Maren Morris didn’t move to Nashville with stars in her eyes. The newcomer — No. 2 on Taste of Country’s Hot Artists to Watch in 2016 list — was sorta over being a performer. She wanted a record deal as much as she wanted a new ex-boyfriend.

Three years ago, she left behind a decade’s worth of work on the Texas music scene to be a songwriter in Music City, and “left behind” is the best way to describe it. The local opry houses, festivals and talent shows she’d become a regular playing sharpened her stage presence, forged friendships and gave her a taste of what becoming a “star” could be like. Tastes change as people grow, and at 22, Morris began to tire of the flavor.

When the “My Church” singer first moved, she did her best to bury her past, wanting instead to make it for her talent. She didn’t do Lower Broadway or the tourist thing. Instead this naturally shy, diminutive, young woman from Dallas would go to local shows, writer’s rounds and writing appointments daily, pushing through the weedy creep of insecurity to force herself to talk to people.

“You’re like, ‘Okay, do I look so lame? Do I look like such a loser?’” Morris says, admitting that at first she knew no one and would often go at it alone. “(I) just tried to fill every single day with work. I worked my ass off for the first year to get a publishing deal and become a staff songwriter.”

It’s always a surprise to learn a country hitmaker is a natural introvert, but for every Luke Bryan and Brett Eldredge there’s a Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood. Morris — while well-spoken, energetic and easy to interview — is more similar to the latter group. A life offstage, spent writing songs was (and sometimes still is) a very attractive prospect. But she couldn’t quite scratch the itch.

“There was just little voice inside that never really goes away,” she insists. “I missed being on stage. And I missed performing.”

The other part of why she felt the need to sing was due to the songs she was writing. Busbee, Luke Laird and Barry Dean helped her write songs on the Maren Morris EP. She couldn’t give them up. “I had these songs start to take form and it was this direction that I hadn’t heard in radio before. This very direct, female perspective.”

In addition to "My Church," the EP houses “80’s Mercedes,” “I Wish I Was” and “Company You Keep." “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry” (written by Laird, Dean and Morris about her boy-crazy friend) is one a crowd full of music industry insiders holler for during Spotify’s Spotlight on 2016 event a few days before Christmas. It’s not easy to get a room full of record label and media members excited, but the crowd up front was singing every word to a project that had barely hit the mainstream.

Kacey Musgraves, Charlie Worsham, John and T.J. Osborne from Brothers Osborne and Morris make up part of an emerging group of country singers from East Nashville. They’re all friends who spend holidays together. Musgraves and Morris first met on the Texas scene, and they reconnected in Nashville. The No. 2 Artist to Watch says it’s strange to see her friends as subjects in national media articles and conversations. Musgraves in particular has been a trailblazer, something Morris recognizes.

“I think she’s done such a great thing by carving out this path and you’re starting to see all of these women following along in their own ways,” she explains.

Maren Morris EP
Sony Nashville

“I think the crux of it is they’re saying something different and they’re not afraid to be themselves.”

That’s true of Morris too, and she’s grateful she took time to give up on and re-realize a dream. “If I had been thrown out into a radio tour when I was 18, or 17 and given a record deal, I don’t think … it would have been a total nightmare," she says.

“Being 25 now and knowing a little bit more about who I am and coming from a songwriting background, I feel like just a little more with it.”

“My Church” — a song inspired by long rides in her old Mitsubishi Montero that lacked air conditioning — will begin to inch up radio charts this winter, and if she can make fans in new towns as quickly as she made them in Music City, she’ll be the next Miranda Lambert by summer. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, and Morris isn’t looking for that kind of fast fame. For her, it’s all about the next song and making sure that those lyrics have as much artistry and integrity as the five on Maren Morris.

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