It’s been a challenging time lately for Maren Morris in the country music world, as her views on key issues of the day have been in conflict with those of some of country’s more right-leaning artists or fans. She addresses the toll this has taken on her in a music video that came out Friday morning for a new song, “The Tree,” that makes it clear she’s feeling some estrangement from the genre, or even ready to think about moving on — although, ironically, the style of the song couldn’t be more country.
“I hung around longer than anyone should / You’ve broken my heart more than anyone could,” she sings in the new song and video, presumably addressing those in the country world with whom she’s been at odds since becoming outspoken on LGBTQ+ and other issues.
“The Tree,” produced by Greg Kurstin, is one of two new numbers that Morris has just released in the form of a two-song EP titled “The Bridge,” the other being the Jack Antonoff-produced “Get the Hell Out of Here.” Morris also talked about the theme of the tunes in Instagram posts, a statement she issued and an interview about the changes she’s choosing to make amid a growing estrangement from her home genre.
“After the Trump years, people’s biases were on full display,” Morris says in a newly published interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It just revealed who people really were and that they were proud to be misogynistic and racist and homophobic and transphobic. All these things were being celebrated, and it was weirdly dovetailing with this hyper-masculine branch of country music. I call it butt rock.”
In a statement Morris released Friday, she says, “These two songs are incredibly key to my next step because they express a very righteously angry and liberating phase of my life these last couple of years, but also how my navigation is finally pointing towards the future, whatever that may be or sound like. Honoring where I’ve been and what I’ve achieved in country music, but also freely moving forward.”
Speculation that she would be addressing her so-called feud with Jason Aldean and his wife Brittany Aldean over trans issues was rampant after she posted stills from the video shoot a week prior to its release. TMZ even picked up on the intriguing imagery, specifically a shot of a tiny prop billboard that reads: “Welcome to our perfect small town, from sunrise to sundown.” The slogan is presumably a satirical jab at Aldean’s deeply polarizing “Try That in a Small Town” single, which was avidly embraced by many conservatives but has been accused of reflecting the menacing mentality of the nation’s historic “sundown towns.”
The video, which has a live-action Morris transplanted into a toy-sized small-town model, also shows a “Don’t tread on me” rattlesnake sign in a front yard. Another sign bears the emblem “Go woke, go broke,” words that have often been lobbed at Morris on social media since she confronted Aldean and his wife about their anti-trans views, as many country fans have rampantly posted their view that the singer and her progressive values have no place in the genre. And it includes the phrase “lunatic country music person,” which she was famously called by then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson after she publicly registered her objections to the Aldeans’ messaging.
In the video she’s seen lighting a match to send a tree up in flames at the end of the small town’s main street, although in the lyrics, she says the “rot” existed before she came along.
“I’m done filling a cup with a hole in the bottom / I’m taking an axe to the tree / The rot at the roots is the root of the problem / But you wanna blame it on me,” Morris sings in “The Tree.” “I hung around longer than anyone should / You’ve broken my heart more than anyone could / Trying to stop me won’t do you no good / I’ve already planted the seeds.” The song takes a more hopeful turn as she sings, “Do you hear that, it’s the sound of a new wind blowing / Do you feel that / Heart letting go of the weight it’s been holding / I’ve made miracles in the shadows / But now that I’m out in the sun / I’ll never stop growing / Wherever I’m going / Hope I’m not the only one.”
In an Instagram post, Morris wrote, “As I’ve been working on my record nonstop this year, I realized these two songs deserved a moment on their own — a story in their own right, written a day apart from each other — a tender duo and bridge to my next album. I welcome, celebrate and grieve the changes that have happened these last few years and these songs say it better than I ever could in a caption or interview.”
In the Times interview, Morris says, “I don’t want to have an adversarial relationship to country music. I still find myself weirdly wanting to protect it. But it’s not a family member. That’s the fucked-up part, is that I’m talking about it as if it’s a person, but it’s not. So it’s a lot of deep deconstructing that I’m still unraveling.”
The new release bears the imprint of the Columbia label and not Sony Nashville, and the L.A. Times story confirms that she has made the switch from the company’s Nashville division to the so-called mainstream imprint.
The song “Get the Hell Out of Here” has a quieter, less triumphant or anthemic tone, though there’s a similar defiance amid its finger-picking acoustic elements. She stresses the importance of taking care of her own well-being in the midst of conflicts. (Both songs were co-written in early January with longtime collaborators Jimmy Robbins and Laura Veltz.)
“Watered the garden but forgot to fill the well / I fed all my good intentions while I starved myself / So, to starting conversations that only end in tears / Go on, get the hell out of here,” Morris sings in the second song, addressing the title phrase not so much to the outside world as her own doubts or hesitations about following a different path. “The more I hang around here, the less I give a damn.”
Morris has been a rare activist for the LGBTQ+ community among mainstream country stars. She appeared at the “Love Rising” benefit at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena earlier this year, a concert called to raise money to combat the wave of anti-drag legislation sweeping Tennessee. She was the only mainstream country figure on the bill, which also included Paramore’s Hayley Williams, Hozier and Allison Russell, among others.
Her headline-making conflict with the Aldeans began after Brittany Aldean released an Instagram video showing her makeup routine and joking that she was glad her parents did not let her transition to a different gender during her “tomboy” phase. The video was seen as a glib attack on trans youth, with Aldean subsequently dropping the humor and going on Fox News and other outlets to defend her views. That led to the infamous Carlson “lunatic country music person” comment, which Morris soon had emblazoned on a T-shirt that she sold at concerts to benefit LGBTQ+ causes.
In the comments that followed the war of words, many country fans that sided with Aldean argued that Morris was out of step with the genre not just ideologically but musically, and that she should be kicked out of country for being too pop — never minding that her last album, 2022’s “Humble Quest,” was closer to being pure country than much of what is on the radio.
Even though she has started working with pop producer Antonoff on her next album, these two preview tracks indicate that she may be continuing to follow more of a country-sounding course than she is interested in the pop crossover that she achieved with the one-off Zedd-collaborating chart-topper “The Middle.”
In talking with the Times, Morris sounds unsure of where her music will be marketed in the future, but has come to believe that’s not her role in making the music.
“I’ve always been an asker of questions and a status quo challenger just by being a woman. So it wasn’t really even a choice. I didn’t think of myself as a political artist. I just wrote songs about real life through a lens of deep respect for my country heroes. But the further you get into the country music business, that’s when you start to see the cracks. And once you see it, you can’t un-see it. So you start doing everything you can with the little power you have to make things better,” she says in the new interview.
“That doesn’t make you popular. But I don’t think that biting the hand that fed you is a real thing,” she continues. It’s kind of a fallacy at this point, with all this fear-mongering about getting Dixie Chick-ed and whatnot. Country music is a business, but it gets sold, particularly to young writers and artists who come up within it, as almost a god. It kind of feels like indoctrination. If you truly love this type of music and you start to see problems arise, it needs to be criticized. Anything this popular should be scrutinized if we want to see progress.”
Nonetheless, Morris maintains in the interview, she’s not on a crusade so much as making personal choices right now. “I’ve kind of said everything I can say. I always thought I’d have to do middle fingers in the air jumping out of an airplane, but I’m trying to mature here and realize I can just walk away from the parts of this that no longer make me happy.”