How Maren Morris and her Peers are Changing the Conversation
Maren Morris, along with peers such as Margo Price, Raelynn, and Kelsea Ballerini, is looking to change the conversation—with or without the help of radio.
Written By: Marissa R. Moss
The day that Maren Morris found herself accepting the New Artist of the Year trophy at November’s CMA Awards, she was reigning high atop Nashville’s country crop. Flanked by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the McCrary Sisters and sporting a retro set of curls, she howled out a dynamite version of her smash hit, “My Church,” shortly before taking home that coveted crystal orb. As she noted in her acceptance speech, it was only last year that she was watching the awards show from a bar across the street. She didn’t know that, the month following her award acceptance, she’d go on to be nominated for four Grammy’s and play Saturday Night Live.
With all that momentum, you’d think Morris surely had a No. 1 on her hands. “My Church” felt omnipresent in 2016, capturing hearts with its infectious, soul-stirring gospel refrain. Her next single, “80s Mercedes,” had the same appeal, only doused in glorious shades of neon. But neither hit the top of the charts. Despite it all, Morris, along with Nashville’s current class of groundbreaking female artists, such as Kelsea Ballerini and fellow SNL alumna Margo Price, is paving a new way forward. And that means finding a new way to reign—with or without radio.
“A lot of progress has been made,” Morris says. “But, obviously, there is a ways to go.”
In 2016, there were major strides for Nashville’s female creative class: with Ballerini, who became the first woman to top Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay Billboard charts simultaneously; with Price, whose album Midwest Famer’s Daughter debuted at No. 10 on Hot Country without a charting single; and, of course, with Morris’s cross-genre appeal and accolades. Though the so-called “Tomato-gate,” when radio consultant Keith Hill likened women to tomatoes in the salad of male singers (i.e. to be used sparingly), had opened a conversation about females in music, it just as quickly pinpointed a disturbing trend—and nearly became one itself. Nashville’s music-making women—with, perhaps, one of the most diverse and exciting cast of voices in ages—started getting a little tired of talking about themselves in the context of their gender, not their talents. Especially when, as is the case with Morris, the radio ranks just weren’t following suit.
“I’ve been a part of this conversation from the get-go, in direct and indirect ways,” Morris says. Well before even releasing her stellar debut Hero, she was often spoken about not just as a country or pop musician, but for her female-ness. “I’ve done so many interviews where the question is, ‘How do you feel being a female in country—or a so-called ‘tomato’?’ I think that conversation has been had, and I think people are aware that it is an issue. But I just want it to be about the quality of the music and not whether or not I am female,” she says.
The reality is, no amount of “Proud Tomato” shirts could do much to shift the radio dial, with the exception of a few breakthroughs like Ballerini. Yet, Nashville’s women have made, and are making in 2017, some of the most thrilling records to flood the city in years: Morris, Price, Kelsey Waldon, Lori McKenna, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, Aubrie Sellers, and Cam, to name just a few, with Natalie Hemby, Nikki Lane, Lauren Alaina, and RaeLynn bringing out new music this year. They’re snatching Grammy nominations by the handful and playing coveted slots like Saturday Night Live. These women don’t want to just make the “Best Female” lists or compete only with each other. They want their art to exist on its own.
“I talked to my friend, Laura Bell [Bundy], and she’s had radio success writing for guys,” Morris says. “Both of her No. 1s have been by men, and she can write anything. But, at the end of the day, we have joked about how if one more person says, ‘Oh, yeah. She’s a cool girl writer,’ it’s going to drive us bonkers. I just want to be a great artist, and I think the conversation needs to be steered that way.”
Waldon, an independent Americana artist who released I’ve Got a Way in 2016 and made her Grand Ole Opry debut at the Ryman, is ready to shift the conversation once and for all.
“I’m ready for the comparisons to stop,” Waldon says. “It's a little demeaning to put it as ‘the top females making music’ all the time. I know everyone wants to generalize, but we’re just trying to make great art."
changing the conversation
For RaeLynn, the success of Nashville’s women is directly related to their diversity within their genres—not their genders.
“Everyone has their own version of what country music means to them,” she says, pointing to the varied styles of her CMT Next Women of Country colleagues like Price, Sellers, and Alaina. “That's another reason women are doing so well right now, because everyone is so different,” she adds.
It’s not just limited to females: More diversity should be found across the menu. Chris Stapleton and Brothers Osborne’s success outside of the bro-country realm is just as much of a Tomato-takedown as any female LP, by some measures.
“I honestly think when that Tomato-gate thing came out, it helped raise awareness,” RaeLynn says (her album,WildHorse, will be is out this March). “I always believe the best song is going to win. The music that relates to fans—that’s what’s going to win. And women are putting out great music. But there shouldn't be one type of country music. I want to feel like I am listening to a shuffle.”
Females still may not garner the constant radio favoritism of their male counterparts, but they’re reinforcing a road without all that: tours, accolades, Grammy’s. Price, who has achieved what are considered bucket-list moments for any artist in any genre, has embodied the post-Tomato-gate planet, where mainstream can be courted, without it courting back. Morris’s CMA trophy and Grammy nods prove that the playing field might be leveling—and, when it doesn’t, women just start a new game.
“I think Nashville is doing a good job right now to rally and say, ‘Hey, this artist deserves a chance,’” Hemby says. She found great success as a songwriter for the likes of Lambert and Little Big Town before the release of her LP, Puxico.
“[Women’s songs] might not be able to go No. 1, but it’s a gradual change. If we cause too much of a stink, people are so fickle they will lose interest. If you talk too much about tomatoes, you don’t want spaghetti anymore,” she explains.
Hemby, ever the wordsmith, put it another succinct, and humorous, way: “We’re the home section at Target. We’re the featured designer. Meanwhile, there are thousands of crappy lamps.” In other words, Tomato-gate made people appreciate the tomatoes, but caprese will never become the house salad. “That is still a battle being fought to this day,” Hemby says. “I’m sitting here praying that Maren’s single goes up the charts. But it’s always a battle. Nashville is doing the best we can, but we gotta shake off the old dust. It’s not like it used to be, and you don’t need to have just radio.”
Hemby and Morris both point out that Lambert, who just released her double LP The Weight of These Wings in November, didn’t have a hit until her third album. Instead, she worked to build a solid following and fan-base—maybe slower than sliding straight to No. 1 on a debut, like many male counterparts—but it was a method built for longevity rather than the ephemeral trends that often shoot men to the very top.
“There are so many guys that are new artists that have immediate No. 1s, because they sound like someone else on the radio,” Morris says. “So, it’s cool to have newer talent come in. I myself haven’t had a No. 1. yet, but I’ve had a lot of success in radio, even though I haven’t gotten to ring that bell. There’s still a pretty big gap, but it’s changing for the better.”
Like she sings in “My Church”—a bonafide hit, whether or not radio agrees—we’ll give a “hallelujah” to that.