With her 2016 debut album Hero and its accompanying hit single "My Church," Maren Morris helped push country music into the 21st century.
Morris' music was grounded in country -- prior to striking gold as a performer, she was a professional songwriter in Nashville -- but she also incorporated elements of pop, R&B, hip-hop, and rock, creating a distinctive, stylish hybrid that had wide appeal outside her chosen genre. This sly versatility was evident on her hit singles "80s Mercedes" and "Rich," but her ability to crossover was showcased in "The Middle," a 2018 dance-pop hit she recorded with Zedd and Grey, but even as she broke into the pop Top Ten, Morris maintained strong country roots, as evidenced by her pivotal part in the 2019 supergroup the Highwomen.
A native of the Dallas suburb of Arlington, Maren Morris was drawn to music as a child. Picking up guitar at the age of 12, she soon started writing songs. At the age of 15, she released her first album, Walk On, on Mozzi Blozzi Music. A second independent album, All That It Takes, arrived on Smith in 2007, while Morris was attending the University of North Texas. Following a third indie album, Live Wire, in 2011, Morris relocated to Nashville. The New Music Seminar named her an "Artist on the Verge," which helped her secure work as a professional songwriter in the Music City.
Signing with Yellow Dog publishing, Morris quickly placed songs on albums by Tim McGraw (2014's Sundown Heaven Town) and Kelly Clarkson (2015's Piece by Piece). All the while, she continued to work on her own music, opening for a variety of artists while recording on her own. Morris placed "My Church" on streaming services in the summer of 2015 and it quickly went viral, earning over 2.5 million streams within a month and, along with it, the attention of major labels. Morris wound up signing with Columbia Nashville in September 2015, and the major put out an eponymous digital EP in November, working "My Church" as a single to country radio.
During the early months of 2016, "My Church" began its climb into Billboard's Country Top Ten -- it peaked at nine on Country Airplay, five on Country Songs -- setting up the release of Hero in June. Greeted by critical acclaim, Hero debuted at number one on Billboard's Country Albums chart and five on its Top 200, spinning off the hit "80s Mercedes" by the end of the year. All the activity elevated Morris to the front ranks of country music stars: she was nominated for four Grammy awards, taking home the trophy for Best Country Solo Performance; she won New Artist of the Year from the Country Music Association and earned a performing slot on Saturday Night Live in late 2016. As a deluxe edition of Hero hit stores in early 2017, she toured both as a headliner and an opener for Sam Hunt, while "I Could Use a Love Song" made its way to number one on Country Airplay later in 2017 (it reached seven on Country Songs). Following the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas -- an event at which she played the night before the tragedy -- she wrote and recorded the topical "Dear Hate" with Vince Gill.
Morris broke into the pop mainstream in 2018 with "The Middle," an effervescent dance-pop tune she recorded with Zedd and Grey. Reaching number five on the Hot 100, "The Middle" introduced Morris to new audiences, who were then given "Rich" -- one of the album's glitziest, cleverest songs -- as a belated single from Hero; it went to four Country Airplay, eight on Country Songs.
Early in 2019, Morris announced her second album with the release of its title track, "Girl." An anthem of empowerment delivered in the midst of an ongoing controversy about the lack of women on country airwaves, "Girl" climbed to number one on Country Airplay. Its accompanying album debuted at number one on Billboard's Country charts, number four on the Top 200. The second single from Girl, "The Bones," only went to 57 on Country Airplay during the summer of 2019, but by that point Morris' attention turned to the Highwomen, the supergroup that included her, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby.
The Highwomen played their first live show at the 60th Newport Folk Festival in July 2019, with their eponymous debut album arriving on September 6; it was released on Elektra Records. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi