A lot of hullabaloo has been made about Maren Morris, the Dallas-born singer-songwriter whose debut album, “Hero,” came out last Friday.
Her lead single “My Church” is currently No. 8 on Billboard’s “Hot Country Songs” chart, down from a peak position of No. 5. When it came out, the song was hailed as “a step in the right direction” for country music in general, and female country music in specific, by many prominent country music bloggers.
The song, in production and in sound, feels like a washed-out record or an old, familiar cassette tape that you’d put on in the car when you drive with the windows down on a Sunday. Which is appropriate, considering the song is about having a religious experience while hearing Johnny Cash and Hank Williams on an old FM car radio dial.
But that song is about as country as Morris gets on “Hero.” If you’ve listened to Morris’ eponymous debut EP, that wouldn’t be much of a shock.
The EP, and later, “Hero,” is an exercise in pop-country crossover done right. What’s more, it’s a self-assured pop-country debut from an artist who wrote or co-wrote every song herself. That’s more than can be said for other artists who are trying to straddle the pop-country divide.
The beginning guitar riff on album opener “Sugar” is acoustic, but the first verse is spoken in reggae patois-lite, and builds to a soaring pop chorus. You have producer busbee (Shakira, Christina Aguilera, Keith Urban’s “Ripcord”) to thank for that. It’s the most fitting album opener, in terms of style, that I’ve heard in a long time.
The rest of the album features country lyrics, but with pop melodies. As opposed to Brandy Clark, another female star with a new album out right now, Morris writes songs, not stories. Her lyrics are wry and clever but not overly self-congratulatory, as on “Rich” and “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry.”
In a riff on the “first do a commercial song, then release a real country song” formula, Morris released a country song in order to go down a more pop-oriented road. But it’s not like she pulled a bait-and-switch. She’s been unequivocally pop-country from the beginning.
But when the pop-country is this well-executed, that’s not a bad thing at all.
Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. For info about album releases and concerts, check out this week’s Country Music Roundup.