Maren Morris had been working at a career as an artist for years — for so long, in fact, that she thought she'd given it up — by the time she released her major-label debut album, Hero. The record arrived five years ago, on June 3, 2016, via Sony Music Nashville.

Morris began her artist career as a child, touring across Texas "and doing every chili cook-off and talent show you can think of," she tells Kelleigh Bannen during a new Essential Album Apple Music Hits special. The Arlington, Texas, native started playing guitar as a young teenager, and released independent projects in 2005, 2007 and 2011; by the time she moved to Nashville, she was burnt out on being an artist herself, and leaned into a career as a songwriter.

"I had to learn how to write with other people, which is what Nashville is so about. Those first few years were really just me in the trenches, honing in on my songwriting and writing with anybody that would be in the room with me," says Morris, who met some of her closest collaborators, including Laura Veltz and Jimmy Robbins, during that time. "But, yeah, I didn't have the interest to just be back on stage again for probably four or five years."

It was the song that would become her debut single, "My Church," that prompted Morris to try her luck in the spotlight once again. "I just couldn't hear someone else singing that song," she says of the song she co-wrote with her producer, Busbee. "I felt very protective of it and wanted to sing it myself."

Morris originally released "My Church" on a self-titled EP in 2015. The project attracted major-label attention, and after she signed with Sony's Columbia Nashville late that year, the label re-released "My Church" as a single in January of 2016. It peaked at No. 5 on the country radio chart.

Morris would have to wait two more singles for her first No. 1 song. Hero's second single, "80s Mercedes," which arrived around the time of the album's release, went to No. 12. Her March 2017 single "I Could Use a Love Song" topped the country radio chart in January of 2018, more than 40 weeks after its debut. (A fourth single, "Rich," released in 2018, peaked at No. 4.)

"I don't think people remember how unheard of that was for a female with a ballad or low-tempo song to go all the way to the top. It was just very rare," Morris tells Bannen of "I Could Use a Love Song." "It was super emotional, just getting to see all my peers show up [at the No. 1 party] and really congratulate not just me, but Busbee and Laura Veltz and Jimmy [Robbins] for coming together and writing a song."

Columbia Records
Columbia Records

"I Could Use a Love Song" notched Morris a Grammy Awards nomination for Best Country Solo Performance in 2018; she'd won the category the year prior with "My Church." "My Church" also earned nominations in the Best Country Song and Best Country Solo Performance Grammy Awards categories, a nod for Single Record of the Year at the ACM Awards, and nominations in Song and Single of the Year at the CMA Awards.

Hero, meanwhile, notched Album of the Year nominations at the ACMs and CMAs, as well as a nod for Best Country Album at the Grammys. Morris herself was nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammys, and won ACM New Female Vocalist of the Year and CMA New Artist of the Year.

Morris co-wrote Hero's 11 songs with Busbee, Veltz and Robbins, as well as Barry Dean, Luke Laird, Shane McAnally, future fellow Highwomen member Natalie Hemby and her now-husband, Ryan Hurd. Hurd and Hemby, as well as Heather Morgan and the McCrary Sisters, assist with background vocals, while Brothers Osborne member John Osborne is credited on guitar throughout the project.

Morris co-produced Hero with Busbee, who died in September of 2019, and credits him with "[tying] all these different weird sounds and songs together to make a cohesive project."

"The way that he would just stay on you while you're in the vocal booth, no matter how long it took, no matter how many notes were too high — he would know how to stretch your voice because he just ... I don't know, he just knew female voices in such a particular way," Morris says of the late producer. "He was definitely like, 'You're going to get this note by note.' And the harmonies, same thing. A lot of people just throw away the harmonies, because they're going to AutoTune them later, but he was not about that ironing out."

Shortly after Hero's release, she hit the road with Keith Urban, opening for the country star on his 2016 tour. She'd headline in support of the album in 2017.

Hero peaked at No. 5 on the all-genre Billboard 200 albums chart, and at No. 1 on the Country Albums chart. A deluxe version of the record, including three additional songs, arrived in March of 2017, and the album was certified Platinum in July of 2019.

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