she'd only play the occasional local gig at first, she still managed to build an audience based on her sheer talent, honest lyrics and a completely magnetic presence. Small shows led to big opening gigs: for Little Big Town, Sam Hunt, Loretta Lynn and Chris Stapleton.
As a working songwriter she scored cuts quickly, for artists like Tim McGraw and Kelly Clarkson. And she started shaping a community of likeminded friends leading a new charge in the country climate: the Brothers Osborne, Kacey Musgraves, Lucie Silvas. "It feels like a modern-day Chelsea Hotel," she says of her very close, very talented pals. They became a tight knit circle dead-set on helping each other evolve into unique, game-changing artists.
Along the way, she slowly and carefully started building the bones to her career as a performer again. "It wasn't a conscious decision to be an artist," she says. "It was more, am I ready to face my point of view? I would have been happy just being a songwriter, but there was a voice in my head saying, you've got to sing these."
It wasn't an easy process, but it was a brave one, full of soul-searching and soul-bearing moments that lead her to HERO - an album dedicated to pushing boundaries both in music and in her own heart, finding that place where melodies can be both deliciously joyous and thoughtfully reflective all at once.
"HERO is all about a journey," she says. "A lot of these songs came from a place of honesty and redemption. I looked very carefully at my own life, and that itself feels very heroic."
Sometimes it's ok to be your own hero - and with HERO, it seems Morris is finally the girl who gets the glory.