NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Country star Maren Morris has been so accepted by pop audiences with hits like " The Middle" and "The Bones" that some would have expected her third major label record to be her "Red" moment, the Taylor Swift shift from country to pop star.
But Morris was feeling so grounded by monumental changes in her life — becoming a mother during the pandemic, losing her producer to cancer and the racial reckoning in America — that the music that leapt out wasn’t exactly club bangers.
"If people are expecting some giant (expletive) pop record, I think they are going to be surprised," said Morris from her home in Nashville, Tennessee. "But I think that it’s still very much me."
"Humble Quest," coming out Friday, reflects Morris’ personal growth after two popular albums and multi-platinum hits that centered her as an outspoken and genre-fluid star in a rapidly changing country music landscape. The Grammy-winning Texas-born singer’s openness on sexuality, femininity, politics and her acknowledgement of country music’s racist history has put a target on her back as well, mostly from anonymous online critics.
"There was this dichotomy of feeling very humbled by the weight of the world and the election and the pandemic and motherhood, but also feeling this release of criticism and judgment from complete strangers," said Morris.
The word humble has often been thrown at her in negative ways, such as commenters saying Morris should cover up her body. That’s only led Morris to clapback by tweeting photos from her "Playboy" magazine shoot.
In the title track, Morris reiterates that she’s a work in progress — stumbling, but striving to be better and not letting her ego "cast a shadow."
"Yeah, I’ve absolutely overstepped my bounds and opened my mouth one too many times and learned from it and got slapped on the wrist," she said. "But I don’t think it scared me into being more quiet. I think it’s just taught me to be a little bit more thoughtful with the way that I present my opinions and my thoughts. And it’s not always going to be in a tweet."
Laura Veltz, a longtime songwriting partner, said Morris has always been in a league of her own, sonically and lyrically, and the new record reflects her ongoing evolution as a woman and musician.
"Watching her become a mother has been its own friendship high for me," said Veltz. "Even some of the straight up love songs that we wrote, you can still feel this sort of maternal long game approach to life and love."
Her husband, fellow country singer Ryan Hurd, has a large influence on this record, although he has been writing with Morris since her first major label album "Hero." They are both nominated this year for a Grammy for best country duo/group performance for their duet "Chasing After You," from his new record.
Hurd co-wrote four of the tracks and added background vocals, including a pair of love songs "The Furthest Thing" and "I Can’t Love You Anymore" that play off their shared careers and gentle ribbing of each other. Their relationship, which Morris said went through a phase of being burnt out on each other during the pandemic isolation and then solidifying again as new parents, is also inspiration for songs like "Tall Guys" and "Background Music."
"Obviously, we’ve written a lot about our relationship and our love for each other, but we can also be really silly and kind of get each other’s goat in the room as well because we just know all those buttons to push," said Morris.
Her 2-year-old son Hayes also makes an appearance on the song "Hummingbird," as he practices his first word "Mama." The gentle country ode to new motherhood was written with the Love Junkies, the all-star songwriting trio of Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose. The bird symbol had a special meaning to Morris, who has a hummingbird tattoo and whose parents bought her a Gibson Hummingbird guitar for her 18th birthday.
"It makes me cry every time I hear it, but he’ll always be a part of this album in that way," Morris said.
Eight-time Grammy-winning producer Greg Kurstin returned as her producer and co-writer, honing the rootsy, country and ‘90s rock sounds from Morris.
"Greg Kurstin is just such a maestro at adapting to whatever artist he is in the room with, because he can go from Adele to Beck to Paul McCartney," said Morris. "I feel like he brought out a lot of beauty with this sound in me."
But the final track on the album was reserved for her previous producer, busbee, who died in 2019 after working on Morris’ first two records. Morris, along with Hurd and writer Jon Green, all friends of busbee, wrote the heartbreaking piano ballad "What Would This World Do?" just weeks before his death. Morris was given the piano that she and busbee wrote "80s Mercedes" on and it has a special place in their home where Hayes can play on it.
"The delivery of that performance is the most broken and raw that you will probably ever hear my voice," Morris said, of the song that Hurd sings backup vocals on.
But with a smile on her face, Morris remembered that busbee was such a stickler for getting vocals exactly right during recording.
"I think that kind of brought me through," Morris said. "It was knowing that if he were here, he would say, ‘Do it again.’"