Grammy Award-winning country singer Maren Morris believes country music is burning itself out, and she has no plans to let it go.
Morris announced his departure from the country genre in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week, lamenting the industry’s inability to confront its role as a “weapon in the culture wars.” The Nashville-based musician reflected on her departure in “The Bridge,” a new two-track EP marking her move to Columbia Records from the label’s Sony Nashville division.
“Root rot is the root of the problem, but you want to blame me,” Morris sings in “The Tree,” a song reflecting his frustrations with the values espoused by parts of the country music community. In the music video for the track, she sets fire to a tree and walks away as ashes rain down on a toy version of a small town.
“After the Trump years, people’s prejudices were on full display,” Morris told the LA Times. “They were proud to be misogynistic, racist, homophobic and transphobic. All of these things were celebrated, and it fit oddly with this hyper-masculine branch of country music.
Morris has been involved in many of the country music “culture wars” she has described. Last year, she was called a “country music nut” by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson when she criticized anti-transgender remarks made by the wife of country music singer Jason Aldean . Morris printed the nickname on t-shirts to raise more than $100,000 for transgender youth.
The small town depicted in the music video for “The Tree” may be a reference to Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town”, which was #1 on the Billboard Hot Songs chart. Morris said the song was played out of spite by those hoping to “own the libraries.”
According to The Economist, 36% of Spotify’s top 50 songs in America were country songs in 2023, a sharp increase from 2% in 2016. “Try That in a Small Town” was streamed on the service over 30 million times.
Aldean’s viral hit has been criticized online for what some see as his support of racism and violence. Its music video caused an uproar by featuring a Tennessee courthouse where a teenager was lynched in the 1920s. Several Republican politicians – including presidential candidates Donald Trump and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum – responded with Aldean’s public support. During a concert, Aldean told fans that the message of his song was really about the community.
Morris considered skipping the 2022 Country Music Association awards due to the controversy with the Aldeans.
This is not the first time Morris has criticized the relationship between country music and political issues. In January, she apologized for the country music industry’s controversial relationship with the LGBTQ+ community on an episode of “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.” In 2021, she spoke out when country singer Morgan Wallen was caught drunk using a racial slur. Wallen’s 2023 album, “One Thing at a Time,” held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart for 15 weeks.
“If you really like this type of music and you start to see problems arising, you have to criticize it,” Morris said in the LA Times interview. “Anything that’s that popular needs to be looked at if we want to see progress.”
Morris’ claims about the militarization of country music echo similar comments made by country music chart-topper Oliver Anthony, whose song “Rich Men North of Richmond” has become an anthem of the political right. Several Republican politicians praised the song and it was even a topic of discussion during the GOP presidential debate. Anthony called the dialogue “aggravating” and said he regretted that his song had been “weaponized.”
Several country music stars responded to Morris’ departure with their support, including Lindsey Ell, Sam Hunt and Grammy Award winner Carly Pearce. Pearce told Entertainment Tonight Canada that Morris has to “follow her truth” and believes she will find what she is looking for.
Now Morris is working on his next LP with pop producer Jack Antonoff, who has a history of helping country musicians rebrand. In 2020, Antonoff produced the Chicks’ album “Gaslighter,” the group’s first album since “Dixie” was dropped from their name due to negative connotations with slavery.
Morris told the LA Times that she plans to spend less time worrying about whether her songs will market well in the country music world and simply focus on making good music.