As the rain fell outside the Soho Lounge on Austin’s Sixth Street this past March, Maren Morris and I sat in a corner of the lively bar and talked about the mind-boggling whirlwind her life had become since signing a major label record deal with Sony Music Nashville last fall.
At various points during our half-hour conversation, we were politely interrupted by DFW up-and-comers Reagan James and Jamey Ice, both of whom knew about Morris and her music long before she was performing on Good Morning America or the Grand Ole Opry, making cameos on Dierks Bentley’s albums and going on tour with Keith Urban.
The quick hellos were a vivid reminder of the 26-year-old Arlington native’s roots.
For almost a decade, Morris was a fixture on stages across North Texas before relocating to Nashville three years ago.
Watching Morris, just 24 hours removed from a promotional jaunt through the United Kingdom, greet her fellow musicians was to see someone literally embracing her past, reveling in her present success and graciously asking about everyone’s future.
Her own path has been on a swift upward trajectory over the last eight months, culminating in the release of her fourth full-length album, but her first for a major label: Hero, which arrives in stores Friday.
Morris’s description of Hero’s 11 songs is almost comical in its understatement.
“It’s a hodgepodge of my influences and where my head had been the last few years,” she says. “I really feel like every song was just a different snapshot of my life in the last few years, from Texas to Tennessee. I went through a lot of change.”
You don’t have to move away for things to happen — just in my particular case.
singer-songwriter Maren Morris
Indeed, Hero is, for those who have followed her all these years, a profoundly moving, unerringly confident collection of material — the sound of a talented artist seizing her moment in the spotlight with both hands and making the most of it. (For a full review of Hero, click here.)
But, as Morris freely acknowledged on that drizzling March afternoon, none of what has happened over the last year would be possible without all the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years she spent in North Texas dive bars, on festival stages and at home, writing and performing and pouring all of herself into her music, hoping to parlay her skills into a career.
To quote Benjamin Franklin: “Diligence is the mother of good luck.”
It isn’t lost on Morris that she finds herself achieving fame, just as others from North Texas are finding favor with national and international audiences: Leon Bridges, certainly, but rappers like Post Malone and Justus are turning heads, as well as stalwarts like Quaker City Night Hawks, Luke Wade, Jonathan Tyler, Green River Ordinance and Casey James, all of whom continue to tour and record for fervent fan bases.
“It’s amazing,” Morris says. “I have a lot of friends that I talk to every day from the Metroplex area. I’ll always be rooted here.
“It’s really incredible to see [other North Texas artists getting noticed] and really starting to thrive, because you don’t have to move away for things to happen — just in my particular case.”
Going to Nashville
As recently as five or six years ago, Morris’s ascension — precipitated, in part, by her relocation from her North Texas home to Nashville — might have been viewed askance by those positioning themselves as champions, defenders and lone arbiters of the local music scene, decrying the move as tantamount to betrayal.
After all, talent is easily found anywhere at any time, or so the thinking goes, so why forsake the vital, eclectic environs you call home to take a chance elsewhere?
Morris rhetorically swats this away without hesitation.
“It’s such a cliché to think, ‘Oh, you’re selling out. You’re moving into the musical machine,’ or ‘You’re abandoning your roots,’ ” she says. “I think that’s so juvenile and just small-minded, because it’s a big world. It’s a very archaic view on the creative process and on Nashville, because if you go to Nashville, it’s not just country, the same way Fort Worth is not just country.
“It’s the idea that getting out of your comfort zone and collaborating with people that are better than you is selling out.”
That notion of pushing herself beyond the familiar is one Morris returns to throughout our conversation.
She’ll have plenty of opportunities to tackle things she has never before had the chance to do, such as performing on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon on Monday, and showcasing her music on the Today show Tuesday.
Out of the ‘zone’
Had Morris remained in Texas and not taken the leap to Nashville, it’s hard to say what might have transpired.
I feel more comfortable in my own skin now, just because I got out of my comfort zone in the biggest way.
singer-songwriter Maren Morris
Certainly, musicians can and have built perfectly viable careers staying put in the Lone Star State, but reflecting back on the decision to pack up and head east to Tennessee, Morris characterizes it as a necessary shock to the system.
“It was a little daunting because my dad had been my manager since I was 11, and it was like a family project,” Morris says. “The thought of moving by myself into … Nashville definitely was a change of pace, but I felt like I had to scare myself to find out who I was. I think I did that in the last few years.
“I feel more comfortable in my own skin now, just because I got out of my comfort zone in the biggest way and immersing myself in a city where the most talented songwriters live in such a small proximity.
“It was exactly what I needed.”
Her formative years in Texas also prepared Morris for a smooth creative transition.
If Hero sounds to those unfamiliar with Morris and her music as if she’s been doing this her whole life, well — she has been.
“I’m proud to come from this state, because not many people can say they’ve been doing this since they were 11,” Morris says. “A lot of my friends in Nashville had to move there to either go to school, go to Belmont [University], or find a music scene at all, so the fact that for so long I was able to tour professionally and grow here says a lot about the state.”
As for the future, Morris will continue to step outside her comfort zone — or, more likely, her comfort zone is going to be radically redefined.
The singer-songwriter’s new normal involves singles like her infectious, soulful My Church going gold (selling more than 500,000 copies) and performing in arenas that dwarf the intimate stages she’s dominated to this point in her career — her roughly five-month stint as an opening act for Keith Urban begins Friday in Kansas City, Mo. (She’ll pass through Dallas, performing at the American Airlines Center, on Oct. 14.)
“Everything in the last few months has been a ramp up to the Keith tour,” Morris says. “I’ve never been on a tour. ... This is 60 or 70 shows and I’ve never been involved in a production that big. I’m excited to see the show from Day One to our last show — I think it’s at the Barclays [Center] in Brooklyn — to see how the show evolves.
“It’s going to be so tight and I’m so excited. I hope that post-Keith, we can do our own headline tour and maybe do some small theaters around the country.”
Morris, an “overnight sensation” a decade in the making, will keep moving forward, mindful of where she’s been, what she’s learned and what she has yet to experience.
The next year will undoubtedly be as rewarding and astonishing as the last 12 months.
Regardless of whether she’s singing for a handful of people at a bar off Interstate 20 or commanding the attention of a crowd filling the Barclays Center, Morris, in conversation as in song, has a way of cutting right to the heart of the matter.
“The wave hits you no matter what,” she says, “but I do think having some performance background helped, initially, when I moved to Nashville.
“I feel like a lot of people in town think it happened quickly and I would say it did, in the Nashville standard, but if I look at this [in relation to my life, it’s been] 15 years. It doesn’t seem like — it’s never overnight.”