Kaching…with Twang: Maren In the Middle

This piece was originally published in the Summer 2019 edition of the Country Way of Life magazine. The Autumn 2019 edition is out in September

Did you know that women in country music used to be referred to as ‘girl-singers’? It was like they were a novelty act, the odd ones on The X Factor, a turn for five minutes before the men sung about trucks and beer again.

One of my favourite Simpsons episodes, and maybe one of yours too, is Colonel Homer, written by Matt Groening, the showrunner and bringer of joy to billions. Spurned by Marge for being a twit, Homer hears a singing waitress onstage at the Beer ‘n’ Brawl (‘Hey you, let’s fight!’ ‘Them’s fightin’ words’) named Lurleen Lumpkin. She is voiced by Beverly D’Angelo, who was Patsy Cline in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter (more later) singing about how ‘your wife don’t understand you but I do’. Homer affirms every line of the song; you see the plates fall out of his eyes in a brilliant bit of animation that fully gets to the nub of country music. Three chords and truth.

Lurleen records her song onto a CD, which gets sent to the local radio station. When it is played, we see Moe crying, prisoners stop rioting and Krusty the Clown being nice to Sideshow Mel. Jealous of Homer’s relationship with Lurleen – on picking up the phone to her, Homer says: ‘I think I can come over! Let me ask my wife’ – Marge doesn’t realise that initially Homer is helping Lurleen for the love of her music.

‘No man has ever been this nice to me without, you know…wanting something in return’ is an awesome line from Lurleen. More follow in the song Finally Bagged Me a Homer, with Marge looking on as Lurleen records a song about her love for Homer. Then in a trailer she sings a ‘song’ that is a come-on to Homer (‘will you bunk with me tonight?’). The episode finishes with a parody of one of those old-time variety shows with various hillbilly acts, and in the dressing room Lurleen kisses Homer on the lips. Lurleen is head over heels for Homer, but Homer is loyal to Marge and they all live happy ever after.

I like the episode because it may be kids’ first exposure to country music, and it is sung by a ‘girl-singer’. From the third season of the show, it had its premiere in 1991, when Garth Brooks, George Strait and Alabama were the top live draws. That year’s big number hits included She’s In Love with the Boy by Trisha Yearwood and Liza Jane by Vince Gill.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the names rolled off the tongues of the TV announcers: Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn and her sister Crystal Gayle, Barbara Mandrell, Reba McEntire, Anne Murray (whose song You Needed Me was a hit for Boyzone in 1999), Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, The Judds (mother Naomi and daughter Wynonna), Janie Fricke, Roseanne Cash and, the greatest of them all, Dolly Parton.

By the 1990s the Canadian Eileen Edwards, as Shania Twain, raised the hem lines and showed a bit of leg. Her precision-engineered country music appealed to music consumers the world over. 20 years after Come On Over hit big – released in 1997 it took until 1999 to explode – Shania is still the commercial high point in women in country not named Dolly; I Will Always Love You trumps You’re Still The One.

Let’s look at a typical chart which saw Shania omnipresent with one of 11 singles from Come On Over. Love Gets Me Every Time hit the top of the Airplay chart in November 1997. In the same top 20 were Trisha Yearwood duetting with Garth Brooks, Deana Carter, Chely Wright (who came out as lesbian in 2010 and married her wife in 2011), Reba McEntire, Pam Tillis, The Kinleys, Wynonna and Martina McBride. Waiting in the wings are the likes of Mindy McCready, LeAnn Rimes, Lila McCann and Lari White, duetting with Travis Tritt.

Eight different women were awarded the CMA Award for Female Vocalist in the 1990s: Kathy Mattea, Tanya Tucker, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Pam Tillis, Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride. Shania Twain lost to Martina in 1999 but consoled herself by winning Entertainer of the Year.

This century, only four women have won that prize: three of them make up the Dixie Chicks, who became pariahs in 2003, were thrown out of country music and swept the board, middle fingers in the air, at the 2007 GRAMMY Awards. Only eight records released in 2006 sold more copies than Taking the Long Way, which featured the Song and Record of the Year, Not Ready to Make Nice.

By that time Taylor Swift, a young girl from Pennsylvania, had moved to Nashville and had put out her first single, named after Faith Hill’s husband Tim McGraw. By 2009 she was Entertainer of the Year, an award she regained in 2011, just as she was about to put out her album Red and mark her transition to the pop side of things. Her seventh album is due imminently.

In 2007 Taylor Swift had won the CMA Award for New Artist of the Year. Carrie Underwood won it in 2006, Kacey Musgraves in 2013 and Maren Morris in 2016; interestingly, Kacey’s Golden Hour won at the GRAMMYs and CMAs in 2018 but she was not Female Vocalist of the Year. Carrie Underwood was, winning it for a fifth time.

Miranda Lambert has won it seven times, following in the footsteps of Gretchen Wilson, who came out of nowhere with her redneck woman persona and disappeared just as quickly. No longer were women just there to dangle microphone cords and look pretty; they encouraged crowds to give a big ‘HELL YEAH!’ in what amounts to the same ladette culture that swept Britain in the 1990s.

Then came, among others, Cruise, Body Like a Back Road, Beautiful Crazy and Old Town Road, and one week in 2018 there was not one woman in the Country Airplay top 20.

Which brings us to Maren Morris. GIRL was released in March 2019. I listened to it for an entire afternoon on the day it came out and concluded that it was an album of two halves. The best tracks are feelgood pop songs like The Feels, Shade and Flavor, following the success of The Middle, a song which had been shopped around for a year and found its way to Maren. Hero, released in summer 2016, was a worldwide success; I was in London when she played My Church at the CMA Songwriters night over Country2Country weekend and fell in love with it. She followed it up with 80s Mercedes and Rich, two big songs from Hero, and had her radio number one with I Could Use a Love Song.

Maren married songwriter Ryan Hurd in 2017 and the two have a loyal following on social media. Ditto Kelsea Ballerini and her husband, songwriter Morgan Evans, who married the same year. After big hits from her teen-pop first album The First Time – Dibs, Love Me Like You Mean It and Peter Pan were all number ones on country radio – Kelsea returned with the sort of blah sonic template that doesn’t stand out and doesn’t offend. After Legends and I Hate Love Songs, her big hit Miss Me More clambered into the top three the week that only she and Maren were in the top 20.

When it topped the airplay chart, Runaway June had cracked the top 20 with the peppy Buy My Own Drinks, co-written with the prolific pair of Hillary Lindsay (Girl Crush) and Josh Kear (Need You Now). Carrie Underwood’s summer smash Southbound, performed at both the ACM and CMT Awards, is rising, while the phenomenal sound of Family Tree by Caylee Hammack is gaining traction. Miranda Lambert, recently married to a law enforcement officer, is off the charts but popped up at CMA Fest playing some new tunes from her next project.

Her last album was in 2016, the double-LP The Weight of These Wings, which begat radio hits Vice, We Should Be Friends and the modern standard Tin Man. Kacey Musgraves purposefully ignored radio, sending Butterflies and Space Cowboy to streaming services to preview Golden Hour, a remarkable album which is stamped, like Miranda’s album, with her personality. No other artist could have made either The Weight of these Wings or Golden Hour than Miranda and Kacey respectively. In their slipstream come the likes of Kassi Ashton, Ingrid Andress and Abby Anderson, confident performers with great songs building a career slowly, the old-fashioned way, just like the two Texans.

Interestingly, Kelsea Ballerini was rejected by everyone in town before finding a home with Black River, an independent label. Maren was a songwriter who had performed in her teenage years and the time was right to put out her debut album in 2016, which she toured worldwide in 2018 with Niall Horan from One Direction as a guest vocalist. As of June 2019, My Church has been streamed 74m million times on Spotify. The Middle has 700m. This makes Maren a big kinda deal.

As in pop, there seem to be two camps if you are a female performer: play the game or make your own rules. On Girl, Maren does both at the same time.

Those playing the game in today’s country music business include Carly Pearce, signed to Big Machine and rising on radio with Closer To You. Later in 2019 Carly, who got her start singing as Dolly Parton at Dollywood, will marry singer Michael Ray. Tenille Townes, whose song Somebody’s Daughter is climbing the Airplay chart, sang with Dierks Bentley at CMA Fest and looks set to have a phenomenal few years after patiently building a Canadian fanbase.

Lauren Alaina – who like Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert came through a TV talent show, in her case American Idol – took five years to follow up her debut album with a mature second record, Road Less Traveled. She will spend most of July in the UK on tour. Lauren’s new single, Ladies in the 90s, namechecks Britney Spears, Faith Hill, Alanis Morrissette, TLC and Dixie Chicks, an example of the genre of music which goes back to the past and just quotes old songs. Thus we hear ‘Cowboy take me away’ next to ‘hit me one more time’. It’s a smart song written with Amy Wadge, writer of the monster tune Thinking Out Loud by Ed Sheeran and a couple of songs on TR’s album (see the essay earlier in the magazine).

Then there are those who resolutely stick to their guns, Music City be damned. The Pistol Annies are made up of Miranda Lambert and her good friends Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, both mothers of young children but hugely respected for their songwriting. Margo Price, who has just become a mother to a third child (one passed away a fortnight after being born), performed in concert while nine months pregnant, and her song This Town Gets Around (‘it’s not who you know, it’s who you blow’) is a succinct version of her view of town. Jack White signed her to his Third Man label and she has friends on the Americana and roots scene.

On her second album, as on her first, Maren has writing credits on every track. Carrie and Miranda also contribute to the writing and production of their work, and I hope those who do not know that now do. Co-writers on Girl include Greg Kurstin (who wrote Hello with Adele), the duo Julian Bunetta and John Ryan (who are TR’s regular ‘pop’ guys) and Busbee (who co-wrote My Church and 80s Mercedes). Jon Randall, who helped Miranda Lambert write Tin Man, joins Maren and Natalie Hemby, Miranda Lambert’s go-to co-writer, on RSVP. Ryan Hurd, aka Mr Maren Morris, contributes to All My Favorite People and Great Ones.

There are two main writers on Girl: Laura Veltz, who helped Maren write Rich, and Jimmy Robbins, who is one of the great writers of the era and appears in the documentary It All Begins with a Song. Four songs are credited to Morris/Robbins/Veltz: The Feels, which is infectious; The Bones, which is a smash hit in waiting and a live favourite; A Song For Everything, which is more or less I Could Use Another Love Song redux; and Flavor, on which Maren sings the much-quoted line: ‘Shut up and sing, well hell no I won’t!’ It’s a great pop song and will be in her live set for years to come.

Carrie, meanwhile, has duetted with pop acts like Ludacris, while Kelsea gave her vocals to a song by The Chainsmokers. Maren, on a song credited to Zedd, Maren Morris & Gray (a production duo), had one of the smashes of 2018 with The Middle, which is kept back to the encore of her live show. During the main body of the set, she interpolateds Halo by Beyonce into her song Second Wind. She finishes with the four-punch of The Bones, RSVP, Rich and My Church, then encores with another Hemby co-write, Shade.

Touring Girl in 2019 will take her to Radio City Music Hall in New York, Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee, several festivals in Canada and Nebraska State Fair. There follow dates across the USA: Arizona, California, Pennsylvania, Las Vegas, Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota, Florida, Georgia, both Carolinas (North and South), Virginia and Minnesota. The tour will continue into 2020, with a likely stop at Country2Country’s various European legs.

At London’s Royal Albert Hall on the last day of May 2019, Maren was supported by the great RaeLynn who was a contestant on The Voice in 2012 aged 17. Her only album came out in 2017 and included the smash Love Triangle, though her follow-up songs including Tailgate have done well on streaming platforms (6.8m on Spotify as of June 17 2019). Raelynn joined Maren onstage for All My Favorite People, which nicks the melody of the verse of 9 to 5 by Dolly Parton and has Maren’s friends Brothers Osborne on it. ‘We love who we love’ is a reference to Maren’s support of the queer community.

In the 2000s, Shania Twain and Reba both played Las Vegas, as they are able to work a crowd, sing some great songs and employ some backing dancers and pyrotechnics. Carrie and Miranda have done the same, while Kacey wears glowing boots and sparkly dresses. Belles & Gals, a UK-based site which is determined to support the female voice in country music, thought her 2019 set was ‘mesmerising’.

Belles and Gals promotes several UK-based acts like Lucy Grubb and Hannah Paris, who are steeped in country and are following in the footsteps of the likes of Megan O’Neill, Laura Oakes and Liv Austen. All three of these hard-working ladies have toured the UK for more than five years, patiently building a fanbase and waiting for the right moment to burst through. The poppy-country likes of Jade Helliwell, The Adelaides and Twinnie all look set to follow The Shires and Ward Thomas into the sort of ‘Radio 2’ level of country act; Twinnie is opening for Lauren Alaina this July across the UK.

Louise Parker, who is a Belles & Gals artist, told the site that her opinions on women in country would be unprintable. ‘I think it’s quite beautiful to watch other artists as they grow and develop their sound,’ she says. ‘Sometimes this means evolving outside your genre. It’s human to want to be better, to become the best version of yourself. No one should put walls up; segregating artists and genres is just another form of discrimination.’

Indeed, in today’s marketplace, genre is more or less irrelevant. Maren sounds like Maren, a little bit pop and a little bit country – she’s from Texas and lives in Nashville now. Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves? Both from Texas, like the Dixie Chicks and George W Bush. Carrie Underwood is a beauty from Oklahoma while Kassi Ashton’s debut single was named California, Missouri after her home town.

These ladies may be from Lurleen Lumpkin kinda towns but they don’t need a Homer Simpson to push them into consciousness. Why can’t women just meet pop and country in the middle?

Maren Morris’ GIRL is out now. The new single is The Bones.

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