There’s a tightrope walk for any woman on country radio, an all-important format that remains a career-maker in the genre in 2019. According to recent research, women are only getting around 10% of airplay; by way of explanation, radio programmers habitually claim that listeners vote down women singers when their new songs are tested. The never-ending arguments about not sounding “country enough” is why Kacey Musgraves didn’t service singles off Golden Hour to country radio. It took a tour opening for Harry Styles, a slew of performances on mainstream talk and late night shows, and a damn Album of the Year Grammy win for radio to finally notice that one of the biggest country stars was passing them by. Someone else noticed as well: Maren Morris.
Morris was already stylistically at the crux of pop, hip hop, and ‘80s power ballads with her previous album and major-label debut, 2016’s Hero. After multiple hit country singles from that album took her to the top of the country charts proved she could command airplay, she debuted a collaboration with Zedd on “The Middle” at the controversial 2018 Grammys (during a Target ad) that became a smash hit on the pop charts. Somewhere between Hero and “The Middle,” Morris became a little more politically active. She started airing her political views, which are anti-NRA and pro-LGBTQ+, on social media an in interviews.
On her latest album, GIRL, Morris pushes the traditional boundaries that have hemmed country artists since the Dixie Chicks. She partners with Brandi Carlile on “Common,” a song encouraging the acceptance of gay rights that, except for the addition of the proudly gay Grammy winner, could be a song contrasting Republicans and Democrats. In the video for the title track and lead single, Morris wears a t-shirt declaring herself a feminist. These may sound like small steps for the woke world of pop, but in country it’s a very big deal. Another big deal: both of those songs were a co-write with Sarah Aarons, the mind and voice behind “The Middle” and produced by Greg Kurstin, the pop producer who has shaped the sounds of everyone from Kelly Clarkson to Adele. So far, it’s not an instant smash: unlike all of Morris’ previous singles, which broke the top 12 on the Country Airplay chart, “Girl” appears to have peaked at the No. 26 spot. Either way, Morris is clearly testing the boundaries of what country audiences and programmers will allow. It’s an essential fight.
Morris seems to acknowledge that she’s raising hell and bucking the limitations of country on “Flavor,” where she sings: “Ain't gonna water down my words / Or sugar up my spice / Sometimes the truth/ Don't always come out nice,” and then invites you not to listen if you don’t like what she’s got to say. It’s the mission statement of the album and a shot fired in a genre that does not freely give most women artists the autonomy enjoyed in other genres.
Elsewhere, Morris adheres to her formula. Songs like “All My Favorite People,” with Brothers Osbourne, and “To Hell & Back,” between the invocations of mixing liquor and Crystal Light and broken halos paired with frayed wings, couldn’t be any more country. She flirts with R&B with an En Vogue-inspired style on “RSVP” and the more Teddy Pendergrass-eque fragment of a song, “Make Out With Me.” Both explore her sexuality more fully than she ever has before while keeping it pretty PG.
Whether Morris manages to continue to dominate country or crosses over out of necessity is a bellwether of where country is going, and a test of her independence. The kind of grit she displays on this record is the sort that has gotten women in country a lot of attention for generations.This album is a test to see what a woman with some power in country music can do; we’re all watching with great anticipation to see what the outcome is.