I’ve liked Maren Morris ever since her debut album Hero came out in 2016. I liked her sharp, clever songwriting. But the other thing I appreciate about Maren is that she has been calling out the toxic conservatism and racism in Nashville for years. It seemed to me like it was only a matter of time before she would outgrow the ‘country’ label because her music sits in that crossover pop territory, similar to Kacey Musgraves. And now she is formally leaving country behind, switching to Columbia Records from their “country” division on her latest EP The Bridge. (Which I think could be a reference to Dolly Parton’s song of the same name.) Both songs on the EP are about Maren leaving Nashville behind. She told the LA Times about why she is leaving country: the industry won’t acknowledge its racist, misogynist history… or present, for that matter. “I thought I’d like to burn it to the ground and start over,” she says about country music. “But it’s burning itself down without my help.” She also hilariously refers to the corporate bro country music as “butt rock.”
This change has been in the back of her mind for a long time: The way I grew up was so wrapped in country music, and the way I write songs is very lyrically structured in the Nashville way of doing things. But I think I needed to purposely focus on just making good music and not so much on how we’ll market it. The last few records, that’s always been in the back of my mind: Will this work in the country music universe?
Whether she considers herself a “political” artist: I’ve always been an asker of questions and a status quo challenger just by being a woman. So it wasn’t really even a choice. I didn’t think of myself as a political artist. I just wrote songs about real life through a lens of deep respect for my country heroes. But the further you get into the country music business, that’s when you start to see the cracks. And once you see it, you can’t un-see it. So you start doing everything you can with the little power you have to make things better.
The Trump years made people in country music become open about their bigotry: After the Trump years, people’s biases were on full display. It just revealed who people really were and that they were proud to be misogynistic and racist and homophobic and transphobic. All these things were being celebrated, and it was weirdly dovetailing with this hyper-masculine branch of country music. I call it butt rock.
She thinks “Try That In A Small Town” is only popular because of the culture wars: …I think it’s a last bastion. People are streaming these songs out of spite. It’s not out of true joy or love of the music. It’s to own the libs. And that’s so not what music is intended for. Music is supposed to be the voice of the oppressed — the actual oppressed. And now it’s being used as this really toxic weapon in culture wars.
Maren is dead-on about the “butt rock” stuff. I am a Dolly Parton fanatic but I also like a lot of other old school country artists like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette, and Jimmie Rodgers. I’m not an expert about the history of the industry, but I know a little. It seems to me like country music has always had these problems with racism and with sexism. There has always been a bias in country radio against playing female artists that persists to this day, and radio is still a huge deal in country. It’s also hard for BIPOC artists to get major label contracts, let alone radio play. Country music has become all about appealing to just one demographic. The songs that get the most radio play are about small towns and trucks and guns and canned beers and pretty blonde girls in cutoffs who only exist as vague sexual concepts, not real people. It’s like Ken’s fantasy of the patriarchy in the Barbie movie. Jason Aldean’s heinous song is the darkest version of this trend. But country music itself was originally the combination of traditions and sounds from many different cultures, and it’s supposed to be about storytelling. Now it’s about alienating anyone who isn’t a rural white guy named Brett. That’s why Maren (and other women country artists like Kacey Musgraves and Rhiannon Giddens) stands out and why she’s gained such a following. But I don’t blame her for getting the hell out of dodge. I cannot imagine how toxic things are behind the scenes in Nashville. She’ll find her way, she’s super talented, and she doesn’t need those jokers.
Photos credit: Xavier Collin / Image Press Agency / Avalon and via Instagram