Coming into 2020, Maren Morris had already been a massive crossover artist — but with a massive asterisk attached to that. The country star’s previous pop success had been as the featured vocalist on Zedd’s ubiquitous 2018 smash “The Middle.” Could she cut out the middleman, as it were, and strike gold at pop formats on her own?
Sony’s New York and L.A. offices stopped biding their time on that question when they got ahold of “The Bones,” a track from her sophomore album, “Girl.” So while the company’s Nashville division was taking that record’s title song to No. 1 at country radio, the coastal divisions fleshed out a “Bones” campaign that led to it going No. 1 at AC and Hot AC formats as well as reaching Top 40’s top 15. Then the song effectively crossed over — ironically — from pop to country, making her the first solo female artist to have a multi-week country chart-topper since Carrie Underwood in 2012. That achievement, in a genre starved for female superstars, was big news, even if it was Morris’ success across multiple pop formats that was really the stuff of headlines.
The trajectory of “The Bones” made it a no-brainer, then, when it came to who would be named Variety’s Hitmakers Crossover Artist of the Year.
“Sending ‘The Bones’ to pop radio while ‘Girl’ was still at country radio was a risk,” says Maren. “Columbia New York had never worked a single of mine before, so that was a big shift in my artist/label relationship. It was getting playlisted on pop playlists on Spotify and Apple Music, and it was just kind of a groundswell that I hadn’t seen before. Then once country radio picked it up, it started going to turbo speed.” Not that she was sure such a pop-leaning song sounded country enough for country. But “Steve Hodges, Sony Nashville’s head of radio, put my mind at ease, saying, ‘Maren, your singles have never sounded like the radio. The radio ends up sounding like you.’ He’s no-bullshit — sometimes to a fault no-bullshit. He’ll tell me when shit’s not looking good or it’s looking real good, and I appreciate his honesty on things like that, so I know he’s always telling me the truth.”
In this instance, hearing the truth about what was happening with Morris’ single at different formats never hurt… even if 2020 did. “The song’s had quite a journey, and for it to peak a pandemic is ironic and satisfying, because I think it’s become an anthem for people during a really tough year.”
In accepting her Crossover Artist of the Year award, Morris told Variety the story behind the song, as well as about why she feels it’s taken on additional resonance in the closing weeks of 2020.
The demo came together in a day in a writers’ room with Laura Veltz and Jimmy Robbins. Veltz came in with a title, having been house-hunting with a realtor who, fatefully, uttered the phrase “the bones are good.” “Laura just grabs onto these everyday things that we say to each other as humans, and writes them down as titles,” says Morris. “Jimmy always has a guitar in his hands and played that lick at the top. And the melody of the verse just flew out of my mouth with a lyric I had put in my phone a few nights earlier: ‘We’re in the homestretch of the hard times.’ Maybe Ryan (Hurd, her then-fiance, now husband) and I had had an argument and I wrote it down, not knowing that it would match really well with Laura’s title.”
The song has an indelible bridge, although Morris and company used a trick borrowed from the Swedes in putting elements that occurred earlier in the tune in a new frame. “Sometimes we do this thing where we’re like, ‘I don’t want to write any more new lyrics! I just want to recycle lyrics from the chorus to a new melody, and that’s going to be the bridge.’ That’s our Max Martin trick. Swedish pop writers always did that with like Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync songs: They would just take lyrics from the chorus and put a new melody to them, almost as a second chorus, and that becomes the breakdown or bridge. So that’s what we did here, because I was like, ‘I don’t think we have anything else to say, lyrically. So let’s just keep these and I’ll layer them with vocals and harmonies and stack them, so it feels like its own part of the song.'”
Morris says that what they came out of the writing session with was a nearly release-ready track: “To this day, all of those background harmonies and stacks are from the demo, and I re-recorded the lead with Greg Kurstin. So we kept a lot from that day. The demo is very, very similar to what Greg did; it’s just a little more raw”
But coming out of that productive day, the song wasn’t as easy a sell as might be expected. Her closest musical collaborator and confidante, the late Busbee, just didn’t click with it, even as he tried to accommodate Morris on it. The producer, who died in September 2019, seven months after the “Girl” album came out, had worked on her entire debut and all but two tracks on the second album. “The Bones” ended up being one of the two he didn’t do.
“Busbee was my soulmate producer, but he was not a huge fan of ‘The Bones.’ We were butting heads for months, just over the production of it. He didn’t like the tone of the guitar; he didn’t like the snaps,” she laughs. “I get so married to the day-of demos that I want to keep the heart and soul of a demo and just polish it up for a record, not throw the entire thing out. With Busbee, it was a complete professional sonic disagreement. He did not get the song. And because he and I could not come to any common ground on it, I was like, ‘Listen, I think this is a really important one. I think I’m just going to take it to Greg and see if he’s hearing the same thing I’m hearing,” and he said okay” She and Kurstin had already had sessions to come up with a bit of additional material for the album, including the title track of “Girl.” “I said, ‘Can you do anything with this? This really means a lot to me. I think it could potentially be huge. But I don’t want to stray too far from the demo, because I’ve listened to the demo a thousand times and I love it.’ And luckily Greg was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think that we need to do a ton to this. I’ll amplify certain things for record purposes, but we don’t want to start from scratch here.'”
Morris feels wistful that she never got to say “told you so” to her soulmate of record, who she thinks would have been proud of the sogs success. “I kind of wish that he had gotten to see that I was right,” she says, wistfully.
Says Kurstin (known for his work with Adele, Foo Fighters and Paul McCartney, among others), “I was thrilled that they asked me to work on it. Sometimes you can’t really put your finger on what makes a song stand out. But ‘The Bones’ just had something. When I finished working on it, I just felt connected to it and wanted to listen to it over and over again. And sometimes, you know, I work on things and I don’t want to hear them again! But this one, when I heard the demo, I really loved it, even though I couldn’t have predicted how it was gonna perform. I have to give credit to Maren, her manager and her team for championing it, because sometimes people could really overanalyze like what the single should be, and ‘The Bones’ really didn’t have the obvious hit elements, to me. It definitely sounds different than what was happening on the radio at the time.”
Kurstin adds, “It’s funny — it takes me a while to really absorb the lyrics in a song. Everyone has their way of listening to music, and maybe because I’m a musician-producer, I listen to the music and the hooks and melodies, and then I slowly get into lyrics and what they mean. And when I did eventually sort of get into the lyrics of ‘The Bones,’ I was blown away. But I think the first thing I noticed was Jimmy’s guitar hook. I definitely wanted to keep that in there and keep it sounding right, and to have the whole song rooted in that guitar hook.”
Hodges, Morris’ aforementioned “no bullshit” radio promotion guru at Sony Nashville, remembers a particular moment in the song’s crossover life. Says Hodges, “The pinnacle was probably at the point where we peaked at country radio while being inside the top 10 at Hot AC and getting started at Top 40. The Hot AC run actually started about eight weeks before country impact date. I give major kudos to Peter Gray, Pete Cosenza, Jim Burruss and the entire Columbia New York staff for an amazing accomplishments at non-country formats. Watching it peak at No. 1 on the AC chart, many weeks after peaking on the country, Hot AC and Top 40 charts, was an amazing accomplishment for Maren — the first time that has happened for a country artist and song since 2009” (when Lady Antebellum did it with “Need You Now”).
Of the lyrical impact, co-writer Veltz says: “A girl at a show told me that this song belonged to her, in so many words — her alone. She saw this song as self-love and mirror talk; that if she was still standing, anything was possible. Imagining how she connected to the song, and what she must have survived to even hear it that way, left a mark on me. … It did feel as though the song continued to re-invent itself. As 2020 pummeled us, the song resonated on newer and more intense levels. I personally found solace in the idea that whatever is wrong, we can make it right because at the rock bottom of us humans, we are good.”
The song wasn’t written as any kind of topical or sociopolitical anthem, of course; it’s romantic at its heart, but maybe neorealist-romantic. Morris considers the song “almost like a vow, saying it’s not just about butterflies and newlywed love, but being in the trenches and getting through the hardest of times. And we don’t know when those will be — maybe tomorrow or maybe it’ll be 20 years from now — but you’re my partner in this. And I think that’s almost the most romantic thing you could say to someone; instead of how hot they look in jeans, it’s ‘No, I’m going to weather every shitty, terrible storm with you.’ I think that’s why it’s become a wedding song for so many people.”
And, yes, now, a pandemic/political endurance anthem. “I’ve had so many people over the last several months tell me that that song has been meaningful in a worldly way to them, not just about a relationship, but their relationship to their country and to the rest of the world. It’s rung in a bigger sense than just a marriage — it’s become a blanket prayer toward everything that we’re siphoning through right now.”
In November, Morris gave “The Bones” its awards-show debut on the CMA Awards telecast. “We were saving it for something,” she says, “and I’m glad that we saved it for the CMAs, not just because it was nominated for single and song” (which it won, along with a best female vocalist for Morris, to give her a leading tally of three). “I also thought that the timing of this performance with this particular song was powerful. Regardless of the election outcome, ‘The Bones’ for me has been that prayer this year, so singing it nearing the end of 2020 was emotional.”
Morris also made it clear that she was not down with the CMAs’ controversial social-media promise that the show would be a night of ‘no drama’ in this political season. “I think that was definitely a little misdirected by the CMAs, which they’ve historically done in the past, with telling the press not to ask artists about Route 91 and whatnot. I’m glad they corrected their statement later. Listen, I know we’re all exhausted, and it’s been a 24-hour news cycle for most of us, and we’re glued to it — and yeah, music is an escape. But it’s also a mirror. So I think that artists can do whatever the hell they want, and are not going to be dictated to by any association, because it’s art. So, if you want to make a statement, do it. We all know the risks. I did want my performance to be inspirational and soothing. But it’s kind of weird to have that prerequisite to say an awards show shouldn’t be dramatic, because that’s why people want to watch them!” The singer did ultimately add some topicality to the evening — not by taking a political stand, but by calling out the names of some of the Black women who have been part of the country genre and not gotten their due, urging support for them.
Morris made it clear where she stood on said election, gently, but to the point that there were some Republican “fans” saying they were done with her. This fall, she re-teamed with Kurstin as producer for a one-off single, “Better Than We Found It,” themed to the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement and her concerns for victims of racial injustice. She also lent her support to Joe Biden’s candidacy by appearing in the virtual “I Will Vote” Democratic fundraiser in the last week of October, a stand that few country artists were willing to take, if their beliefs lined up that way at all.
“I got a lot of those people that love to announce their exit from my fandom,” she says. “I definitely expected more blowback, as well, with ‘Better Than We Found It.'” She thinks there was less because of the way it was written, from a new mother’s point of view, “and also Gabrielle Woodland, who directed the video. putting so much heart and the stories of Nashvillians that are in that video really grounded it. Because no one is going to listen or come to your side of things if you are yelling at them and saying, ‘You’re a racist piece of shit — listen to this song.’ That has never once worked, and it isn’t true. I did like if I was going to put this out, it was going to have to say something, not straddle the line, like some previous songs this year that have come out. And even so, it still was received with more peace than I thought. So that is a relief.
“But at the same time, it was scary. It’s terrifying. I didn’t sleep for three nights leading up to the release” of “Better Than We Found It.” “That seems so silly now. And even with my Biden campaign speech, to have accomplished what I have accomplished and really risk” alienating fans — “I’m not immune to that anxiety. So I’m just glad that I said what I said, and when I said it. I didn’t say it after the election, when everyone’s feeling a little braver. I was like, no, this is all lining up towards a huge historical moment that I want to be on the right side of. And you know, not comparing myself to her, but I think Dolly Parton has always come at everything with a lot of grace and humility and sometimes even humor, and it just disarms people. And I think the only way you can disarm people is with love, not shutting them down. So maybe that has been the key here.”
She adds, “I think that losing fans or followers in the months leading up to all of this is okay. I knew that that was a part of it. Anytime that you have a platform and you say something that’s risky, you are asking for both sides to be mad at you. So I’m happy with the decisions that I’ve made. I feel like I will be able to stand by them decades from now, to my son, and his kids in the future. It’s weird to think about things in those terms, but I have to now, and I feel like I’ve made the right decision. And I know that when I look out at my crowd — you know, when I can play again to a crowd — I know I’m going to look out at a diverse group of people that all have the same (accepting) mentality when they come to see a show. And I feel like especially Black people and LGBTQIA people that come to my shows, they’re going to feel safer at them because I’ve taken those risks. And that’s a risk worth taking to me.”
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