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Maren Morris on being ‘kind’ and ‘ruthless’ on her path to country stardom

Country star Maren Morris. (Harper Smith)

Country music star Maren Morris never intended to get a reputation as a “troll slayer” on social media, but sometimes when she sees an obnoxious comment directed at her, it’s too much to resist. When a man on Instagram recently told her to “please dress appropriate,” she reposted the comment to her Instagram stories and responded publicly: “I see this kind of comment a lot on country music accounts at me, soooooo GET OVER IT.”

Morris also posted a photo from her 2019 Playboy magazine photo shoot on her Instagram feed. “I’m the proudest that I showed country female sexuality in its realist form here. We are nuanced, we are messy and stretch-marked in the most beautiful way,” Morris, 31, wrote in a post to her 1.5 million followers. “… We tell your down home stories in the most unflinching, gorgeous lane.”

Morris, who released her third album, “Humble Quest,” last week and is nominated for two awards at Sunday’s Grammys, has become one of country music’s most successful hitmakers by never holding back on things that are nuanced or messy. She burst onto the Nashville scene in 2015 at a time when it seemed like country music had little interest in new female voices. As the No. 1 singles accumulated, along with sold-out shows and official accolades, she has continued to speak out on social issues — from racial inequality to misogyny — that many of her peers avoid. Even though social media can be a nightmare, she uses it as a powerful platform.

Yes, Maren Morris knows it's unusual she's releasing a song called 'Girl' to country radio

“Over the last year, I really didn’t defend myself. … I would just remain silent because I’m like, ‘I cannot win.’ But I’ve started getting my edge back recently,” Morris said in an interview. “I just try when it either really ruffles my feathers or I need to make a point out of a very cliche or sexist thing that someone says. And hopefully it’s enough to break some of the stigmas that are so archaic in this genre.”

Morris, a Texas native who spent her teenage years and early 20s touring the state’s music circuit before moving to Nashville, recognized early on that young country fans were interested in more than just love songs. Sure, she enjoys a solid romantic ballad — and co-wrote several of them about her husband, fellow country singer Ryan Hurd, on the new album. (The couple, who have a 2-year-old son, are nominated in the best country duo/group category at the Grammys for their swoony duet “Chasing After You.”) But Morris’s lyrics also explore platonic friendship, careers and the pressure of expectations when you’re chasing your dreams — and what happens when you achieve them and have to take that scary next step.

That’s one of the reasons she titled her record “Humble Quest.” As she sings on the title track, “The line between fulfilled and full of myself/I’m trying to find it and I might need some help. … I’m on a humble quest, and damn I do my best/Not gonna hold my breath, ’cause I still haven’t found it yet.” While she’s proud of what she’s accomplished, there’s more that she wants to do. There’s a tendency in country music to emphasize modesty above all else, lest fans think you’re too good for them once you become a star.

“I think it just felt like a funny pressure, the word ‘humble’ being applied to a complete stranger by a mass of people,” Morris said. “I think it’s going to be a perpetual journey for me, just becoming more and more secure and wise with my words — but also staying grounded and knowing this could all go away in a second, and not living in fear of that.”

Morris has skillfully walked the line between country and pop. Her 2018 dance-pop collaboration with Zedd and Grey (“The Middle”) was a worldwide smash, while the critically acclaimed single “The Bones” was an enormous crossover hit. But Morris has remained a Nashville songwriter through and through, working with some of the best co-writers in the business and throwing herself into side projects such as the Highwomen, her group with Natalie Hemby, Amanda Shires and Brandi Carlile. She called her new single, “Circles Around This Town” (currently in the top 20 and climbing on country radio), a “love letter” to the Nashville songwriting community, which she’s always trying to impress.

The song is the most self-referential Morris has ever been, recalling her struggles to make it in the industry: “Couple hundred songs and the ones that finally worked was the one about a car and the one about a church,” she sings, referencing her first two hits, “My Church” and “80s Mercedes.” In another standout line, she acknowledges “I’ve been kind and I’ve been ruthless” in her career journey.

“I’m a kind person, I have a good heart, but at the same time … I’ve just always naturally had this armor on and my guard up, and it takes me a second to trust people and for people to get to know me,” Morris said. “But I think you kind of have to be ruthless to stay in this game. Part of it is the music business, and you have to have your guard up to survive here sometimes because it’s tough. You have to have such a thick skin.”

In the past couple of years, Morris has also become one of the Nashville singers who have been most vocal about how artists of color in particular face extraordinarily challenges breaking through in country music, and she has spoken frequently about recognizing her own privilege. Her protest song “Better Than We Found It,” which addresses police brutality, is nominated for best country song at the Grammys.

“I was not expecting a Grammy nomination from it,” Morris said. "But it’s such an honor because it’s a really important song. And I think that for it to be in a category like country song of the year is hopefully telling for the way that things are going here, I hope, in a much more constructive way.”

She acknowledged that while many artists didn’t get into country music to become activists, it would be nice to see more of them speak up about the inequality that exists in the majority-White genre. She said one possible way would be to publicly defend Mickey Guyton, who is one of the few Black artists signed to a major country label and who frequently posts about the racism she faces on a daily basis.

“I thought country music was a family,” Morris said. “And I feel like, aren’t we supposed to take care of our family? So you can’t talk out of both sides of your mouth. Stand up when you see someone getting bullied in your family.”