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Opinion: Maren Morris’s powerful farewell to country music

Opinion by Nicole Hemmer

(CNN) — A small town, coated in ash, melting under the intense heat of a roaring fire. The sign greeting visitors — an American flag flapping next to the message “Welcome to our perfect small town, from sunrise to sundown” — disappearing beneath the smoke and embers.

That image closes the video for Maren Morris’s new EP “The Bridge,” the two-song release that marks her farewell to country music. “I do the best I can,” she sings on “Get the Hell Out of Here,” adding, “But the more I hang around, the less I give a damn.” Her indictment of country music, charted in two cleverly crafted country songs, is one of alienation and disaffection, of an industry too broken to be saved (“The rot at the root is the root of the problem,” she sings in the EP’s other song, “The Tree”).

The powerful farewell by Morris, a chart-topping, multi-award-winning country singer, comes at a moment when the politics of country music are front-page news. Jason Aldean’s “Try That In a Small Town,” an ode to vigilante violence, brought renewed attention to the genre’s deep cultural conservatism and racism, while Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” carried an antigovernment message so valuable to the right that Fox News used it as part of the opening question in the first Republican presidential primary debate in August — to the consternation of Anthony himself, who said, “It’s aggravating seeing people on conservative news try to identify with me, like I’m one of them.”

But the obsession over Aldean and Anthony has overshadowed a broader battle happening in the country music industry, between those seeking to deepen the industry’s ties to right-wing politics and those seeking to carve out a place for a more inclusive, more representative — and more historically rooted — version of Americana, folk and country music. Morris, who is firmly in that second camp, has been part of the fight to redefine country, and even as she leaves, remains part of broadening the genre’s boundaries.

That fight, of course, is not new. Talking to the Los Angeles Times in what was essentially her exit interview from country music, Morris talked about the “fear-mongering about getting Dixie Chick-ed” — a reference to the collusion of the industry to end all airplay for the group now known as The Chicks after lead singer Natalie Maines criticized then-President George W. Bush over the Iraq War in 2003. But sharply political moments like that have tended to crowd out the more structural conservatism of the industry, as well as the progressive country voices challenging that conservatism.

Part of that structural conservatism has been a longstanding commitment within the industry, from gatekeepers like Billboard and radio conglomerates, to keeping the country charts White — see, for instance, the efforts to keep one of the most popular country songs of the past decade, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” off the Billboard Country charts.

Elsewhere, in 2021, Holly G, a Black country music fan who often felt isolated, even unsafe, at concerts where there were few other Black fans, founded the Black Opry. It quickly became a network for Black artists and fans, giving rise to the touring Black Opry Revue. The Black Opry, which both celebrates the Black roots of country, folk and Americana and creates a community for Black country, has given rise to a competing vision of country music that is deeply rooted in the genres’ shared histories.

As Lil Nas X shows, queer voices, too, have struggled to find a place in the country music industry. Although there is a long tradition of queer country artists, there has been little room for them in mainstream country, especially as it took a turn toward straight, White masculinity in the 1970s and 1980s.

Much of this industry, and some of its biggest stars, still support anti-LGBTQ politics. Jason Aldean amplified anti-trans comments made by his wife, remarks that prompted Morris to publicly call her out for transphobia. Country stars Travis Tritt and John Rich have boycotted Bud Light after the company sent a six pack of beers to a trans influencer. But that, too, has been contested in recent years. Morris joined other artists to host “Love Rising” in Nashville earlier this year, to protest proposed laws attacking drag queens and trans people. And country star Kelsea Ballerini performed with drag queens at this year’s CMT awards as part of that ongoing protest.

Not all of the industry’s conservatism comes from decades-long exclusion. In recent years, mainstream country has pushed out women artists. According to a study of country music radio play, women artists represented 33% of songs in 2000. That already paltry number shrank to just 11% by 2018. With women’s voices dying out on country radio, Morris joined Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires to form The Highwomen, an all-woman supergroup whose song “Crowded Table” won the 2021 Grammy for best country song of the year. For Morris, it wasn’t enough to treat “the rot at the root”; The Highwomen were a challenge to the industry, but could not, by themselves, transform it.

Talking about the “conservatism of country music” is, in some ways, part of the problem. It conflates country music with the country music industry, the interconnected corporate structures that determine who gets signed, what albums get airtime, what songs get charted. Do stations play Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town,” or do they opt for Allison Russell’s “Eve Was Black,” a lyrical challenge to White supremacy? Do they have that option, or do the industry leaders who offer the contracts and push the albums make that decision for them? (And for that matter, does Russell, a queer Black artist and trans rights activist, even want to share airspace with Aldean?)

For Morris, the music and the marketing have been difficult to separate. “The last few records,” she told the Los Angeles Times, “that’s always been in the back of my mind: Will this work in the country music universe?” And the more she saw of the industry that constructed that universe, the less she wanted to be part of it. But the progressive project within country music will continue — it’s far too broad and well-rooted to do otherwise. And who knows? One day, Morris may return. As she sings in “Get the Hell Out of Here” — “I don’t know what I’m doin’ / Don’t know what I’m tryin’ to find / My only resolution is I’m allowed to change my mind.”

Her only request: that the country music industry changes itself first.

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