“After the Trump years, people’s prejudices are on full display,” she told the Los Angeles Times.
Maren Morris, the chart-topping progressive country and pop singer known for hits like “The Middle” and “The Bones” has announced that she is distancing herself from the country music genre. Morris, an artist who is an outspoken supporter of trans rights and abortion rights, said her decision was driven by the fact that country music refused to reckon with the sexism and racism that runs rampant among some of the genre’s artists and songs.
“After the Trump years, people’s prejudices have fully manifested themselves,” she told the Los Angeles Times in an interview. “It just exposed who people really are and that they were proud to be misogynistic and racist and homophobic and transphobic.”
Morris’ announcement comes as a number of country singers have recently released hits with clear far-right and racist messages. Jason Aldean’s “Try It In A Small Town” for example, he was criticized for a music video and lyrics containing racist dog whistles that echoed protests against police violence and made indirect references to the lynching of black people.
(Related: What’s up with these viral, right-wing country hits?)
The song briefly topped the Billboard Hot 100, a feat matched by Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond”, which contained references to QAnon, mocked the poor, and also seemed to perpetuate racial stereotypes. Before the debut of each song Morgan Wallenone of country’s biggest stars, he enjoyed 16 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard with “Last Night,” a single from his third album and the first to hit the charts since he was caught on video accidentally using the n-word.
Aldean and Anthony’s songs in particular were celebrated by the right, with the latter even becoming the first topic discussed at the first GOP presidential debate. Both songs contain conservative themes and implicitly support right-wing politics, from the anti-Black Lives Matter, MAGA-esque message of Aldean’s song, to the limited government, fiscal conservatism of Oliver. The country artists’ sympathies with far-right politics have been increasingly apparent outside of the lyrics: Morris previously got into a Twitter feud with Aldean and his wife Brittany Aldean, after Brittany posted a transphobic statement.
Morris is one of a handful of high-profile female country artists who have taken very public political stances aimed at countering some of the racist, sexist and homophobic prejudices increasingly associated with the genre. Others, including singers Kacey Musgraves and Kelsea Ballerini, have also spoken out in favor of issues such as LGBTQ rights through their music and performances. Mickey Guyton, the only black woman ever to be nominated for a country Grammy as a solo act, also sings about his experiences with racism growing up.
Morris’s decision highlights existential questions country music still faces: There has been significant scrutiny in the past of how the genre treats female artists, including how much radio play and institutional support they receive. Such differences—combined with misogynistic and racially coded messages in some country songs—raised the question of whether the genre was truly willing to confront its issues and make room for everyone. The success of Wallen, Aldean and Oliver has now highlighted this question even more.
Country music is at a crossroads
Even before the recent culture wars, country music has long been criticized for the genre’s unwillingness to fully confront its racial and gender flaws.
Persistent points of tension include the lack of airplay female and black artists receive from country radio stations, misogynistic and racist lyrics, and the lack of institutional support that minorities and female artists have received from prize giving and record companies.
The imbalance in radio play has persisted for years, reducing the amount of exposure that female artists and people of color have, as well as their ability to have hits on the charts. As reported by The 19thAccording to a study by musicologist Jada Watson, in 2022 female artists accounted for only 11 percent of airplay on the 156 national stations that report their data to Mediabase. The same study also found that black women included just 0.03 percent of the country’s broadcasts that year.
A number of country artists have spoken out about this disparity before, as well as problematic lyrics that are overtly misogynistic or racist. In 2014, country duo Maddie & Tae released “Girl in a Country Song,” a huge hit that confronted a number of these tropes, including the idea that women are best suited in short skirts while driving pickup trucks.
The genre’s problems with racism are also deeply rooted. Early recorded country music saw music played by whites and blacks segregated by the color of the artist, even though it is the same genre. And country music as a genre is based on the appropriation of black artists’ contributions by white artists.
These problems have recently manifested themselves in treatment Lil Nas X’s smash hit “Old Town Road,“, which was removed from Billboard’s country chart for not being country enough, and which caused outrage among some country fans who saw it as too much of a departure from the genre to be a part of. Guyton, who was outspoken about racism in her single “Black Like Me,” has also been the target of abuse and harassment — including from people. who say they don’t belong here Earth.
While country music has made some strides in addressing these issues and a new generation of outspoken artists such as Musgraves and Guyton have emerged, these issues have also been on full display with no clear path forward. And while recent hits have drawn attention to systemic issues, much of the action taken in response to the song’s dominance has focused on the songs themselves rather than broader considerations of the genre itself. In response to the outcry that followed its rise in popularity, for example, Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” music video was pulled by Country Music Television.
For her part, Morris has been vocal about the need for country music as a genre to firmly counter the promotion of bigotry and complacency towards it. Her new EP, released last weekend, addresses those concerns: “(I’m) done filling a cup with a hole in the bottom,” she sings.
“Music is supposed to be the voice of the oppressed – the current oppressed,” Morris said in her interview with the LA Times. “And now it’s being used as this really toxic weapon in the culture wars.”