A fun and casual and not-at-all contrived thing country music stars love to do is name-drop pop stars in their songs. “Mixtape’s got a little Hank, little Drake,” goes the first line of a Florida Georgia Line beer-pong jock jam called “This Is How We Roll.” That song features fellow bro-country totem Luke Bryan, who once boasted about his “country-rock-hip-hop mixtape,” which features a “little Conway, a little T-Pain.” A lower-tier gentleman who I swear to god is named Chase Rice once sang the following: “Damn, what’s that tattoo sneaking out of them hip-huggers / I bet I’d see the other half if them boys will play some Usher.”
This practice of evoking, say, Lil Wayne as a means of co-opting Lil Wayne’s audience is political and aspirational and not a little dorky, the awkward work of Nashville giants aching to look just a little cooler. It is also, like much of country radio these days, a supremely dudely affair. It’s the sort of macho cliché Maren Morris, one of the biggest and best young country-music stars alive, lives to puncture and redeem. Her sophomore album, Girl, is out this week. And when a gentle ballad called “A Song for Everything” opens with the lines “What’s your time machine / Is it Springsteen or ‘Teenage Dream’?,” for the first time, that sort of omnivorous mixtape talk doesn’t sound like bullshit.
Morris a native of Arlington, Texas, does indeed share quite a bit of musical DNA with “California Gurls,” flaunting the arena-rock heartland gravitas of the Boss but still coming by her Katy Perry worship honestly. “I mean, I think ‘Teenage Dream’ is one of the best-written pop songs of all time,” she tells me, chatting by phone in late February. “Those are completely different artists when you look at their trajectory and their goals and even their vocals, but they share one thing, that I love them.”
Morris’s first big single was a gospel-powered love letter to country radio called “My Church”—a song all the more poignant now that country radio has stupidly excommunicated female artists almost entirely—but her debut album, 2016’s swaggering Hero, made abundantly clear that she loved pop music, too, and better yet, understood it. She had Gretchen Wilson’s trailer-park brashness and Rihanna’s casually lethal sense of elastic melody. She could belt a line like “I’m a ’90s baby in my ’80s Mercedes” and indeed sound nearly timeless. She swore up a blue streak on the bumptious hit “Rich,” which swiped its guitar riff from the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” but also dropped the line “Me and Diddy drippin’ diamonds like Marilyn” without sounding clueless or merely thirsty.
By her mid-20, Morris was already a songwriting veteran of Nashville’s Music Row, a pop superfan and scholar both, which now gives her the ammunition to both deliver a fizzy Girl party-starter called “The Feels” and then turn around and explain why Perry’s “Teenage Dream” still resonates on a level that goes way beyond the feels. “When you look at it on a technical level, it’s just a perfectly written song,” she says. “The syllables all line up. The rhyme scheme is perfect. It’s just one of those songs, as a songwriter nerd, that you’re like, ‘Fuck, I really wish I had been in the room that day they wrote that.’ But that’s a testament to the songwriters. I mean, Bonnie McKee is one of the best pop songwriters of my generation, and yeah, I fangirled over Katy Perry at the Grammys, but I was equally fangirling over Bonnie McKee as a lover of her songs.”
Morris was herself a fixture at the 2019 Grammys, with five nominations (“The Middle,” her impossibly infectious EDM-pop single with Zedd and the electronic duo Grey, was up for Record of the Year) and a performance slot during a loopy Dolly Parton tribute throwdown. “She’s equal parts workhorse and also someone that does not take herself too seriously,” Morris enthuses of Parton. “That’s a hard alchemy to conjure up in just one little person.”
“The Middle” should’ve won. It has quite possibly the most insidiously hooky chorus of any pure pop song since “Call Me Maybe,” and the thoroughly modern assembly-line circumstances of its creation—its convoluted path from songwriter to various producers to Zedd to, after an exhaustive search for the right vocalist, Morris—make it the best-case scenario for how pop hits are made now. “I’ve always been interested in the science of a song, breaking it apart, figuring out why it’s so catchy,” Morris says. “I love that part of it as much as I love the poetic part of writing songs.”
Hero flirted with sugary pop and bombastic hard rock, but was recognizably a country music success story: Morris was named New Artist of the Year at the 2016 CMAs and has the bittersweet honor of standing among the few female artists still getting consistent country-radio airplay. But “The Middle” caused a goodly amount of anxiety that she’d Go Pop for good, radically compressing the gala-crossover trajectory of her friend Taylor Swift, who during the Arlington stop on her 2018 stadium tour brought out Morris for a hometown duet of “The Middle.” It had the feel of a commencement ceremony; country music, which pays lip service to the idea of an open-minded, genre-crossing utopia but has few artists capable of delivering on that promise, clearly needed Morris far more than she needed it.
But Girl is not her version of Swift’s 1989. “I felt a little ballsier in the studio, post–‘The Middle,’ because I felt like I didn’t want to go in and make a pop record,” she says. “I just wanted to make a ‘me’ record. I’m not setting out to make an EDM album or a big, you know, pop-diva record. I just wanna make a record that sounds like the inside of my head.” Girl’s title track and lead single, a guitar-driven slow burn that dodges simplistic self-empowerment bromides and chases something a little sharper and more personal, is partially about her desire to avoid copying or even competing with anyone else: “Draw your comparisons / Tryin’ to find who’s lesser-than / I don’t wanna wear your crown / There’s enough to go around.”
“It did scare me for a second,” Morris says of the song, “because the guitars on it are so rock and a little aggressive that, even to me, emotional as that song is, I second-guessed myself for the tiniest second, because I stupidly thought, ‘Does this sound like anything else?’ And then I realized, ‘No, idiot, you don’t want it to.’ So, yeah, I definitely have those moments, but if it scares me, I feel like it’s probably worth doing.”
Girl is a Nashville affair, from the blustery dive-bar anthem “All My Favorite People” (costarring country-rock bruisers the Brothers Osborne) to the elegant, pedal-steel-borne sweetness of “To Hell & Back,” which is likely as close as anyone’s getting to prime Shania Twain in the year of our lord 2019. On songs like the alarmingly sultry “RSVP,” Morris also excels at transcending country radio’s supremely dudely approach to romance, pushing beyond the genre’s tired old-cutoff-jeans, she’s-wearing-my-shirt approach to sexiness.
Which is to say that there’s also a song on this record called “Make Out With Me.” “The weird paradigm in country music, where women are looked at as they can only be sexy but not sexual, is definitely a concept I’d like to blow up,” says Morris, who married fellow singer-songwriter Ryan Hurd in 2018. “And I think that it’s powerful coming from a woman. Like, ‘I want to pursue this other person. I don’t wanna just be pursued.’ I like the command of that.”
Morris also received Grammy nominations for her soul-noir cover of Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” and her collaboration with Vince Gill on “Dear Hate,” a song she wrote two days after the 2015 mass shooting at South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. She released “Dear Hate” shortly after the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, donating some of the proceeds to the Music City Cares fund for the victims of that attack.
This counts as a provocation in a country music landscape that still greets any talk of gun control with hostility: See the uproar over Eric Church’s measured criticisms of the NRA in Rolling Stone last year. A “political” country song in 2019 is usually a benign can’t-we-all-just-get-along hedge like Luke Bryan’s “Most People Are Good” or Carrie Underwood’s “Love Wins.” That Morris is willing to get even a little more pointed in her politics, both in the songs themselves and in how she deploys them, marks her as both an outlier and a leader in this realm too. Girl’s “Flavor” is an upbeat jam that celebrates both her penchant for mixing genres and her determination to use the very public trials of the Dixie Chicks as an inspiration, not a cautionary tale: “I speak my piece, don’t do what I’m told / ‘Shut up and sing,’ well, hell no I won’t.”
So Girl is not the radical departure “The Middle” might’ve suggested, but it’s quietly revolutionary all the same. It is, after all, called Girl, which itself nearly counts as a swear word on country radio—when a woman’s singing it, anyway. The “Girl” video ends with Morris joking wearily that “One of the hardest things about being a girl is having to always answer questions about why it’s hard to be a girl.” She’s singing about this stuff to help bring about a universe where she no longer has to talk about it. “I’d like to replace the conversation at some point, because being a woman isn’t the most interesting thing about me, I don’t think,” Morris says. “I have a lot of other things on the table that I feel are way more valuable, and I love being a woman, but I don’t wanna be remembered as being a great female artist. I wanna be remembered as being a great artist, hopefully.” The platonic ideal is not that she might one day make her own “Teenage Dream.” It’s that she’ll invent a new time machine entirely.