TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Maren Morris is a young singer-songwriter whose first major label album, "Hero," debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard country music chart. Rock critic Ken Tucker likes how the album mixes a knowledge of traditional music with pop and hip-hop influences.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY CHURCH")
MAREN MORRIS: (Singing) I've cussed on a Sunday. I've cheated, and I've lied. I've fallen down from grace a few too many times. But I find holy redemption when I put this car in drive, roll the windows down and turn up the dial. Can I get a hallelujah?
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's Maren Morris's big breakthrough single, "My Church." It's got the catchy twang of a hit, for sure. And there's something else interesting about the song. When Morris asks if she can get a hallelujah and an amen, she's imploring a congregation of sainted country stars such as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
The lyric is about driving down the highway, singing along to the radio and feeling, as she says, that that's my church. So we'll have to put Morris down for the moment as a religious agnostic with a leaning toward the mega-church of hardcore country and capitalism.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RICH")
MORRIS: (Singing) If I had a dollar every time that I swore you off and a twenty every time that I picked up when you called and a crisp new Benjamin for when you're here then gone again and a dollar every time I was right about you after all, boy, I'd be rich, head to toe Prada, Benz in the driveway, yacht in the water, Vegas at the Mandarin...
TUCKER: That's "Rich," in which Morris folds in references to how many Benjamins she's spending on name-checked fashion brands and tossing in phrases such as me and Diddy dripping diamonds like Marilyn. That is indeed a bit rich and would be obnoxious if the music surrounding it wasn't so disarming.
And the music is very good state-of-the-art pop-country, as on the album's second single, "80's Mercedes." It comes on like a propulsive track from Fleetwood Mac before bursting into full power ballad mode by the time she hits the chorus about being, quote, "a '90s baby in my '80s Mercedes."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "80'S MERCEDES")
MORRIS: (Singing) Still runs good, built to last. Moves like a hula girl on the dash. She ain't made for practicality. Yeah, I guess she's just like me. It's Saturday night, about time to go. Got my white leather jacket and a neon soul. Once I turn on the radio, I'm ready to roll - ready to roll.
Feel like a hard-to-get starlet when I'm driving, turning every head - hell, I ain't even trying. Got them Ray-Ban shades pretty in pink. Call me old school, but hey, I'm a '90s baby in my '80s Mercedes. I'm a '90s baby in my '80s Mercedes.
TUCKER: Morris came to Nashville via Texas. And once she arrived in Music City, she worked as a songwriter, placing songs on albums by stars such as Tim McGraw and Kelly Clarkson. She put out three albums independently before getting signed to Columbia Nashville.
What Morris brings to her genre is a very fluid sense of musical boundaries. Two songs in particular make this case for me. The first is "Just Another Thing," a very nice medium tempo bit of R&B-pop with an excellent country music chorus phrase - you're just another thing I shouldn't be doing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST ANOTHER THING")
MORRIS: (Singing) I ought to know better, but you know that never stopped me before. Yeah, my wheels just have a way of spinning, always ending back at your door. So add your name to the list. Of all the things I can't seem to kick - you're just another mess, another late night call I shouldn't be making, just another high, another one-night shot I shouldn't be chasing.
I got my excuses. No, I don't know why I do it. But you're just another, just another thing I shouldn't be doing.
TUCKER: The other example of Morris's range is my favorite song on the album. It's also one of her most considered - the moment she slows down, calms down and takes the image she spent the album building of herself back down to human scale. The song is "I Wish I Was," which, with its slow groove chorus and slide guitar, sounds like a song Bonnie Raitt might have recorded on one of her early albums.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WISH I WAS")
MORRIS: (Singing) On paper, we go together. I know that we look the part. But almost never hangs on forever. I know I'm breaking your heart. So go on, say what you want to. I'm not gonna stop you. You can blame it all on me. I'm not the hero in the story. I'm not the girl that gets the glory 'cause you're looking for true love, and I'm not the one. But I wish, but I wish I was. I wish - oh, I wish - I was.
TUCKER: It's too early to tell how much staying power Maren Morris has. But this album, "Hero," suggests someone whose interest in country music is most tied to the genre's opportunities to explore the strains placed on relationships, family and faith in oneself.
She may well be using country as a leaping off point for a pop career, in the recent example of Taylor Swift. Or maybe she's trying to figure out how to be a more worthy acolyte, serving on the altar of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Maren Morris's new album, "Hero." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews about Zika and the business and politics of selling guns and our conversations with singer Barbara Cook and Tony Hale, co-star of HBO's "Veep," check out our podcast.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
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