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Maren Morris was sure about two things when she arrived at the Houston Rodeo on March 7, 2020: She didn’t want to fall into the hoof-trodden dirt and she really didn’t want her water to break in front of 64,000 people. It was an enthusiastic yes when she received the coveted invitation to play the iconic Texan institution — as Beyoncé, Selena, Johnny Cash, and other exceptional talents had done in its eight decades of operation — but long before she knew she was expecting her first child with her husband, fellow country hitmaker and frequent collaborator Ryan Hurd. Later, when Morris realized her due date fell within days of the event, she was determined to keep the gig. So she pulled on a fringed, rhinestone-studded jumpsuit, and proceeded to belt through an 11-song set — a superhuman feat considering a tiny human was shifting around her insides as she tried to sustain a high note.
“I was so anxiety-ridden!” she says, understandably, of her decision to go on with the show. “It’s a 360-degree arena, so that stage rotates, slowly, the entire time that you’re performing. It’s enough to make you feel off-balance. I feel like a badass that I got through that.”
The evening was a celebration of Morris’s meteoric success and the growing collection of No. 1 hits she’d amassed. She brought the house down with “The Middle,” 2018’s ubiquitous collaboration with Zedd — which secured her cross-genre domination from country to pop and beyond — as well as “The Bones,” which would go on to spend 19 weeks atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in 2020. She also soared through “My Church,” the breakthrough single she co-wrote with pop-country producer and longtime friend busbee that stunned the industry, lured label interest, and won her her first Grammy in 2017.
In hindsight, the Rodeo was an inflection point, a triumphant finale for her first act before she could finally pause for a brief intermission. After five years of nonstop writing, hustling, and touring, Morris was ready to slow down once she returned to Nashville. She intended to have her baby, take a proper maternity leave, and eventually build on the handful of songs she’d written for her next album. It was always going to be difficult, with a key component missing — busbee, who she credits with playing a pivotal role in honing her sound, died in the fall of 2019 following a swift diagnosis of glioblastoma, a rare brain cancer — but 2020 ripped up the course she had charted for her next chapter. She gave birth to her son, Hayes, right before the COVID-19 pandemic shut the world down; postpartum depression then set in, as did the staggering uncertainty that enveloped the industry when it went on hiatus.
A few months passed, and Morris eventually started recording. Humble Quest, her resulting third album (out March 25), is proof of process, a record of how vulnerable she felt while she navigated this transformative period. The title track is the mission statement, and lays out exactly how comfortable she’s grown with being uncomfortable. She also sings of motherhood (acoustic lullaby “Hummingbird”) and marriage (“Background Music,” her poignant tribute to Hurd and their love), employs the whip-smart wordplay that’s won over fans from the beginning (“Tall Guys,” “Detour”), and celebrates the friendships that kept her grounded (“Good Friends”).
When she returned to the Houston Rodeo two years later, Morris once again wore fringe, but reworked the set: She kicked it off with “Circles Around This Town,” Humble Quest’s first single, which follows her as she cruises through her dream-chasing early years in Nashville while winking at the “song about a church” that launched her career. So much had changed, but one thing remained the same: Even when the car veers off the road, Morris still has a firm grip on the wheel.
I keep coming back to the idea of bookends with Humble Quest. Some songs on it are connected to things from your past and informed by the space between them. “Circles Around This Town,” for example, directly references “My Church,” which you co-wrote with busbee. Did you encounter other moments like these while writing the record?
It’s so strange: I wrote “Hummingbird” the day that I found out I was pregnant. It’s one of the last things that I was able to share with busbee, and he was so excited for us. Shortly before he died, Ryan and our friend, [songwriter] Jon Green, who was really close friends with busbee as well, wrote “What Would This World Do,” which is the final song of this record. We wrote it that day knowing busbee probably wasn’t going to pull through, because it was such a deteriorative downfall, and his diagnosis was so quick. We wrote that song in an almost hopeful space, like, If we write this into existence, maybe he’ll hold on. But that obviously didn’t happen. Now that you mention the bookends, it’s really crazy — before this album became a thing, or “Circles” was the first single, I was writing two songs before the pandemic about literal life and death: my son being born and then my friend passing away. Ending the record with “What Would This World Do” just felt like a hopefully respectful way to honor what he’s done for me. Even though he’s not musically part of this project, he’s all over it, because he helped me create my sound in the beginning.
There were a lot of firsts with this record: I was grieving my friend, and I was grieving my loss of purpose with touring being taken away for so long, and I was also dealing with postpartum depression, and the incandescent joy that comes with new parenthood and being obsessed with your baby. It was just so many emotions, and going into putting it on a page, I feel like I just didn’t have any more space in my brain for insecurity of if this will be received well. I was like, I just have to get this out. I think this is why it’s such a beautiful chapter for me. I’m not trying to prove anything. I feel like a grown-ass woman on this record, but it’s also not trying too hard.
Not to get all “This is your most personal album yet!” on you, but was there any point where you were writing and you felt that you’d gone too far, or you were nervous about putting these emotions out there?
I don’t think I had any worry when I was putting these songs down. I just kept listening to the mixes over and over. Even the more unflinching ones, they calmed me in moments of anxiety. I was like, if this is happening to me, I would hope this happens to maybe 100 more people who listen to it. I think it was a therapy record. I always roll my eyes when artists say, “This record was my most honest,” when it’s like, “Well, what was the other one? Are you full of shit?” [Laughs.] It’s all honest, but I think it’s just peeling back layers of what that honesty looks like. I just write the chapter of my life that I’m in and I move on. As much as these songs are eternalized in an album, I can’t wallow in something for too long.
Many of these songs are the sort you can only reach after a certain amount of lived experience, like “Background Music,” which speaks to your connection with Ryan. How has writing and performing with him evolved for you?
I wrote with Ryan a ton on this album. But I didn’t write “Background Music” with him, I wrote it for him. It was originally supposed to be this sexy approach of, like, When I’m with you, everything else is background music. [Laughs.] I was talking with [co-writers] Laura Veltz and Jimmy Robbins for over an hour, and it occurred to me that, no, this should be about the fact that Ryan and I always talk about how you get a ten-year run in this town if you’re lucky, and then you kind of become a legacy act and start playing casinos. We’re just totally open to all of it. That song was born out of us laughing at the idea of us being old as shit and has-beens at some point, but still having this golden era of our relationship and our songs that live on.
It’s sweet to think about us no longer being on this Earth but maybe our songs are still getting played in someone’s car in 100 years — or maybe a flying car, I don’t know what it’ll look like. I just thought that was more romantic than eternity to me, knowing that our songs may live on past us, and they probably will. I think I only could have written that song had there been a pandemic; even though “The Bones” kind of peaked during COVID, I was looking at the idea of not being able to tour again, and what that would be like. What’s my identity without that? What’s my worth? In a sort of sardonic way, I was able to approach “Background Music” from a space of, This might not be forever. I might not be nominated for these categories forever or sparkle, but damn, it was cool when we thought we were cool.
I’d love to hear about Hayes’s cameo in “Hummingbird.” How has it been to share your music with him?
Sheryl Crow was kind enough to let us finish the record at her barn studio here in Nashville. I did bring Hayes one day when we were done with recording to look at all the pianos, and there’s horses in that barn that he was obsessed with. It was crazy to me: I was pregnant the day I wrote “Hummingbird,” but when I started recording it, he was starting to talk. Him saying “Mama” was right during that moment in time, so that felt really full-circle, too — just being able to put this song on the record and have that moment. He’s the only feature on the whole project.
Humble Quest carries an understandable weight, but we also have plenty of levity with “Detour” and “Tall Guys.” And then we have “Good Friends,” a tribute to friendship. It made me think of the Highwomen and how much you have shown up for your friends in and beyond Nashville in a period where solidarity is so important.
It’s funny you say the Highwomen because I wrote “Good Friends” and “Tall Guys” with Natalie Hemby. We’ve written so many songs over the years, but I feel like I can always go there with her, and we make each other laugh so hard in the room, but we also can get really soulful with one another. We just have that closeness. I’ve lost a lot of friends in the last couple of years — not always intentionally; when you become a parent, a lot of people just kind of fall away. It’s fine. I think that you retain the ones that are your soul sisters and friends throughout the rest of your life. But yeah, it’s amazing to have this camaraderie in Nashville, and especially with the women in my life that do the same thing I do. It makes me feel a lot less isolated in a very lonely at times business. I feel a lot lighter as a human being because I’ve been able to let go of toxic people and people that don’t serve a purpose in my life anymore, or I can’t give them what they need. Now I’m left with the quality few that nourish me and make me wiser and laugh.
I liked having that almost Carole King–esque moment on this album, which is not just addressing love, but the love of female friendship, and that being such an integral tonic to my life right now. I mean, it always has been, but I feel like it’s definitely been really important to have those female friendships just in the last few. Not even if they’re parents, but reaching out to my friends that are artists and just going through the same shit I am. It’s just made me feel a lot less alone. I’m glad that there’s a song on this record that just makes you feel like you wanna drink wine with your friends.
You’ve been using your platform to advocate for racial and gender equality in country music. How has it been to work with those friends, and your community, to help make Nashville a more inclusive scene?
It’s definitely helped me articulate really tough but necessary conversations better than I could two years ago. I always want to make space for women, and I feel like I’ve done that: there’s a lot of women on my team, and the openers that I choose for tours and whatnot and who I’m writing with. It’s definitely not moving fast enough for where it should be, but I think America and country music especially is going through a really defining growing pain right now. It’s messy, but I think it’s messy because we’re having the conversations. I’m definitely willing to be uncomfortable. That’s the only way you can grow, and that means you’re growing, when there’s some discomfort. I’m just so proud of Mickey [Guyton]. I think she’s done such an incredible job of maintaining this grace through a time that’s been emotionally draining. She’s gotten all of this on her own. It’s not from radio play for certain. You just kind of have to keep banging on the door.
You spend some of this album seeking out the “answers you don’t want to know,” as you say in “What Would This World Do.” You’re talking about mortality in that line, but we hear this sentiment a lot. Throughout the pandemic I’ve kept coming back to the idea of a fallow season, where the growth that is happening isn’t necessarily visible. How does Humble Quest reflect that idea of growth, and has it changed your definition of it?
I’ve been having this moving target for so long, and equating success with accolades and what I’ve achieved. That all got wiped away. This whole record and the way it’s titled is about the idea that I don’t know if I’m ever going to reach that destination. That’s why we wrote that line in “Humble Quest”: “I still haven’t found it yet.” I’m doing my best, but I haven’t found it yet — and maybe I never will. Maybe that’s just the dash between your birth and death, just trying to figure it out and being awkward and uncomfortable and curious and joyful throughout. I think this album is definitely not a period at the end of a sentence by any means; it’s an ongoing discussion I’m going to be having with myself for forever. This is just a snapshot of it for the yearbook. But I think no one’s got it figured out. We’re all just awkwardly making our way through it, and messing up, and saying the wrong things, and getting yelled at on Twitter. All of the things are so public-facing. It’s starting to break down the internalization of our egos. But I think that for me, music has helped my son, my husband, my friends — they’ve all helped me, even picking up cooking and tennis during the pandemic, it’s all made me color in more of these blank spaces that I didn’t know I had that live outside of music. It’s just not my end all be all anymore. It’s what I choose to love and not what I have to do to feel loved.
This interview has been edited and condensed.