At SXSW, Arlington country singer Maren Morris feels like she finally made it

AUSTIN — Maren Morris' "My Church" is one of those songs folks can hear just once and love instantly. From little kids to grandparents, no one is immune to the muscular melodies, the soulful high notes or the lyrics that preach the gospel of radio on the open road.

As the Arlington-raised singer-songwriter's single has risen on the country charts in the last several months, it's become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The song that gives people catharsis behind the wheel? It now belongs to her.

From the response to Morris from a packed crowd at SXSW's Spotify House day party on Wednesday, she'll be an early draw for concertgoers during the arena tour on which she's embarking with headliner Keith Urban (it hits Dallas' American Airlines Center Oct. 14). Morris' first album on Columbia Nashville, Hero, will be released in June.

"Last time I played Texas and sang 'My Church,' there were a handful of people singing it," the 25-year-old singer told us after her Spotify House performance.

"But today was very shocking. To see it reverberate through the crowd and people recognizing it, that feeling will never get old."

Big things started to happen for Morris as a performing artist after she moved to Nashville several years ago. A songwriting and publishing deal led to her budding solo career after industry movers and shakers realized she sounded truer than anyone else trying to singing her lyrics.

Those lyrics are not all as uplifting as the messages on "My Church," either. Morris is part of a new breed of Nashville artists — fellow Texan and friend Kacey Musgraves chief among them — who don't limit themselves to traditionally country topics and structures.

Sure, Morris strummed her acoustic and sang with a little twang at Spotify House, but her new material also crackled with the defiance and confidence normally found in the hits of Rihanna and Beyoncé. Catchy, smart and occasionally explicit tunes such as "Drunk Girls Don't Cry" and "80s Mercedes" are the perfect vehicles for Morris' particular swagger.

She introduced the song "I Wish I Was" at the Spotify performance thusly: "I wrote this about being the a--hole in the relationship. We can't all be heroes."

As candid in person as she was on stage, Morris was happy to speak about her Arlington roots.

"My history will always be in that area," Morris said. "I toured for a really long time all around Texas. I think about how lucky I am to come from a place with a such a deeply rooted music scene.

Here's Maren Morris at age 11 in Grand Prairie. She performed all over D-FW as a teen.

"I always loved playing the Granada and the Kessler. The Kessler is, like, this jewel box of sound. I hope to get to come back and play there."

Her move to Nashville and success there, in her eyes, is not a case of someone having to leave home to get famous. It's more about the perspective she found as a writer, away from her comfort zone.

"Because I've taken some time away from Texas to become a writer, it's taken me away from the Texas circuit," she said "I had to get my feet wet somewhere else.

"It's like when you leave home and you realize how right your parents were — I had to leave Texas to find out who I was, and it makes coming home sweeter."

Morris is also glad that a bigger chance at fame and success is happening for her at 25, rather than when she was a teenager cutting her teeth in North Texas clubs and dancehalls.

"If I had been given any of this at 16 or 17, I wouldn't have appreciated it the same way."

This is the first SXSW she's attended in a decade.

"I played in Austin 10 years ago here while SXSW was going on -- it was the same year I got to witness Amy Winehouse performing," she said. "I think I was 14 or 15.

"Being back as an artist feels very full circle, because this is the festival to play when you are bubbling up."

Hunter Hauk on Twitter: @hausofhunter

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