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"BETTER THAN WE FOUND IT" AND THE SIDE WE CHOOSE

A stick is a stick, a stone is a stone
But who’s gonna care if I don’t
Who’s gonna change if I don’t?

When you listen, it sounds like one more campfire guitar. The tone so warm, it’s probably a good guitar, maybe even a Martin D-28. But the voice, that dusky alto, you know it... and the words Maren Morris sings on "Better Than We Found It" are, like the guitar, so very simple.

“If you don’t like it, then get the hell out” is a helluva way to open a country song.

In a genre considered by the many on the coasts to be reactionary at best—and more likely redneck—the newly christened Academy of Country Music Top Female Vocalist puts her thumb on the reckoning point. In a world torn apart by egregious rancor, hate fired by refusing to understand those who are different and a rage fueled by political parties, news media and special interest groups built on polarizing people, Morris understands.

The next line? “That’s what they yell when I open my mouth...”

This is a risk, a massive super-sized risk. For a rising superstar, to not just embrace Black Likes Matter, but make it a focal point of her song? To put light on hate, fear, racial bias—is that reckless or brave? Either way, it needed to be said.

“Better Than We Found It” is a love song. Not to her new baby, whom she mentions in the final verse, but to compassion, empathy, kindness, doing the right thing. In a world where bullying is the new normal, name-calling replaces diplomacy and honesty is a sucker’s game, the woman who stood up for all women with “Girl,” found sanctity in music with “My Church” and builds strong relationships in a temporary world with “The Bones” makes her boldest statement yet.

Over and under and above the law
My neighbor’s in danger, who does he call
when the wolf’s at the door all covered in blue?
Shouldn’t we try something new?

George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, the list is endless. Some little more than children... After a steady diet of Weinstein/Epstein-style “Me, Too” scandals, an endless “shrieking head” news cycle, COVID quarantining, life as we know it screeched to a halt. So, the Texas-born songwriter called up Jessie Jo Dillon, Jimmy Robbins and Laura Veltz and got down to it. Stripping away hubris and scraping off the justifications, the writers—the next wave of what’s always been Nashville’s creative vortex—saw “Better Than I Found It” emerge.

We’re over a barrel and at the end of one too
America, America, divided we fall
America, America, God save us all
from ourselves and the hell that we built for our kids
America, America, we’re better than this

Half sea shanty, half lullaby, this is more than just words and broad strokes. Morris weighted her lyrics with more than sentiment. She and director Gabrielle Woodland also created a video that merged the layers of the East Nashville she lives in to show the American dream/reality for three very different teens.

Opening as Gustavo Flores, clad in mariachi splendor, takes an acoustic guitar and notebook into a yard, the chyron tells us he and his younger brother have grown up under the Dreamers Act. In January they were told they’d be shipped to Mexico from the only home they’ve ever known.

Next Emma and Jade Rose, two all-American Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue-looking girls, who formed Teens4Equality—and orchestrated a demonstration of over 10,000. Sitting on cement front steps, magic-markering a Black Lives Matter sign like it was a poster for a dance, they’ve changed the high school dynamic. Later they say in voice-over that change “is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Finally, a photo of Daniel Hambrick, held by his Uncle Sam and mother Vicki, who was shot dead on July 26, 2018. Trying to manage grief and locate themselves in a society where this happens to young Black men, Sam and Vicki are adults you’d see anywhere. In voiceover, Sam says, “He was shot down like an animal. [The cop] couldn’t catch him, so he took aim... POW... POW... POW... POW...”

That pause between each pow is a blast to the heart, to the decency of who we all are—or would like to be. Like the song, there’s a simplicity and straightforwardness: natural light, the world we all live in. Or rather the ones not blessed with extravagant fortunes, or the kind of hate that places those who are different in the crosshairs.

A superstar rising, Morris lives in so many worlds. Quickly becoming the voice for and of young women across the country, she knows their dreams, their hearts, their struggles. If some worried motherhood might remove her from their trenches, it seems to have heightened her awareness and urgency.

For someone with her massive range, eye for life and sense of style, it would be easy to play it safe. She could sing about boys, love, heartbreak, babies, kittens, family values. The Judds made a massive career of that. But Morris needs more. She not only hungers to do the right thing, but she’s singing about it loud and clear – to make sure everyone gets the wake-up call, too.

When time turns this moment to dust
I just hope my son’s proud of the woman I was
When lines of tomorrow are drawn
Can I live with the side that I choose to be on?

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After the snubs, the show.
ACQUITTED
In a phenomenal display of cowardice.
MOVING THE NEEDLE
When vaccination schedules and touring schedules meet.
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