Since Maren Morris' major label debut album Hero earned the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart in June, the buzz surrounding the Arlington native has gone from resounding to unavoidable. Plain and simple, Morris has made it.
Riding the wave of her hit single, the resplendently triumphant "My Church," the 26-year-old singer has been touring arenas as the opening act for the Australian Idol himself, Keith Urban.
But if her passport into big-time status was stamped on a specific day, it would've been Aug. 31, when nominations for this year's annual Country Music Association Awards were announced. Morris' name became lit with a high-powered wattage even she hadn't felt since her move to Nashville in 2013. Nominated for five awards, including Album of the Year, Female Vocalist of the Year, single, song and New Artist of the Year, the former receptionist for her parents' hair salon is in elite company.
She's essentially set up for the kind of breakout Chris Stapleton enjoyed last year when he won major hardware at the CMAs.
She even has more nods than her friend and fellow Texan Kacey Musgraves, on whose couch Morris would crash during Nashville visits before her own Texas departure.
Gold-plated plaques and plush red carpets may have been parts of Morris' long-term dreams, but it was a more practical scenario that took her to Tennessee. After hitting a "creative lull" in Texas, Morris says she saved enough money to last her a few months in a less-than-desirable East Nashville "Craig's List house," as she called it.
She hit the Music City pavement with little more than a smile and a batch of tunes.
"It was a shock for me to learn you could write songs full-time in Nashville," Morris says from her newer, nicer home in East Nashville as landscapers hustle around getting her place ready for a backyard party later that night. "... It was considered a respectable profession. That blew my mind."
Moving to a town where she only knew a couple of people meant Morris bet big on herself. Whereas she was a promising presence on the Texas country circuit and received considerable regional radio airplay, Morris arrived in her adopted home without such security.
"I was flying blind when I got to Nashville," she admits. "Leaving was scary for me, because I was already introverted."
Morris used that to her advantage, pledging simply to be kind.
"If you aren't kind to others," she explains. "You'll get yourself run out of town pretty quick, because there's competition here, of course, but it's not insidious. I wanted to put myself out there, but not push myself out there."
Morris made new friends and landed a coveted publishing deal. Though she felt "surrounded by better writers," she was validated when "Last Turn Home," a gorgeous, sweeping song she co-wrote with two others, was recorded by superstar Tim McGraw and included on his Sundown Heaven Town record.
Having a song cut by a major artist is a monumental achievement, especially for a writer six months into a new gig.
"People started paying attention after that," Morris says.
Around the time she landed the McGraw cut, she blew friends away with a karaoke version of Beyonce's "Halo," and before too long, the rest of Nashville also took notice of her stellar voice. In 2015, she independently recorded and released a self-titled EP, which won her a record deal. And as 2016 began, "My Church" began moving up the charts and Morris was performing across the country.
As she opens for Urban in her home state on Oct. 14, now is a fine time to look back and think of just how great her decision to leave Texas turned out.
"I feel like this is what people make TV shows and movies about," she says. "It's all so surreal and I still can't really believe it."
By KELLY DEARMORE, SPECIAL CONTRIBUTOR
Maren Morris performs with Keith Urban and Brett Eldredge on Oct. 14 at American Airlines Center, 2500 Victory Ave., Dallas. $29-$59. Details here.