Few country stars are as celebrated as Maren Morris.
Even fewer are as outspoken.
The 32-year-old Arlington, Texas, native, has some of the biggest CMA Awards to her name: album of the year for 2019's "Girl"; song and single of the year for "The Bones" in 2020; new artist of the year in 2016; female vocalist of the year in 2020.
But even with her third major studio album "Humble Quest" up for CMA Awards contention this year — the tour in support of the album stops in Milwaukee Saturday, at the BMO Harris Pavilion — Morris criticized the organization, with the assumption that its nominee slate, yet to be announced, will lack diversity.
"There are definitely strides being taken," Morris told the Journal Sentinel when asked about support for Black artists in country music. She recognized several Black female country artists in a CMA Awards acceptance speech in 2020.
"Breland is killing it, and Brittany Spencer and Mickey Guyton and the Black Opry and these amazing organizations in Nashville that are really doing the work. ... But institutionally, I don't see a lot of strides," she said. "We'll see when the CMA nominations get announced if any representation is there, but I doubt it."
Does Morris believe that the mainstream country music world — long criticized for its lack of diversity and for a glaring gender disparity when it comes to supporting artists on radio — can change for the better?
Her answer was blunt, and striking.
"I might have a different answer tomorrow," she said. "Some days I have hope. Some days I don't."
"I don't even say that to be maudlin or negative," she continued. "I have gone up against these institutions, trying to scream in their face that change needs to happen now, and not tomorrow, not in five years, and nothing really changes. It all stays the same."
Maren Morris speaks her piece
Next March, it'll be 20 years since Morris' fellow Texans the Dixie Chicks (renamed the Chicks in 2020) suffered that career setback — including country radio blacklisting — after Natalie Maines criticized then-President George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq during a concert in London.
In the decades since, country music superstars have largely stayed mum on controversial topics.
But not Morris, who's spoken out about gun control legislation, racism and sexism in country music, and criticized the Supreme Court for overturning Roe v. Wade in June.
"I'm not really here to talk about politics, I'm here to make music, and when something is egregiously violated I will speak up about it," Morris said. "And I hope the same for any person I believe in or spend any money on or support."
"I feel like my heroes in country music were always bucking the system, and they were rebellious and always called out the machines, and I think that's why they were revered and still are as these outlaws. They weren't playing by the rules."
Morris recognizes that her stances "definitely cost me quote unquote fans" — but that speaking up "outweighs the risk."
"You are making a safer environment for your crowd and your children and the next generation of people that come into this business," Morris said.
"I certainly don't take for granted my ability to do this at all on a successful level," Morris said. " … But honestly, I don't see the point of doing this at all if you can't go play a show and feel like everyone in the crowd is safe and can have fun and not worry about seeing a Confederate flag in the parking lot or someone being homophobic."
"Keeping your mouth shut just to count your dollars at the cost of real people's lives … I don't see the point of that if you've got a finite amount of time here."
'Humble Quest' recorded during pandemic
And so Morris is making the most of her time in the spotlight, her platform powered first and foremost by the strength of her music.
And "Humble Quest" has some of Morris' most nourishing songs to date. Generally offering uplift despite most of the songs being written and recorded during the pandemic, the tracks touch on her accomplishments and ongoing determination ("Circles Around This Town"); finding comfort with her husband, country artist Ryan Hurd, in the face of an uncertain future ("Background Music"); and a beautiful tribute to her son, Hayes, now 2, that Morris wrote the day she found out she was pregnant ("Hummingbird").
"(Making the album) is definitely a process of therapy and getting with my feelings for two years with no distractions, and I think that's why I was able to be so blunt with the lyrics," she said. "I didn't have anything deterring me from the honest truth, and it ended up being an amazing way to write songs."
"I had a lot of help from my husband, my therapist, my son, a lot of friends. It definitely got me to a place of feeling like I was worthy again, even without being able to tour," Morris said.
And now that she is able to tour, "every song from the record has been resonating so beautifully live" — the album's title track most of all, Morris suggests, which touches on her empowering candor ("I was so nice 'til I woke up/I was polite 'til I spoke up").
"Seeing the crowd reaction to 'Humble Quest' and seeing people kind of liberated through it, it definitely translates back to the stage," Morris said. "That was the song where the writing process brought me out of a hopeless feeling and gave me a glimmer of hope."
Focusing on change on her own
But Morris' hope runs out when it comes to the country music establishment becoming more progressive. She's come to accept the limits of her impact.
"I sort of rerouted my brain into thinking that all I can do is focus on what my power is," she said. "Maybe I can't roll that boulder up the hill."
"I have worked my ass off since I was 12 years old to get here … and as a woman in this genre that still has songs getting played on the radio, I am extremely privileged to get let into this club, because they only allow a few of you and everyone gets locked out."
"While I'm here, I can only focus on my actual, independent change, not so much me trying to change an entire industry," she continued. "I look at what I speak up about, the songs I write, the people I hire, the people I bring out on tour. … Those are all really impactful to me and in my orbit. I have all the hope in the world those ripple effects from my actions will make a better environment for others. But I can't pretend that all of these giants of the industry are going to exchange their comfort for just a little bit more equality."
Despite her frustrations with the industry giants — and proven success beyond the genre with the blockbuster pop single "The Middle" with Zedd — Morris is committed to staying in country music, motivated in part "by the artists and writers and creators that are taking it into their own hands now to make a new stencil of what this can look like."
"It sounds like you're in a bad relationship and trying to put a brave face on," Morris said of being a country artist. "At the end of the day, I feel the most at home in country music. I like the smaller community. The songwriter community in Nashville is the most talented, real group of people."
"When I was going through a dark period during COVID and wanting to hang it all up and go do something else, a good friend told me that, 'If you leave, nothing changes,'" Morris said. "I would rather stay here and work to make it better than abandon ship."
If you go
Who: Maren Morris with Natalie Hemby
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: BMO Harris Pavilion, Maier Festival Park, 200 N. Harbor Drive
How much?: $23 to $200 at the box office and bmoharrispavilion.com.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Will country music institutions back diversity? 'No,' Maren Morris says