Country Jukebox Jury LP: Maren Morris – Humble Quest

Maren Morris moved to Nashville from Texas and, after a few years in writers’ rooms working on other people’s music, she teamed up with producer busbee and wrote ‘the one about a church’ which broke her in 2015. Her second album Girl was part love-letter to husband Ryan Hurd and part female empowerment tract. The pandemic scuppered her world tour, although she became a mother too and I am sure she will say in interviews that this was a blessing in disguise.

Along with Kelsea Ballerini and Carly Pearce, Maren is one of punishingly few ‘girl singers’ (as they laughably used to be called) to move up to the A List in the last ten years, thanks to support from country radio. As if to prove this, she promoted the release of the album on The Bobby Bones Show, which is like the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show out of Nashville, at 5am. That’s what you have to do to sell your record in Nashville.

After debut album Hero, which Bobby supported, came The Middle, from a Target ad, which had been turned down by more or less every popstar in town. Maren took her chance and her voice was all over pop radio (it reached number 5 on the Hot 100) and Adult Contemporary radio (a number one). So where does that leave Maren Morris the Country Star?

Sensibly, looking to what her fellow Texan Kacey Musgraves has done, Maren has opened up her audience beyond country radio even as she keeps her deal with Columbia Nashville. She pulls off the coup of securing one of the world’s best producers: Greg Kurstin is best known for his work with Adele (he co-wrote Hello and Easy On Me) and Foo Fighters.

As Kacey did on her albums, Maren works with a small group of collaborators. Jimmy Robbins and Laura Veltz co-wrote The Bones and help Maren write album highlight Background Music, a waltz with a melodic chorus and a smart lyric about eternal love and stuff. Sarah Aarons, who wrote the top line melodies of both The Middle and Girl, joined the trio to write Detour, and it’s another winner: ‘I threw my map away and that’s the way I stumbled into you’ is a terrific lyric which is allowed to shine thanks to Greg’s production. This will be a live highlight in the next world tour and will fit snugly next to I Could Use A Love Song and To Hell and Back.

Robbins and Natalie Hemby were in the room for sex jam Nervous. You can tell it’s a Hemby composition because of the cascading melody, heavy drum loop and jittery narrator who is ‘out of control, out of our clothes’. Hurd, who is about 6 foot 6, was ironically not in the room for Tall Guys, a song I cannot believe hasn’t been written before. It’s very Nashville and very fun. ‘We fly first class cos it’s the only way his knees fit’, while Maren, who is about 5 foot 2, can justify wearing high heels.

Jon Green, the Brit who has had a country number one with Lady A’s What If I Never Get Over You, joins Maren and Ryan to write the album’s final track What Would This World Do? It’s as if they’re writing their wedding vows; indeed, Maren sings of wine from their wedding day. Note how the road Maren namechecks is the I-405 in Los Angeles, not one in Nashville, and the song sounds like a classic ballad written in LA in the 1970s. It’s the best song Maren has put out and may overtake My Church and The Bones as her career song. Like Rainbow or Someone Like You, it’s the Piano Ballad from a Major-Label Release, a genre in itself nowadays.

Ryan’s uncredited harmonies can also be heard on The Furthest Thing and I Can’t Love You Anymore (‘than I do now’). The former is a song about being away from one another and making things work, while the latter namechecks ‘a poor boy from Michigan’. For her part, Maren acts like ‘a bitch’ and ‘to some I might be an acquired taste’. Check out the gorgeous diminished fifth chord and a gentle production from Greg Kurstin on The Furthest Thing, on which Maren’s vocals self-consciously recall those of Inara George, who was half of the duo The Bird and The Bee along with Greg himself.

First single Circles Around This Town is a self-referential tune which comprises three chords and Maren’s truth. If any genre if ripe for ‘speaking my truth’, it is country music; ever since Taylor Swift swept into town, plenty of girls with guitars have shown up to town but have ploughed their own furrow. Indeed, Maren was an early performer in Kalie Shorr’s Song Suffragette nights.

Hummingbird is an outlier, as it’s written with the famous Love Junkies (Liz Rose, Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey) who wrote Girl Crush for Little Big Town. It’s a lullaby dedicated to her son, who burbles over the intro: ‘On my skin rest your wings…I’ll let you fly free’ is the kind of lyric that can only come from four mums trading war stories in the same writers’ room.

I can see a baby photo montage on the screen behind Maren as she sings that song, and then a fan montage as she sings the pretty Good Friends (‘We got history, no conditions’). There should be more songs about friendship as well as love, and I reckon Columbia will stick another artist on it when it’s sent to radio. My guess is Elle King or Tenille Townes, or perhaps Natalie Hemby herself, given that she co-wrote the song.

The title track sees Maren pivot to the new craze for self-analysis. Grounded by a similar three-note riff to 80s Mercedes, Maren’s voice flutters with a lyric about how she ‘kept hitting my head on the glass…polite till I spoke up’. Whereas Bono was spiritual and gospel in trying to find what he was looking for, Maren tries hard to be humble: ‘How do I not cast a shadow?’ she wonders, which is like threading a camel through the eye of a needle.

So is she still a country star? No, she’s a popstar who lives in Nashville and can play shows in LA. Just like Thomas Rhett, who puts out his sixth album early in the year to give us his latest life update. They both make modern country music, which looks outwards from Music City even as its stars look inwards to go on humble quests.

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