June 1, 2016
I’m just going to go ahead and call it right here: Maren Morris’ debut album, “Hero,” is the best album of 2016. I know it’s only June, and undoubtedly there are more strong releases coming, but as we approach the year’s midpoint, she’s the clubhouse leader. And, here’s where I double down on that proclamation: Inside the format, "Hero" has the potential to be as important and seminal a release as Randy Travis' "Storms of Life," Garth Brooks’ "No Fences,” The Dixie Chicks’ debut “Wide Open Spaces,” or more recently, Taylor Swift’s second album, “Fearless.” This release is a triumph for women in Country, Country music overall, and mainstream music, no matter the genre.
The frustrating conversation about a gross under representation of viable female artists in Country music has been ongoing for several years now, with pundits wondering: if Country music is so appealing to women, why do so few ladies ever break through? Only recently has the tone shifted in a more positive direction, from dire shortage to signs of progress, albeit baby steps. That guarded optimism is based on promising and talented newcomers like Kelsea Ballerini – who has notched two consecutive #1 singles – and Cam, whose "Burning House" was not only a chart-topper, but garnered critical acclaim as well. Along with these two up and coming female artists, we’ve also witnessed perhaps the strongest quality of music paired with even more commercial success for the format’s leading lady and firmly entrenched superstar, Carrie Underwood.
That's great progress, but merely incremental – especially when it comes to rising talent. We still lack enough female artist depth right now to create what the format could really use in order to maintain its ubiquitous mainstream presence, combined with an always-needed dose of credibility: a substantial female movement.
That is, until now – with the release of "Hero," which officially streets on Friday, June 3rd.
Morris has delivered a masterpiece of an album for women, about women, made BY a woman, as she co-wrote and co-produced every cut on “Hero.” So this is all her. And while representing the trials and tribulations faced by 18-34 females as it relates to relationships, it will also speak to more mature ladies, as well, as they tend to think younger than their actual, chronological age. With “Hero,” Morris has dramatically advanced the female movement for Country from slow and steady gains, to one with sudden, real momentum. To use a sports analogy (Alert! Alert!), and specifically a football one (sorry again), she’s a game-changing playmaker, singlehandedly morphing the offense from a grind-it-out, march-down-the-field-in-18-plays ground game, to a vertical passing game with an ability to score quickly and often.
When Swift decided to make a pure Pop album, 2014’s sensational “1989,” she left the Pop-leaning female artist lane wide open in Country. Ballerini has been the most obvious successor to Swift – for Country radio at least – aided by a major endorsement from Swift herself, who loves Ballerini’s “The First Time” album. And Ballerini has all the right components to own that lane – starting most importantly with the music, but including charm, charisma, beautiful looks, and a stage presence that continues to get stronger. I’ll be curious to see what Swift thinks of Morris’ “Hero,” which, in terms of navigating the emotional minefield of relationships in the year 2016 – then unabashedly baring one’s soul about all that goes with it – comes as close to the kind of heart-on-her-sleeve songwriting and storytelling as Swift herself has given us.
Country doesn’t lack for female fans – its usage and productivity is still driven by them – but in recent years, it has been the male artists whose party-central-themed music (and looks – let’s be honest) has been driving female interest in the absence of powerful female artists the ladies can call their own. Since Swift’s departure for a broader audience almost two years ago, we’ve lacked a unifying, strong, and empowering voice for tweens and girls in their early 20s; Morris can be that voice for women just slightly older – think mid 20s – the age where they’re past the first-love, first-relationships, and magical thinking when it comes to guys.
There’s a line in the album’s first song, “Sugar,” where Morris sings, “A girl just knows when it’s the real thing.” She’s talking about recognizing the right guy, but it also helps to set the tone for “Hero,” because this project emits realness and a total connection with other females of her generation, which appears to be the mid-20s, mid-millennial group. That coalition will, I think, see “Hero” in its entirety as “the real thing.”
These are young women who have had their heart not only broken at least once by now – but maybe crushed into tiny pieces, too – with a couple of dishonest, lousy, cheating boyfriends in the rearview mirror leaving them somewhere between skeptical and still hopeful. That is no more evident than on “Rich,” where Morris is counting the money she could have bet – and won – each time her ex (or, should-be ex) treated her like crap and she let it happen. Later on with “I Could Use A Love Song,” Morris peels back a layer of envy and wistfulness as she observes a couple “Who make it work in a world that, for me, so far has seemed to go so wrong.”
And empowerment? There’s plenty here, with “I Wish I Was,” where Morris aspires to be as in love with the man who loves her so unconditionally – but is strong and self-aware enough to realize… she’s just not. “Cause you’re looking for true love, and I’m not the one, but I wish, but I wish I was.” Next, on “Second Wind” – a rather self-explanatory title – Morris sounds triumphant as she tells an ex, “But don't you know that it's the low that makes the high so sweet? When they try to break, break, break you, that’s when you get your break, break, breakthrough.”
This track in particular sounds like one that Pop programmers may be drooling over, as it sounds right in the Top 40 wheelhouse vocally, sonically, and lyrically. As with Swift, I’m sure the whispers about when Morris will make the move to Pop will start soon after “Hero” is fully released and digested by the masses and tastemakers. It has mass appeal, for sure, but it’s an album and an artist that Country can – and should – take total ownership of. In other words, ignore it and be skeptical at your own peril. And Morris seems totally at home in the Country realm, evidenced by her debut single “My Church,” which will end up as a top 10 song for her. It’s about as strong a pledge for a dedication to and passion for Country as I’ve heard in a while: “When Hank brings the sermon, and Cash leads the choir. It gets my cold, cold heart burning, hotter than a ring of fire.”
In early 2015, when asking programmers their format prognostications, many told me the pendulum would be swinging back toward female artists making a significant impact. I agreed, saying at the time I thought it would be a 15-18 month process, believing it was inevitable. Well, as of June 1st, 2016, we’re 17 months into that process, and now I believe we’re potentially in great shape on that count.
If Ballerini’s momentum continues as it seems to be doing, Cam stays on track, and the rest of the world agrees with me about Maren Morris (as THEY should!), things are only going to get better. Because one week after “Hero” is released, wait for the other shoe to drop: A hugely significant concept album from relative newcomer Brandy Clark is coming titled “Big Day In A Small Town.” (More on that in a few days, by the way) These two albums, and these two artists, will rapidly escalate that conversation I alluded to earlier – from frustration, to one of confidence and satisfaction that the format’s gender balance has been restored, thanks to strong, viable female artists who will give all Country fans music they can enjoy listening to, but Country’s vital female core fans music they can rally around and connect with entirely.