When Maren Morris took the Paradise stage, microphone in hand and already spitting out the opening lines to “Sugar” with both a snarl and a smile in her voice, she arrived as someone right on the cusp of bigger things. Behind her is a number one country album, a pair of standout singles, and a CMA Award. With the Grammys next week (where she’s up for four awards) and who knows what just beyond, the confidence and command that she displayed at Friday’s sold-out show made it imperative to appreciate her while it’s still possible to catch her headlining a venue as cozy as the Paradise.
There’s just one problem that could complicate Morris’s impending country megastardom: It’s not entirely clear that she’d even be identifiably country without the label preceding her. She worked in a variety of modes more common in pop and rock, like the Rihanna-by-way-of-Carrie-Underwood “Sugar,” the throbbing “80s Mercedes,” the vague hints of reggae undergirding the beachy and bouncy “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry” and the eff-you wishful thinking of “Rich.” Only on the radio-as-revival set closer “My Church” did the music or her vocals indicate any country intonation.
But Morris was equally effective dropping the sass. The resigned acceptance in the lyrics to “I Wish I Was” was matched by the unforced vulnerability of her singing, and her voice could plead without piercing in the standard Nashville manner, which paid off handsomely in the simmering “I Could Use A Love Song” and bad-choice lament “Bummin’ Cigarettes.”
There were times, in fact, that it seemed that Morris was more Memphis than Nashville. “Just Another Thing” and “I Wish I Was” were both built on “Beast Of Burden” guitar grooves, and “Once” was slow Southern soul that grew sadder as it got bigger and bigger and Morris stood her ground.
Whether feisty or bruised, the fact that Morris writes all her own material, rather than culling from the Nashville assembly line of songwriters angling for a placement, allowed her to put her personal stamp on all of her songs in more and richer ways than most country singers. If Morris insists on defying the template of modern country, then modern country might want to consider letting her.
With tight-jawed singing and a generic band that had more in common with Daughtry than Tim McGraw, opener Ryan Hurd was a blank-slate representative of the Nashville assembly line of songwriters angling for a placement.
Maren Morris, with Ryan Hurd
At: Paradise Rock Club, FridayMarc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc