Maren Morris Talks Relationship With ‘Toxic’ Country Music Industry – Billboard
Written by GRB on 05/10/2023
In an hourlong interview on the New York Times’ Popcast podcast with reporters Joe Caramanica and Joe Coscarelli posted Wednesday (Oct. 4), the singer laid out a scenario where she says she always felt at odds with the country music business, even as she experienced success. Over the last few years, after the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, the feeling has only deepened.
“I felt like I don’t want to say goodbye, but I really cannot participate in the really toxic arms of this institution anymore,” she said. “I love living in Nashville, I have my family there. … There’s a reason why people come there from L.A. and N.Y. to write with us because we have amazing songwriters there, so that’s not going to change. But I couldn’t do this circus anymore of feeling like I have to absorb and explain people’s bad behaviors and laugh it off. I just couldn’t do that after 2020. … I’ve changed.”
Even so, she said, “It’s a little bit hyberbolic to be like ‘She’s left country music,’ because that’s ridiculous, but I certainly can’t participate in a lot of it. I’m OK kind of just doing my own thing. Come with me if you please; everyone’s welcome.” She also stated that she will no longer submit her music for country awards consideration. Morris is also transferring from Sony Nashville to New York-based Columbia Records.
The new podcast follows her Sept. 15 interview with the Los Angeles Times in which Morris said she was “moving forward,” adding, “I thought I’d like to burn [the country music industry] to the ground and start over, but it’s burning itself down without my help.” The same day, she released two Jack Antonoff-produced songs, “The Tree” and “Get the Hell Out of Here,” that further explained her position.
“These two songs are incredibly key to my next step because they express a very righteously angry and liberating phase of my life these last couple of years, but also how my navigation is finally pointing towards the future, whatever that may be or sound like,” she said in a statement.
In the New York Times podcast, she says as far back as her 2016 breakthrough, she felt unwelcome by some sectors. “It was very clear even from early stages, ‘My Church’ into my next single, ‘80s Mercedes,’ which leaned more pop,” she said. “Ironically, it was, ‘She’s not country. Look at the way she dresses. Get the hell out of here.’ Like ‘You don’t belong here, this is not like Dolly.’ I was like, ‘I know it’s not, I’m not trying to be.’ … All the negativity and that initial backlash … was the writing on the wall for what was to come.”
She went on to say that the industry still circles the wagons any time someone criticizes country music or an artist, even from within. “It’s so ingrained and Pavlovian that you are not allowed to criticize this family ever,” she said. She felt any critical comments were interpreted as a greater attack on country music as an institution. When she spoke out, it was like, “‘Not only are you criticizing our way of life,’ which I’m not, ‘you’re criticizing every fundamental belief we have, you’re criticizing Jesus, you’re criticizing blue-collar workers, your criticizing farmers.’ Like, they will go to these lengths to justify the abuse and discrepancies that exist within the machine of what this is.”
A flashpoint came after she tweeted that Morgan Wallen’s use of a racial slur in February 2021 would be condoned by the industry. She tweeted in part, “We keep them rich and protected at all costs with no recourse.” She was in Hawaii recording and felt very far removed from Nashville.
“I didn’t realize I had lit the fuse,” she said. “I underestimated — like I have a lot — the power of the town and also kind of every broken thing about it and how it protects itself no matter what.”
Following her tweet, she says she not only received death threats, but so did her infant son. “I could have never fathomed that it would go there just off of criticizing a racial slur,” she said. “It felt like a warning shot.”
Over the past year, she said that she came to the conclusion that in order to save both her mental and physical health, it was time for her to give up commenting on every issue (“I don’t feel like that is my crown to wear every single time”) and find a more hospitable environment. “I’m so ready to just go elsewhere and look at the light and bring the people who want to come along with me, but honestly I just truly, as someone who has grown up listening to country music, growing up on the women of it, particularly — I’ve just had to find my own patch of grass with all of it.”
With women still struggling mightily for country radio play, she worries that the situation is not improving and that women artists will become even more reticent to speak out. “I kind of said this in my LA Times piece, kind of just the indoctrination of ‘Stay in line, do not ever question the way we do things because you’re looking at the door. We only ever let three of you in, and you made it, so shut up.’ That’s terrifying, especially as a new artist.”
But she then added the playing field is so tilted toward male artists at radio that it may not matter whether women speak out or not. “So, look at the [women] doing the same exact things I did, putting great music out, not getting played, doing all the same radio tour even after Covid, even though streaming is starting to greatly surpass it, and it’s even worse than ever on the chart. And even the playlisting is extremely slanted,” she says. “It’s hard to be like, ‘I’m the one that got affected by it,’ when there are no women on the chart. Whether you speak up or you keep playing the game, they’re still not going to play you.”
Her concern extends beyond artists and to the next generation of listeners. “In country, what standard are we setting? What is a little girl or like a little gay kid in the South at home when they look at this format right now, what are we teaching them? That they’re not welcome,” she says.
Looking also at prospective young female artists, she continued, “Even if they do everything right and look exactly like they’re supposed to or sound or say or have the perfect twang to their voice, thank Jesus in everything you do, you’re not allowed here until you’ve eaten enough sh–, I guess, to do it,” she said, comparing the genre to the current pop field, which is female-dominated.
“I feel like now more than ever, the women in these audiences, the little girls at home, they only see themselves in these songs as scenery or objects,” Morris said. “It’s heartbreaking because the few women that are kicking ass and still writing the best songs can’t even get radio play, and I thought they’d been given the keys to the kingdom 15 years ago.”
—Assistance in preparing this story provided by Jessica Nicholson