How a Texas spitfire circumvented the Nashville game to become Music City's fiercest new breakout PLUS: Get to know seven other female crooners on the rise

By Madison Vain
September 29, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT
Robby Klein

Six years ago, Maren Morris was crashing on Kacey Musgraves’ couch and living off savings with the hopes of scoring a deal as a country songwriter. The Dallas native had crossed paths with Musgraves as teens performing on the local honky-tonk circuit. “The music community is small,” Morris, now 26, recalls of how she came to know Musgraves. So when her peer set off for Nashville to pursue a career, Morris soon followed. “I loved writing songs and didn’t know you could get paid to do it,” she says. “It sounded like the coolest thing ever!”

Her couch-surfing days are now quaint memories. Since releasing her debut, Hero, in June, Morris has become a critical and commercial success: The record bowed at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart and earned praise from music royalty far beyond Music City. “I got a phone call from Elton John, and he thought it rocked!” says Morris. The accolades show no sign of slowing: Morris is up for five CMA awards in November, including New Artist of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year. (She’s tied with Eric Church and Chris Stapleton for most nods this year.)

Morris couldn’t have predicted this for herself a few years ago. The pocket-size spitfire (she’s 5’5″ in her trusted high-heeled booties) had carved out a solid career as a songwriter for Tim McGraw (2014’s “Last Turn Home”) and Kelly Clarkson (2015’s “Second Wind”). But when she grew too attached to a song titled “My Church,” she hatched a new plan. “I didn’t want anyone to sing it. I knew it was going to be my first single.”

Emerging artists in the country music industry typically devote their early years to grueling radio tours — the format’s DJs and programmers are still gatekeepers to an artist’s commercial success — but Morris had an almost revolutionary (and thoroughly modern) way to get noticed. “My friend who works at Spotify was like, ‘If you give me these songs by this date, I’ll put them on these country playlists,'” she recalls. So with the help of the streaming service’s promotion, “My Church” took off and notched one million plays in under a month — almost unheard of for an unsigned Nashville artist. “It happened pretty quickly,” she recalls of her rise since then.

Now, instead of writing for the A-list, she’s sharing the stage with them. Dierks Bentley shot her a text earlier this year asking her to duet with him on a song for his latest album, Black. She spent her summer opening for Keith Urban and recently partnered with Alicia Keys for CMT Crossroads, airing in December. But for Morris, nothing compares with hearing her fans scream her songs at shows. “Getting to hear people in the audience singing back to me,” she says, “it starts to feel less and less like a hallucination and more of a reality.”

The New Queens of Country:

Tibrina Hobson/FilmMagic


Age: 31

Hometown: Lafayette, Calif.

After ditching plans for grad school in 2010, the California native moved to Nashville to jump-start a country music career. There, she launched a Kickstarter to pay for studio time and landed super-producer Jeff Bhasker (Bruno Mars) for her 2015 debut, Untamed. Last year, her smoldering ballad “Burning House” was certified platinum, making Cam the only female country artist in 2015 to score such an accolade. Now, after opening for Dierks Bentley this summer, she’s working on a second record and hopes to serve as an inspiration for a younger generation: “Because there aren’t many [women succeeding in the industry], you get to be more of a role model,” she says. “If I do things my way, I open up a path for people who are different.”

Stream This: “Hungover on Heartache”

Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images

Margo Price

Age: 33

Hometown: Buffalo Prairie, Ill.

After giving birth to twins with her husband in 2010, Price lost one of her babies to a heart condition. The tragedy sent her on a spiral of excessive drinking and reckless behavior, which landed her in jail. But Price has overcome that heartbreak and strife by focusing on music: Her debut album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, is one of the most gut-wrenching and stunning country records of the decade. She’s also got crossover appeal thanks to support from Jack White and his label, Third Man Records. Price sometimes can’t believe how far she’s come. “I thought for a while that success would solve a lot of problems… It is really beautiful,” she says. “I’m still processing, I think.”

Stream This: “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)”

Scott Legato/Getty Images

Kelsea Ballerini

Age: 23

Hometown: Mascot, Tenn.

A Taylor Swift cosign can do wonders for your career. Since the pop star endorsed Ballerini in 2015, she’s had three No. 1 country tunes from her debut album — an unprecedented accomplishment for a female artist in the format. And where Swift has decidedly left Nashville behind, Ballerini feels right at home in Music City. “The storytelling and the heart of country music is what I’m in love with,” she told EW in 2015. “You can definitely hear, on the single and my whole album, that I’m influenced by pop… But my heart’s in country music, and I feel like that’s just who I am.”

Stream This: “Dibs”

Laura E. Partain

Kelsey Waldon

Age: 28

Hometown: Monkey’s Eyebrow, Ky.

Waldon skews bluegrass. It’s a sound that’s in her DNA: She was raised in a remote region of Appalachia, where the genre was born. After spending the money she got for her high school graduation on the recording sessions for her first EP, she’s now situated in Nashville and promoting her excellent second album, I’ve Got A Way, which blends honky-tonk and folk with her arresting lyrics. “This is what I enjoy making,” Waldon says. “Country music is in my heart.”

Stream This: “The Heartbreak”

Jeff Hahne/Getty Images

Maddie & Tae

Age: Both 21

Hometown: Sugar Land, Tex. and Ada, Okla.

The plucky duo of Madison Marlow and Taylor Dye broke out in 2014 with “Girl in a Country Song,” their takedown of bro country. And they showed they were more than a one-hit wonder with their 2015 debut, Start Here — a rare country album that vividly portrays teenagers grappling with impending adulthood. For their follow-up, the two, who are now in their 20s, are shifting their songwriting gaze toward more grown-up topics, but they hope fans will find the songs equally engaging. Says Marlow, “That’s how we connected with our fans: telling them our stories.”

Stream This: “Sierra”

Mat Hayward/Getty Images

Mickey Guyton

Age: 33

Hometown: Arlington, Tex.

Take LeAnn Rimes’ Top 40 sensibilities, Patsy Cline’s gift for heart-tugging balladry, and Whitney Houston’s massive pipes, and you just might capture the magic of this Texan powerhouse. After breaking out in 2015 with “Better Than You Left Me,” an anthem she wrote after surviving a particularly bad romance, Guyton, one of the first mainstream black female country artists, will release her first album next year. In the meantime, her new single, “Heartbreak Song,” comes on like a countrified version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” “My goal is empowerment,” Guyton says of the set, “showing that women are priceless.”

Stream This: “Better Than You Left Me”

This article originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly Issue #1433, on stands September 30, 2016.