Few country stars are as celebrated as Maren Morris.
Even fewer are so outspoken.
The 32-year-old Arlington, Texas native has some of the biggest CMA Awards under her belt: Album of the Year for “Girl” in 2019; song and single of the year for “The Bones” in 2020; new artist of the year in 2016; singer of the year in 2020.
But even with his third major studio album “Humble Quest” up for the CMA Awards this year – the album’s supporting tour stops in Milwaukee on Saturday, at the BMO Harris Pavilion – Morris has been critical of the organization, assuming that its list of candidates, yet to be announced, will lack diversity.
“There’s definitely progress being made,” Morris told the Journal Sentinel when asked about supporting black country music artists. She recognized several black female country artists in a CMA Awards acceptance speech in 2020.
“Breland is killing it, and Brittany Spencer and Mickey Guyton and the Opry black and these amazing organizations in Nashville that really do the work. … But institutionally, I don’t see much progress,” she said. “We will see when the CMA nominations are announced if there is representation, but I doubt it.
Does Morris think the mainstream country music world – long criticized for its lack of diversity and for a glaring gender disparity when it comes to supporting artists on radio – can change for the better?
His answer was frank and striking.
“I might have a different answer tomorrow,” she said. “Some days I have hope. Some days I don’t.”
“I’m not even saying that to be maudlin or negative,” she continued. “I stood up against these institutions, trying to shout in their face that change has to happen now, and not tomorrow, not in five years, and nothing really changes. Everything stays the same.”
Maren Morris talks about her track
Next March will mark 20 years since Morris’ fellow Texans, the Dixie Chicks (renamed the Chicks in 2020), suffered this career setback – including country radio blacklisting – after Natalie Maines criticized the president of the time, George W. Bush, and the invasion of Iraq. at a concert in London.
In the decades since, country music superstars have remained largely silent on controversial topics.
But not Morris, who has spoken out on gun control legislation, racism and sexism in country music, and criticized the Supreme Court for overturning Roe v. Wade in June.
“I’m not really here to talk politics, I’m here to make music, and when something is blatantly violated, I’ll speak up about it,” Morris said. “And I hope the same for anyone I believe in or spend money on or support.”
“I feel like my country music heroes always resisted the system, and they were rebellious and always called out the machines, and I think that’s why they were revered and still are as those out-of-towners. la-law. They didn’t play by the rules.”
Morris acknowledges that his positions “definitely cost me unquote fans” – but that talking “outweighs the risk”.
“You’re creating a safer environment for your audience, your children, and the next generation of people who come into this business,” Morris said.
“I certainly don’t take my ability to do this successfully for granted,” Morris said. “…But honestly, I don’t see the point of doing that at all if you can’t go and play a show and feel like everyone in the crowd is safe and can have fun and not worry about see a Confederate flag in the parking lot a lot or someone who is homophobic.”
“Keeping your mouth shut just to count your dollars at the cost of real people’s lives…I don’t see the point of that if you have limited time here.”
‘Humble Quest’ recorded during the pandemic
And so Morris is making the most of his time in the spotlight, his platform fueled above all by the strength of his music.
And “Humble Quest” contains some of Morris’ most nourishing songs to date. Generally offering an uplift despite most songs written and recorded during the pandemic, the tracks evoke his accomplishments and continued determination (“Circles Around This Town”); finding solace with her husband, country artist Ryan Hurd, in the face of an uncertain future (“Background Music”); and a beautiful tribute to her son, Hayes, now 2, which Morris wrote the day she found out she was pregnant (“Hummingbird”).
“(Making the album) is definitely a process of therapy and living with my feelings for two years without distractions, and I think that’s why I was able to be so direct with the lyrics,” she said. declared. “I had nothing to dissuade me from honest truth, and it ended up being an amazing way to write songs.”
“I had a lot of help from my husband, my therapist, my son, a lot of friends. It definitely made me feel worthy again, even without being able to tour,” said Morris.
And now that she’s able to tour, “every song on the record resonated so well live” – the album’s title track especially, suggests Morris, who touches on her uplifting candor (“J’ was so nice until I woke up/I was polite until I spoke”).
“Seeing the crowd reaction to ‘Humble Quest’ and seeing people being released, it definitely translates to the scene,” Morris said. “This is the song where the writing process lifted me out of a sense of hopelessness and gave me a glimmer of hope.”
Focus on change on her own
But Morris’ hopes run out when it comes to seeing the country music establishment become more progressive. She has come to accept the limits of her impact.
“I kind of redirected my brain thinking all I can do is focus on my power,” she said. “Maybe I can’t roll this rock down the hill.”
“I’ve worked really hard since I was 12 to get here…and as a woman in this genre who still has songs playing on the radio, I’m extremely privileged to be allowed into this. club because they only allow a few of you and everyone is locked out.”
“While I’m here, I can only focus on my real, independent change, not so much on me trying to change an entire industry,” she continued. “I watch what I talk about, the songs I write, the people I hire, the people I take on tour. … All of that really impacts me and in my orbit. “The world hopes these ripple effects of my actions will create a better environment for others. But I can’t pretend that all of these industry giants are going to trade comfort for a little more equality.”
Despite her frustrations with industry giants – and her proven success beyond the genre with the hit pop single “The Middle” featuring Zedd – Morris is committed to staying in country music, driven in part “by the artists, writers and creators who take it into their hands now to make a new template of what it can look like.”
“It sounds like you’re in a bad relationship and trying to put on a good show,” Morris said of being a country artist. “At the end of the day, I feel most at home in country music. I love the small community. Nashville’s songwriting community is the most talented, real group of people.”
“When I was going through a dark time during COVID and wanted to hang up and go do something else, a good friend said to me, ‘If you go, nothing changes,'” Morris said. “I’d rather stay here and work to make it better than abandon ship.”
If you are going to
Who: Maren Morris with Natalie Hemby
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: BMO Harris Pavilion, Maier Festival Park, 200 N. Harbor Drive
How much?: $23 to $200 at the box office and pavilionbmoharris.com.