Maren Morris knew the question was coming.
“OK, let’s hear it,” the country star said with a grin as she sat in her dressing room before a concert last week at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Morris, 32, had arrived in Southern California on tour behind the wise and tender “Humble Quest,” which just scored a prestigious nomination for album of the year at November’s Country Music Association Awards. Produced by Greg Kurstin (known for his work with Adele and Foo Fighters), Morris’ third LP uses dreamy-rootsy arrangements to frame the singer-songwriter’s thoughts on romance, ambition and — impossible to ignore since she gave birth to a son, Hayes, in early 2020 — the demands and the elations of motherhood.
Yet as eager as she may have been to discuss her album, which is also expected to fare well in nods for next year’s Grammys, Morris understood that a different topic had put her in the news lately: her very public feud with a fellow country A-lister Jason Aldean and his wife, Brittany, over comments the Aldeans have made about young people seeking gender-affirming care.
It all started when Brittany, a conservative social media influencer with 2.3 million followers on Instagram, posted a video of herself applying makeup. “I’d really like to thank my parents for not changing my gender when I went through my tomboy phase,” she wrote in the caption. “I love this girly life.” Jason, who’s racked up 25 No. 1 hits on Billboard’s country airplay chart and has spoken critically about vaccine mandates and President Biden, commented on his wife’s post with the laughing-crying emoji and wrote, “Lmao!! Im glad they didn’t too, cause you and I wouldn’t have worked out.”
After singer and “The Voice” winner Cassadee Pope condemned Brittany’s statement on Twitter, Morris replied to Pope, referring to Brittany as “Insurrection Barbie” and writing, “It’s so easy to, like, not be a scumbag human?” Soon, Brittany took her story — “I think that children should not be allowed to make these life-changing decisions at such a young age,” she said — to Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, where the right-wing host invoked the threat of unchecked castration and called Morris a “lunatic” and a “country music person who I hope leaves country music immediately.”
“I’ll wear that as a badge of honor,” Morris said in Santa Barbara — and indeed she quickly began selling T-shirts that read “Lunatic Country Music Person,” proceeds from which she said have raised more than $150,000 for Trans Lifeline and GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program. (Brittany made Barbie-inspired T-shirts of her own that read “Don’t Tread On Our Kids.”)
Ahead of an Oct. 13 show at the Hollywood Bowl, Morris, who’s married to country singer Ryan Hurd, spoke in depth about the war of words, which has come amid a broader reckoning over Nashville’s treatment of women, queer people and people of color. These are excerpts from our conversation.
Did you run your initial tweet by anyone before you posted it?
No, I just shot it off. I hate feeling like I need to be the hall monitor of treating people like human beings in country music. It’s exhausting. But there’s a very insidious culture of people feeling very comfortable being transphobic and homophobic and racist, and that they can wrap it in a joke and no one will ever call them out for it. It just becomes normal for people to behave like that.
Is that a new development, in your view?
It’s always sort of been there, if you talk about the Chicks and that kind of being the first canceling. But I feel like it got worse during Trump — which are all the years that I’ve been on a major label and active, since 2016. That’s when everything got worse — irreparable, almost.
Politics aside, ‘Insurrection Barbie’ is a hell of a phrase.
Well, it’s kind of true, because the whole conspiracy theory peddling of Jan. 6, they totally partook in that. Look, I’m not a victim in this and neither is she. But I don’t have feelings of kindness when it comes to humans being made fun of for questioning their identity, especially kids. The whole “When they go low, we go high” thing doesn’t work with these people. Any resistance movement is not done with kind words. And there’s a lot worse things I could’ve called her.
As a country star, does speaking out against transphobia feel riskier than speaking out against racism or sexism?
I think just the culture of misinformation that goes along with trans youth is where I was coming from. It’s not, “Oh, this is bad, and this is good, and we can agree to disagree.” No, we can’t, and you are being fed information that is false. And even though you’re not the one with the bullet in the gun, your words matter. Your disinformation matters. That hospital in Boston just had a bomb threat because people who listen to that rhetoric literally think they’re mutilating kids and don’t bother reading any sort of actual study on it.
This whole thing got so ugly so fast because the worst they can say to me is, “Oh, you must be a groomer then.” That’s literally their favorite word. I have a son, and I think we’re all — especially all parents — we’re just trying to do our best and take care of our kids and make sure they’re happy. You don’t know if one day they’re gonna come home in tears because they don’t feel right in their body. And it’s just so s— for the parents that are going through that right now to make a joke out of it. Suicide rates are so high because of hateful bull— like that. I don’t care if it’s a joke. But they don’t want to talk about that part because it’s too real.
Did you see the Tucker Carlson segment as it aired?
No. I’m on a big group thread — it’s been going for probably 10 years now — with Brothers Osborne and Kacey Musgraves. Kacey sent it to me. And I was like, “Oh, here we go.” But I thought, “You know what? This would be really funny on a T-shirt: ‘Lunatic country music person.’”
Another A+ phrase, it must be said.
Thank you, Tucker. Was it funny? Sure. But if we can twist it into a charitable cause, let’s do it. Then it just exploded.
You ended up sparring with right-wing pundit Candace Owens, who said you sounded like “a 15-year-old girl on TikTok” and told you to grow up. Is there anyone whose scorn on this topic you’d fear?
I don’t think so. I’m from Texas. I have a ton of family and people I’ve grown up with who are conservative and watch Tucker and probably follow Candace. But even they all have reached out to say, “We’re on your side.”
Because they’re close to you or because they reject the other side’s reasoning?
Probably a little bit of both. But I think it’s just a common-sense thing at this point. Friends that aren’t in country music, they ask me, “What the hell is going on in Nashville right now with these people?” And I’m always like, “It’s fewer than you think.” Sometimes I feel like I’m in this abusive relationship and I keep defending it: “It’s not all bad!” But sometimes you have to call it out for what it is.
I think there are people in country music that want it to be niche. They don’t want it to expand. They don’t care about it becoming more inclusive. It’s theirs, and everyone else is an other, or woke, or whatever. That’s sad to me, because I feel like country music at its core is people’s real stories. And to think there’s only one kind of person that gets to live them out and celebrate them is not why I’ve chosen to live there or make music within those walls.
The veil seems to have lifted on the division between factions in country music: those who want it to expand and those who don’t.
I was talking after all this to Brandi Carlile, who was like, “It does feel like there are two country musics.” And, I don’t know, it should have been heartbreaking to hear that. But I was actually really relieved and encouraged to hear it. It made me feel like, OK, country music on this mainstream level absolutely could be two things, and I’ve been trying to make it one, and maybe I should stop. I don’t know if Brandi meant it to be a positive, but I took it as one. It was like a pressure release.
Has this whole thing made you think about your audience differently?
I don’t think I lost any fans over this, if that’s what you mean. I’ve been very clear from the get-go. It sucks when artists stay quiet, stay quiet, stay quiet, and then they finally reach their breaking point and have to say something because something is so unjust or disgusting. And then they lose half their crowd because they stayed quiet. I try to tell my husband this, because he’s still building: Let people know where you stand. The ones who don’t get it will fall away, but the ones that stick with you will know what they’re contributing to.
You could say Jason Aldean is finally doing that after years of consciously avoiding politics.
Which is his prerogative. And he probably knows, “OK, I’m gonna lose my liberal fans,” if he had any. But the ones that stay I’m sure feel extremely close to him through all this. And that’s when I kind of have to take a step back and be like, What am I actually doing? Is it self-serving? Is it performative? All the things a neurotic will think through. But I sleep pretty good at night knowing that people feel safer in my crowd.
You’re sure to see the Aldeans at the CMA Awards on Nov. 9. Have you thought about what that will be like?
Honestly, I haven’t decided if I’m gonna go. I’m very honored that my record is nominated. But I don’t know if I feel home there right now. So many people I love will be in that room, and maybe I’ll make a game-time decision and go. But as of right now, I don’t feel comfortable going.
That make you sad?
I think I was more sad going last year. Some nights are fun. Others I’m just crawling out my skin. I’m not good at those events because I’m awkward. But this time I kind of feel peaceful at the notion of not going.
Morgan Wallen is nominated at the CMAs for entertainer of the year, and he recently won the ACM Milestone Award at the Academy of Country Music Honors. What do you think of his being re-embraced by the Nashville establishment after being caught on video drunkenly using the N-word?
I don’t know how I feel about it, honestly. I’ve never hated that guy. He made a mistake, and I will say after this Aldean drama, at least Morgan tried to apologize, even if it wasn’t perfect. I have to give him that, because he didn’t have to. He’s not going anywhere. And I feel like all you can do at this point is shut up and listen to people that are smarter than you try to tell you why what you did was wrong.
You’ve had your 2-year-old son on the road for much of this tour. How’s that been?
Fun but hard. He was born at the beginning of COVID, when we weren’t going anywhere. My bedtime was like 9 p.m. So being in mom mode all day, then having to play a show? Tequila helps.
You made the Highwomen album with Carlile and other friends before you had a kid. Does the song “My Name Can’t Be Mama” — in which you talk about being “a solitary girl … free-wheeling in the city” — hit different now?
Oh, for sure. My verse seems so silly now. I feel Brandi’s verse the most probably because it’s about her being hungover and not wanting to be a mom that day. I think becoming a parent in general has made me a little bit closer to the truth. Writing my record, I just didn’t really have anything else to prove. It kind of disrobed a layer of caution or insecurity that was there for a long time. I was also going through postpartum depression.
Had you experienced depression before?
Not heavily. The postpartum element was the first time I had to be medicated for it, which I’ve been open about because it’s so normal to feel those feelings.
Yet they’re still taboo.
“Oh, if she’s dealing with PPD, she hates her baby.” That’s the soap-opera version of it. The reality is: No, I love my baby — I hate myself. But when the fog lifted and I got on antidepressants, I felt like, This is totally temporary. And it was.