This September, Maren Morris set fire to the country music business. Her lighter of choice? A pair of impassioned singles—“The Tree” and “Get the Hell Out of Here”—housed on an EP aptly titled The Bridge. On “The Tree,” she declares her frustrations with the industry, the place where she started her career, singing, “I’m taking an axe to the tree / The rot at the roots is the root of the problem / But you wanna blame it on me.”
And though the lyrics could be interpreted in various ways, the visuals for those aforementioned singles make her point clear. In the music video for “The Tree,” she seemingly takes aim at Jason Aldean’s controversial song “Try That in a Small Town” with signs that say: “Welcome to Our Perfect Small Town From Sunrise to Sundown” and “Go Woke Go Broke.” (The song, which came out earlier this year, was criticized for its racist ideas, as well as lauding gun violence; the music video was also partially filmed at a courthouse where a Black man was lynched in 1927.) Morris’ disappointment then turns from a simmer to a boil in the “Get the Hell Out of Here” music video. As ash rains down on those very signs, she sings, “I do the best I can / But the more I hang around here / the less I give a damn.”
The day of their release, the Los Angeles Times published an interview with Morris about her relationship with country music—and her choice to remove herself from what she’s referred to as the toxic aspects of the industry. “I always thought I’d have to do middle fingers in the air jumping out of an airplane,” she told the outlet. “I’m trying to mature here and realize I can just walk away from the parts of this that no longer make me happy.”
But if Morris isn’t leaving country entirely, what does her decision mean for her as an artist? And more broadly, what does it mean for the future of one of music’s biggest genres?
Singer-songwriter Rissi Palmer, a Black female country artist, believes Morris’ voice has been vital for other marginalized artists who aren’t privileged enough to advocate for their beliefs without compromising their careers. “I think about a lot of artists of color, especially those that do speak up and are silenced in other ways and don’t really have the fame and money that Maren does,” she says. “It was a cool thing for her to stand up and speak up, and I wish it was something that everybody had the luxury of doing.”
Since she began her career, Morris, who declined an interview for this piece, has been brazenly outspoken about her support for queer and trans people, the longstanding issues of racism and misogyny in country music, and all of the ways in which the genre falls short. She was labeled a “lunatic” and “fake country music singer” on Fox News after she very publicly criticized Aldean’s wife for sharing a slew of transphobic remarks; she then turned those labels, coined by Tucker Carlson, into a cheeky T-shirt that raised more than $100,000 for GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program and Trans Lifeline. In many ways, Morris has become country music’s progressive poster child, using her power as a white woman to advocate for marginalized communities—communities that have long been slighted by the industry.
It actually IS representative of our town because this isn’t his first “scuffle” and he just demolished a huge streaming record last month regardless. We all know it wasn’t his first time using that word. We keep them rich and protected at all costs with no recourse.
— MAREN MORRIS (@MarenMorris) February 3, 2021
During her 2020 CMAs acceptance speech after winning Female Vocalist of the Year, she made a point of giving recognition to country artists of color like Yola, Brittney Spencer, and Rhiannon Giddens. “There are so many amazing Black women that pioneered and continue to pioneer this genre,” she told the audience. In February 2021, she spoke out after country singer Morgan Wallen was caught on camera using a racial slur. “We all know it wasn’t his first time using that word. We keep them rich and protected at all costs with no recourse,” she tweeted.
Morris has also long called out the lack of diversity on country radio, where, in 2022, women made up only 11 percent of airplay on the 156 country stations that report their data to Mediabase, per musicologist Jada Watson. According to Watson’s study “Redlining in Country Music,” that number was much lower for Black women, who received just 0.03 percent of country radio airplay—almost none of which took place during the day. “It’s baffling,” Morris told PEOPLE in 2019. “There are tons of artists making incredible music, not just women—people of color and different sexualities are making catchy country music. I’m grateful my singles have done well, but it’s frustrating to continue to have these conversations and no results.” This October, after releasing The Bridge, she echoed the sentiment in an interview on the New York Times’ Popcast podcast: “A little girl or 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, even if they do everything right…”
Black singer-songwriter and activist Allison Russell considers Morris “outlaw country” and sees parallels between her and Johnny Cash, whose music was rejected by the country mainstream because of his anti-fascist and anti-racist politics. “She’s very clearly saying that she disagrees vehemently with the bigoted nature of the gatekeeping of mainstream country radio,” she explains. After all, without Morris, there aren’t a slew of women getting airplay, with no indication that the landscape of country radio will change anytime soon.
But Morris isn’t the first high-profile country artist to have made the switch. In 2014, Taylor Swift famously announced her departure from country music with her pop opus 1989. Kacey Musgraves entered into a label partnership between UMG Nashville and Interscope for her album Star-Crossed; she was subsequently excluded from the Grammys’ country categories. Cam, who has been a vocal advocate for diversity and inclusion in country music, left Sony Nashville in 2018 in favor of the larger Sony umbrella. The Chicks were famously banned from country radio after denouncing President Bush—only to be allowed back 17 years later in 2020 with their track “Gaslighter.” Lil Nas X’s massive hit “Old Town Road” forced the genre to confront its racist roots after the song was controversially removed from the Billboard country charts. Billy Ray Cyrus eventually joined the track for a remix, seemingly as a way to legitimize the track to the old guard. “People either leave or cross over,” Palmer explains.
Though that doesn’t mean it’s simple. Marissa Moss, author of Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be and co-creator of the country newsletter “Don’t Rock The Inbox,” explains that when it comes to country music, there are essentially two arms. “There’s the country music business, which is synonymous with Music Row [in Nashville] and then there’s country music, the art form,” Moss explains. “Those are two really distinctly different things. What I took it to mean was that [Maren] was leaving country music ‘the business’—the machine, Music Row, marketing herself as a country artist, which is not something that you do easily.”
For example, Morris, like her contemporaries Musgraves and Cam, recently transitioned to the main roster at Columbia Records from the label’s Nashville division. A turn away from country radio isn’t too surprising, considering it has never been all that kind to women, queer artists, or artists of color. Morris also told Popcast she wouldn’t be submitting her work to country music awards this year, though she’s not sure if it’s something she’s doing “forever.” “Maren’s been playing with how she wanted to engage in country music for a long time. That’s what makes her such an impressive and interesting artist, that she’s willing to challenge herself to change and to respond to the world around her,” Moss says. Earlier this month, for instance, Morris shared her live TV slot with two other Black female artists, enlisting Mickey Guyton and Brittney Spencer to perform “The Tree” with her on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
Even so, Morris’ moves alone won’t be enough to get country music to transform its ways. (It’s something she seems to know well; she ends “The Tree” by singing, “I hope I’m not the only one.”) Country music and country radio have historically prioritized white men for profitability, despite the genre being, in some ways, pioneered by Black communities. For a while, Morris and Kelsea Ballerini were the only two female artists reaching the top of the country charts.
Natalie Weiner, the other co-creator behind “Don’t Rock The Inbox,” believes that because white men are continuing to benefit from country radio, there’s no incentive for it to become more inclusive. “I don’t know that there’s going to be a ripple effect of commercial country artists saying exactly what Maren’s saying, but I do think it’s indicative that there is a smaller place than ever for any kind of diversity, including diversity of perspective, on country radio,” she says.
As long as the exclusionary aspects of country radio continue, the country music establishment will still flourish—but at a cost to the fans and artists who are shut out. Many musicians will be creatively stifled and forced to leave the industry, while, Russell notes, “A lot of people who are depending mostly on terrestrial radio for their access to art are being deprived of the full spectrum of voices both in country music and in America.”
Until the whole institution is burned down and replaced, the future of country music will look a whole lot like how it looks right now.
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