Grammy award-winning country singer Maren Morris thinks country music is burning itself down, and she doesn’t plan to go down with it.
Morris announced her departure from the country music genre in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week, lamenting the industry’s failure to confront its role as a “weapon in 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.
“The rot at the roots is the root of the problem, but you wanna blame it on me” sings Morris, in “The Tree,” a song reflecting her frustrations with the values espoused by some parts of the country music community. In the track’s music video, she sets fire to a tree and walks away as the ash rains down on a toy version of a small town.
“After the Trump years, people’s biases were on full display,” Morris told the L.A. Times. “They were proud to be misogynistic and racist and homophobic and transphobic. All these things were being celebrated, and it was weirdly dovetailing with this hyper-masculine branch of country music.”
Morris has been embroiled in several of the country music “culture wars” she described. Last year, she was dubbed a “lunatic country music person” 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 youths in response.
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 No. 1 on the Billboard hot song chart. Morris said the song is streamed out of spite by those hoping to “own the libs.”
According to The Economist, 36 per cent of Spotify’s top 50 songs in America were country songs in 2023, a sharp increase from 2 percent in 2016. “Try That in a Small Town” was streamed on the service more than 30 million times.
Aldean’s viral hit met online criticism for what some view as its endorsement of racism and violence. Its music video caused an uproar for featuring a Tennessee courthouse where a teenager was lynched in the 1920s. Several Republican politicians — including presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum — responded with public support of Aldean. At a concert, Aldean told fans that his song’s message is really about community.
Morris considered skipping the 2022 Country Music Association awards because of the controversy with the Aldeans.
This isn’t the first time Morris has been critical of country music’s relationship with political issues. In January, she apologized for the country music industry’s contentious 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 drunkenly using a racial slur. Wallen’s 2023 album “One Thing at a Time” held the top spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart for 15 weeks.
“If you truly love this type of music and you start to see problems arise, it needs to be criticized,” Morris said in the L.A. Times interview. “Anything this popular should be scrutinized if we want to see progress.”
Morris’ claims about the weaponization 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 on the political right. Several Republican politicians heralded the song and it was even a topic of discussion at the GOP presidential debate. Anthony called the dialogue “aggravating” and said he regrets that his song had been “weaponized.”
Several country music stars have reacted to Morris’ departure with 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 searching for.
Now, Morris is working on her 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 band’s first album since removing “Dixie” from their name due to negative connotations with slavery.
Morris told the LA Times that she intends to spend less time thinking about whether her songs will market well in the country music universe and focus on simply making good music.