Maren Morris had to pinch herself last year when Elton John phoned out of the blue to sing her praises. She pinched herself again in February when she won her first Grammy Award - for Best Country Solo Performance - for “My Church,” a standout song from her 2016 debut album, “Hero.”
But this 27-year-old troubadour wasn’t even old enough to drive in her native Texas when she had her first pinch-me moment as a budding singer-songwriter.
“I was 14 and I played this club that’s no longer there because it was poorly managed, the Texas Tea House in Fort Worth,” said Morris, who opens for Sam Hunt Thursday night at Mattress Firm Amphitheatre in Chula Vista.
“There were only two people at the show, the bartender and my dad. The manager was pissed no one was there and he refused to pay me. I was like: ‘Really, dude? You didn’t even promote this show and I’m 14. You’re really going to take money away from a 14-year-old?’ That was my first brush with the music business.”
Happily, Morris persevered.
After moving to Nashville at 20, she was hired as a staff songwriter by a local music publishing company. Together with Eric Arjes and Ryan Hurd - who is now her fiancée - she co-wrote “Last Turn Home.”
Sam Hunt, with Maren Morris, Chris Janson and Ryan Follese
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 10
Tickets: $32.25-$66.50 (plus service charges)
Where: Mattress Firm Amphitheatre (formerly Sleep Train Amphitheatre), 2050 Entertainment Circle, Chula Vista
Tim McGraw recorded it for his 2014 album, “Sundown Heaven Town.” The following year, Kelly Clarkson recorded another song Morris had co-written, “Second Wind.” The momentum began to build for Morris, whose best songs mix country, rock and pop traditions with a winning mix of reverence and wit as she puts a fresh spin on familiar themes.
On “My Church,” her salvation comes not from religion, but from the music she loves to listen to cruising down the highway.
Or, as Morris sings in a voice midway between Bonnie Raitt and Sheryl Crow: I’ve cussed on a Sunday / I’ve cheated and I’ve lied / I’ve fallen down from grace a few too many times / But I find holy redemption when I put this car in drive / Roll the windows down and turn up the dial / Can I get a hallelujah? / Can I get an amen?
“My Church” and the other songs on “Hero,” including “80s Mercedes” - all co-written by Morris - make it one of the best-crafted debut albums by a country artist since Kacey Musgraves’ “Same Trailer Different Park” and Margo Price’s “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.”
“The art of songwriting is just stumbling your way to something really special, and you don’t know what you’re going to write until you are writing it,” Morris said, speaking from a recent tour stop in North Carolina. “There is no formula. And, sometimes, you really have to work at it and hunker down.”
Morris’ infectious song “Rich” is anchored by a riff that mirror the Steve Miller’s Band’s “The Joker.” Its lyrics combine country sass and hip-hop-tinged swagger as she skewers a good-for-nothing boyfriend with such tart lines as:
If I had a dollar every time that I swore you off ... Boy, I’d be rich / Head-to-toe Prada / Benz in the driveway / Yacht in the water / Vegas at the Mandarin / High-roller gamblin’ / Me and Diddy / Drippin’ diamonds like Marilyn.
“Rich” is also one of several songs by Morris with a common four-letter word that sounds like “snit.” There is nothing shocking about her use of it, which is just as she intended.
“I think if you listen to my whole album, it’s very conversational - which is why I come from country music,” said Morris, who cites Crow and John Prine as two of her biggest inspirations.
“I love the way you can write a song and it’s the exact same way people talk. I didn’t shy away from that word; that’s how I talk to my friends.”
Much to her credit, Morris also doesn’t shy away from bucking stereotypes - in her songs or interviews.
“I think people were refreshed by my candidness,” she said. “A lot of new artists, especially girl artists, feel pressure to be so ‘media perfect’ and ‘trained.’ I’m intelligent, but I don’t like hearing regurgitated answers in interviews that sound so rehearsed. And with my songs as well, there’s that honesty, saying it like it is and not making apologies, not being the victim or trying to get ‘him’ to notice you in your songs because you’re so hot.
“I think people were sick of that and I didn’t want to write about that. So I talk about life, about getting drunk with girlfriends, being the aggressor with the guy and not always being this wallflower, this girl who needs to be ‘saved.’ I think guys and girls who are fans of any music, especially country, can get down with that. Because we’ve all been there.”