MANCHESTER, TENNESSEE —
Over the course of a week in June, rising singer Maren Morris had crisscrossed the country performing on late night and daytime talk shows, opening up for Keith Urban's new tour and then playing two major music festivals in Tennessee.
"Oh my god, how many cities have I been in this week? I don't even know what day it is,'' the 26-year-old country singer joked backstage after a sound check at Nissan Stadium during the CMA Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee.
Spurred by strong streaming activity and a hooky single called "My Church'' - that was covered recently by "The Voice'' contestant Mary Sarah - Morris' major label debut "Hero'' topped the Billboard country album charts in its first week, the first time a new artist has done so since Sam Hunt's debut in 2014.
As kid growing up in Arlington, Texas, the diminutive singer with the naturally alto vocal range fantasized of stages this big. By high school, she was already playing small gigs around Texas and even recording and releasing her own music.
"I never really saw it getting to this level,'' Morris said. "This week has been an amplified version of what I thought it could be.... It's like your dreams on steroids.''
After several years on the Texas music circuit, she came to Nashville and started writing songs for other artists, including Tim McGraw and Kelly Clarkson. She did a lot of acoustic writers-in-the-round type performances, but she longed for the bigger production.
"There was this rock 'n' roll thing that I was missing in my life,'' Morris said. "So it's good to be back onstage again and get my weird out.''
Morris had recording offers from more than one Nashville label, but ultimately the new CEO and Chairman of Sony Music Nashville, Randy Goodman, made her a very aggressive offer. Sony already has one of the strongest female lineups in Nashville with superstars like Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, as well as newcomer Cam, but Goodman said Morris has crossover potential.
"If the music is right and the timing is right and the other formats are looking for something that is unique and different, I think they are going to find it in Maren,'' Goodman said.
All of the songs on "Hero,'' released earlier this month, were co-written by Morris and she helped co-produce the album with busbee (Lady Antebellum, Shakira) and Brad Hill (Brothers Osborne). "Hero'' features her love of big '90s pop choruses, combined with her sharp and catchy lyrics and sultry R&B, such as on her next single, "80s Mercedes.''
Morris certainly looked at home at the all-genre Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, about an hour south of Nashville, as one of the few mainstream country acts on the lineup. She handled the token question during a press panel about diversity on country radio with ease and optimism.
"There's a major shift happening and it's been happening. It's been this hum under the surface for a while,'' Morris said. "A lot of it was female lacking, but also just diversity lacking. And so hearing [Chris] Stapleton being mentioned in the same sentence as my song being played, it gives me a lot of hope for the future of country music.''
During her first Bonnaroo appearance, she started her day with a photo shoot, and then was whisked across the dusty festival grounds to a grove of trees where sleepy festival-goers swung in hammocks and listened to her sing an acoustic cover of Dolly Parton's "9 to 5.''
By the time she appeared on one of the festival's side stages, the afternoon heat didn't seem to wilt her at all as she danced in a beaded top and cutoff jeans and pointed her gold microphone at the audience to get them to sing along.
"It will be so great when they know every song,'' Morris said. "But at the same time, if I see a dude who hasn't heard of me, doesn't know who I am, has never heard 'My Church,' I find that guy or that girl in the audience and I sing directly to them. If they hate the music, they will at least know I acknowledged them.''