Maren Morris, Variety’s Changemaker of the Year, on Giving Voice to a Social Conscience in Country: ‘I Just Got So Sick of Being a Yes Person’

Maren Morris, Variety’s Changemaker of the Year, on Giving Voice to a Social Conscience in Country: ‘I Just Got So Sick of Being a Yes Person’

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Reports of Maren Morris leaving country music have been greatly exaggerated. “You don’t fight for what you don’t love,” says Morris over Zoom during a chat from her Nashville home, squeezed in while her son Hayes is taking a nap. “I do all of this because I want it to be better for everybody, not just for the few.”

Morris is not going anywhere — not leaving Nashville, not stopping her mission to make the music industry more fair, and definitely not leaving her Texas country roots to become a “pop star,” as she puts it. “Obviously no — like, that’s hilarious.”

Her Variety Hitmakers award for Changemaker of the Year arrives after years of Morris using her success within country music to try to push the genre towards more inclusivity on all fronts — most pressingly, for people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. That push has meant being at odds with some of country music’s most visible stars, and becoming a loud progressive voice on Nashville’s conservative-skewing political spectrum: Not looking the other way when Morgan Wallen used a racial slur, or when Jason Aldean’s wife Brittany posted an arguably transphobic joke on Instagram landed the 33-year-old singer-songwriter in the middle of a countrified version of the culture wars. She was hardly ready to make nice when Tucker Carlson, then still in command of his Fox News bully pulpit, called her a “lunatic country music person,” which led to her branding that on an official T-shirt as a fundraiser, and a new name for her fans, “the Lunatics.”

“I don’t think of myself as this badass or anything; I just got so sick of being a yes person to get ahead,” says Morris. “I’ve been successful, but — I think — at a moral cost. I couldn’t keep doing the same song and dance.”

Now after five ACM awards, five CMA awards, and three No. 1 songs on Billboard’s country airplay chart, Morris is stepping back from the churn of country radio promotion and awards show junkets into unfamiliar territory — not Music Row-bred country, but not not country either. Her latest EP, “The Bridge,” with two songs that are easy to read as indictments of the industry she’s attempting to shake, is Morris’ opening salvo, a creative expression of the broader freedom she’s fighting for: “It’s really liberating to realize that I had the keys the whole time,” she says.

Morris traces her willingness to speak out against the genre’s status quo back to another hit-making Texan country act: The Chicks, and their famous denouncement of the Iraq War in 2003 — a statement that wound up turning their name into a pre-“cancel culture” verb, as in “Don’t get Dixie-Chicked.” “I saw these beloved superstars and heroes of mine get completely disenfranchised within their own genre,” Morris says. “I think that’s probably where it started for me, and I guess I never shook it off.”

Even before Morris started speaking up for social justice-oriented causes, in 2019 she joined the Highwomen, a supergroup formed explicitly as a reaction to the dearth of women on country radio. “It certainly was subversive for the time,” says Morris. “Four women coming together with this idea — not just of the songs, but the idea of what the Highwomen are — changed a lot of people.”

The Highwomen were named for the Highwaymen, the iconic outlaw country supergroup whose legacy of activism and fearlessness Morris and her bandmates aim to carry on. “I still look up to them, as well as women of country music, because just existing there is radical in itself,” Morris says. “There are consequences any time you raise your hand and, even innocently, ask a question — or just wonder aloud if there’s a better way.”

Morris’ questions got more urgent in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. She remembers standing on the stage of the 2020 CMA Awards, where she received three trophies for her hit single “The Bones,” and being shocked by what she saw. “I looked around at the crowd and stupidly realized for the first time that there were basically only white people there,” says Morris. “I wish that I had woken up sooner.” In one of her acceptance speeches from that show, she thanked Black women country artists and implored viewers to seek out their music — ceding as much of the stage as she could to the people whose path up those CMA steps is nearly impossible. 

What followed were long years of speaking up, followed by the kinds of what Morris calls “bad faith arguments with bad faith people” that it’s nearly impossible to avoid in the social media era. Because of her radio bona fides, she was able to compel people within the country music industry to confront issues like racism and transphobia that typically go ignored; in the process, though, she learned the hard way how isolating it can be to embrace confrontation within such a tight-knit community. “I’m not apologizing for any way I’ve approached, like, transphobes,” she says. “Calling out a hateful person for doing something hateful is not hateful!”

One thing the singer-songwriter knows better now is just how deep country’s inequities run, and how hard it is to make change alone. “We’ve been trying to figure out who can actually make the genre evolve for years,” Morris says. “Is it labels? Is it streaming platforms? Is it publishers? Is it writers? Who’s truly at the top?” The answers are still unclear, and in spite of both growth within the genre and greater attention on country music’s lack of diversity, little has changed. “Feelings aside, I look at the facts — and the fact is, the country chart is worse [for women and minorities] than it was a decade ago,” she says. “Whether I said shit or not, it got worse.”

Leaving behind the responsibility of being the squeaky wheel in country music’s massive machine, then, is something of a relief. But it doesn’t mark the end of either Morris’ activism or her creative and personal relationship with Nashville’s vibrant, country-centric music scene, even though her EP “The Bridge” includes “Get the Hell Out Of Here,” her first song produced by the decidedly poppy Jack Antonoff. 

“I’m not getting out of Dodge. I love living in Nashville, and I don’t consider myself an expat of country music,” she says. “There’s so many amazing people here making music that matters. I’m a piece of this town, and I want to make it better in the same ways I want the music industry to be better.”

The road to getting her work and her beliefs closer to alignment has been littered with tabloid headlines and heartache. For Morris, though, it’s been worth it. “The moral is that it took a lot of sleepless nights and traumas and depressions and manic episodes to get here,” she says, laughing. “It’s a lot of work, and I’m still very much in it. But I sleep heavier at night.”

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