“Can I get a hallelujah, can I get an amen?” sings Texas-born, Nashville-dwelling Maren Morris on “My Church,” the lead single from her debut full-length, HERO. Though “sing,” however, might not be the most appropriate verbiage – she belts, more like it, in her dynamic range that can growl soulfully one moment and twangily howl the next. It’s an honest performance from an artist and writer who stands out for the singular point of view, sheer creativity and fearless approach to music she’s developed since she began performing and writing as a young child. Using the boldest colors from across many genres as her palate and country as her canvas, Morris’ stories are vivid paintings that can be gleefully fun, tearfully heartbreaking and a perfect balance of modern and timeless.

With HERO, her first LP for Sony Music Nashville, Morris starts with a bang, not a whimper: opening with a mysterious vamp full of swampy swagger, “Sugar” seamlessly blends the attitude of R&B with a catchy, countrified chorus. In other words, it’s Maren Morris in a perfect nutshell. “I don’t want to ease anyone into this record,” she says. “It’s not my personality. It feels so good to start the album out that way, and the music itself is not shy. But then it goes on to these really internal moments, too.” Indeed, she bounces from “Sugar” and the next track, the equally infectious, spitfire spirit of “Rich,” to the pristine glimmer of “I Could Use a Love Song” and later, the poignant balladry and awe-inspiring vocals of “Second Wind” and “Once.” It all results in one of the more inventive and engaging perspectives in country music to come along in years, conjuring a special, wildly different world where salvation comes through the FM dial and the stage is a place both to party and pray.

Morris built buzz at a breakneck speed with her self-titled EP, which introduced all of the diverse and dynamic sides that comprise her – from the confident, danceable swagger of “80s Mercedes,” to the island jam of “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry,” and the soulful confessions of “Wish I Was.” And, of course, the thrilling pop-country-gospel amalgam of “My Church,” a track about the spirituality that comes with to letting your body and mind be enveloped by the power of music.

“My Church” has risen fast and furious: it entered Billboard‘s Heatseeker’s chart at number one and has been bounding forward ever since, earning millions of digital streams and scoring Morris numerous accolades like an induction into CMT’s “Next Women of Country” and a spot as one of Rolling Stone Country‘s Artists You Need to Know. “Country listeners have been needing something meaty, and to know a song like ‘My Church’ can be played on radio and very quickly resonate feels amazing,” she says. “I think the message behind it is so universal – I don’t feel like it’s preaching, and it’s not at all judgmental. It’s not telling you to do anything but enjoy the moment.”

It’s an honest reflection on one of Morris’ most simple pleasures – driving along in her car, being absorbed by the power of music. It’s a theme that carries through HERO, too, an album named after a pivotal line in “I Wish I Was,” one of the most personal songs on the LP: “I’m not the hero in the story, I’m not the girl that gets the glory.” “After we wrote that song, it was a punch in the gut – emotional, cathartic,” she explains. “I was definitely not the hero there. But in the journey from that song to today, I have become my own hero.”

Born in Texas, Morris would often dominate the karaoke machine when her parents, who owned a local hair salon, would throw parties – and she’d belt LeAnn Rimes and Patsy Cline to the bewilderment of guests. Her writing prowess began with stories and poems in school and blossomed into lyrics when her father bought her a guitar at age twelve – and she took to it instantly.

“I started playing all around Texas – any bar or club that would let me in there,” she says. “I was the only kid in school that had a job on the weekends!” The albums that shaped her early life were varied – like Patty Griffin, the Dixie Chicks, Sheryl Crow – but she also grasped quickly that while she loved country and roots music, she felt most at home when bending genre lines. It wasn’t uncommon for her to spin both Clint Black and Chaka Khan, developing into what she calls a “gangster June Carter,” with a laugh.

At barely twenty, she moved to Nashville, leaving behind a resume that boasted three hits on the Texas Music Chart: and while many arrive in town with a dream of their name in lights, resting on the marquees of the biggest and brightest venues, Morris simply wanted to work on her songwriting craft. And it’s not that she didn’t have aspirations as a performer – Morris had actually already logged years doing just that. But being a celebrity wasn’t the goal – spending her days and nights in the writing room, working with as many cowriters as possible and composing hundreds of songs, was. And though she’d only play the occasional local gig at first, she still managed to build an audience based on her sheer talent, honest lyrics and a completely magnetic presence. Small shows led to big opening gigs: for Little Big Town, Sam Hunt, Loretta Lynn and Chris Stapleton.

As a working songwriter she scored cuts quickly, for artists like Tim McGraw and Kelly Clarkson. And she started shaping a community of likeminded friends leading a new charge in the country climate: the Brothers Osborne, Kacey Musgraves, Lucie Silvas. “It feels like a modern-day Chelsea Hotel,” she says of her very close, very talented pals. They became a tight knit circle dead-set on helping each other evolve into unique, game-changing artists.

Along the way, she slowly and carefully started building the bones to her career as a performer again. “It wasn’t a conscious decision to be an artist,” she says. “It was more, am I ready to face my point of view? I would have been happy just being a songwriter, but there was a voice in my head saying, you’ve got to sing these.”

It wasn’t an easy process, but it was a brave one, full of soul-searching and soul-bearing moments that lead her to HERO – an album dedicated to pushing boundaries both in music and in her own heart, finding that place where melodies can be both deliciously joyous and thoughtfully reflective all at once.

“HERO is all about a journey,” she says. “A lot of these songs came from a place of honesty and redemption. I looked very carefully at my own life, and that itself feels very heroic.”

Sometimes it’s ok to be your own hero – and with HERO, it seems Morris is finally the girl who gets the glory.

Tenille Townes·Tuesday, January 2, 2018

One minute with Tenille Townes and it’s instantly clear that she doesn’t see, or hear, the world like everyone else. Maybe it comes through in how she learned to read by pouring through lyric sheets and liner notes, or how she starting singing by belting along to U2 and Shania Twain in the back of her parents’ car. Or maybe it will come to light in the thousands she’s raised and the miles she’s logged supporting the charitable initiatives she created while still a teenager. Or maybe it will simply come across in her stunning voice and wise, insightful lyricism, all infinitely beguiling for someone of her young age. But that’s the thing about Townes. She’s never operated by the clock or the calendar. She operates from her heart, and from her soul. The Canadian-born Townes, isn’t quite like anyone else who has graced the city’s stages. With the lyrical fortitude of Griffin or Lori McKenna, the soulful nature of Chris Stapleton or even Adele, Townes is paving ground all her own. Working on her debut LP with Jay Joyce, the Nashville-based Townes started her journey to becoming one of country’s most promising new artists back in rural Canada, in the backseat of a car. “I would obsess in the back seat over lyrics,” says Townes, who recalls drives in her home of Grande Prairie, a small town in Alberta, Canada, with her parents. “I would follow along to all of the words and sing along, and call out my favorites. Eventually, I started to learn all of the writer and producer names, just soaking it all up.”
Townes insisted that her parents – supportive, hard-working local entrepreneurs – sign her up for singing lessons at the age of five, which led to owning her first guitar from her grandparents at fourteen. It was perfect timing, as Townes had already started to explore what it would be like to set her poetry to music. While other kids were reading Shakespeare and studying, Townes added the craft of famed songwriters like Carolyn Dawn Johnson to her workload, developing her own narrative style before most other teenagers even headed to prom.
“There were a lot of things to write about at fourteen,” Townes says. “I’ve always craved what it felt like to step into other people’s shoes. And if songwriting was a way to step into character and make someone feel less alone, then I was all in.” It’s telling that Townes’ first song came from a conversation in social studies class – she thought about it on the entire bus ride home and hurried to her bedroom to put her feeling to words. Ever since then, so many of her lyrics have come from that place of empathy and observance – a few years later, moments she’s seen in passing or discussed at the dinner table with her family or wept about alongside strangers have worked their way into her sonic perspectives. Soon, she was traveling to Nashville regularly to exercise this developing talent and falling in love with everything Music City had to offer. “Coming here for the first time felt like walking into a dreamland,” she says. She made the move to Nashville permanently four years ago, at just nineteen – driving 45 hours from Grande Prairie.
Once settled in Nashville, Townes spent her days songwriting and her nights at guitar pulls or at the Bluebird, studying everything she could. Eventually, she scored a publishing deal with Big Yellow Dog, and headed into the studio with Joyce to record her debut. Together, they tapped into her organic nature and her sheer ability to tell a story and emote it through the visceral range of her vocals – tender, bluesy, wise and full of wonder but never naive. “He has a way of pulling out people’s most honest self,” says Townes of her experience working with Joyce. “I always loved telling stories and writing songs, and a lot of these songs deal with things that are hard to talk about. Concepts about losing someone and asking hard questions and about seeking whatever your sense of faith is. Songs about looking for love.” Songs, most importantly, from the heart.
And that’s because Townes’ heart is huge. At fifteen, she organized a fundraiser called Big Hearts For Big Kids benefiting a youth shelter in her home town. To this day, they’ve continued it yearly and raised over $1.5 million dollars – Townes was inspired to start the event by a pamphlet her mother brought home one day, not an uncommon occurrence at her house. “We’d sit around the dinner table and talk about what was going on in the world, homelessness and loneliness,” she says, “and I grew up being aware of those things. The parts of human existence that remind us we are all more similar than we think we are. And those stories need to be told.”
After school, she continued this ethos by launching a tour called Play It Forward, where she spent 32 weeks on the road, visiting 106 schools and playing music for over 35,000 students. Meant to encourage leadership and inspire youth, it was a huge success and completely born out of Townes’ own scrappy sense of “anything is possible.” Some of the stories she heard along the way even inspire songs on her debut LP. The idea of community that she grew up with comes through, too. Her music is that kitchen table, her words are the experiences and struggles and moments of joy she wants to share, packed with her dynamic vocals and, at the core, that heart. “Music pushes walls down you didn’t know were up,” she says. “A song will take you places you didn’t even ask it to, and I’m always thankful that it does.”

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