Until last year, Maren Morris had all but given up on a singing career. Growing up in Arlington, she had her eyes on the prize: a life as a country singer-songwriter, like her childhood heroes Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. And for a while she seemed to be headed in the right direction. She started singing at county fairs at 11, played honky-tonks as a teenager, and after high school diligently worked the Texas country circuit; occasionally, she’d open for somebody notable, like Pat Green or Bob Schneider. An appearance at Central Market wasn’t beneath her. She even self-released three albums—now out of print—and garnered enough radio play to land three songs on the Texas Music Chart. “I did the work and built a nice little fan base,” the 26-year-old Morris says. “But I felt like I needed a new challenge. Sometimes you just realize you’re ready for something else.”
In 2013, burned-out on performing just enough to suspect she might not miss it, she moved to Nashville to focus on breaking into Music Row’s tough songwriting market. Kacey Musgraves, whom Morris befriended in Texas before either had moved to Nashville, helped open some doors, and almost immediately Morris built a reputation as a strong utility player who was clever with wordplay and could match melodies to other people’s lyrics. Within six months, Kelly Clarkson and Tim McGraw had cut songs she co-wrote.
Last year, she and Mike Busbee, a veteran who’s logged hits for Katy Perry and Blake Shelton, wrote a song called “My Church.” “I’ve cussed on a Sunday / I’ve cheated, and I’ve lied / I’ve fallen down from grace a few too many times” went the opening lines, before the song shifted gears, detailing how the singer found salvation in classic country music.
“I recognized immediately that it was the most honest thing I’ve ever written,” says Morris. “But the conventional wisdom in town is that if someone says it’s a smash, you know it isn’t. You can’t speak those words without jinxing it. But I really did feel the earth shift. I obsessively listened to the song that evening and let my mind go places it hadn’t been in a long time—primarily, singing it in front of a crowd. ‘My Church’ gave me the courage to wander into that dreamland.”
Last fall, she took the leap, releasing “My Church” and a handful of other songs on Spotify. A few million streams later, she signed a deal with Columbia Nashville and went into the studio to record her proper debut album, Hero, which comes out June 3. “There are days I feel like I’m being shot out of a cannon straight into chaos,” says Morris, who sings a duet on Dierks Bentley’s new record and this month will kick off a tour as Keith Urban’s handpicked opener. “It’s a little dizzying.”
Spurred by Hero, Morris’s new fans will no doubt quickly search for more of her music. And thanks to the Internet, they’re in luck. At press time, some of her old songs are still playable on a long-defunct Myspace page. And on YouTube, anyone who digs beyond the video for “My Church” (seven million views and counting) will find nearly a dozen live performances from the archives of Fort Worth’s 95.9 the Ranch. For the station, the clips offer serious bragging rights; five years before she was Nashville’s most-hyped newcomer, she was the teenager from across the Metroplex who would stop by its studio to play a few songs. For Morris, the videos are a little cringe-worthy (though, honestly, even her cover of “Edelweiss” is gorgeous). But she says she’s not about to get her lawyers to fire off a round of takedown notices.
“You won’t find me trying to sweep under the rug anything about my years in Texas,” she says. “It’s pretty simple: if I hadn’t done any of that, I wouldn’t have any of this now.”