In a time when country music is suddenly flusher with credible newcomers than it has been in a lot of years, Megan Moroney is one of the freshest of the fresh — with a clever debut single, “Tennessee Orange,” that stands as one of the best No. 1 singles the format has wrought recently, from an album, “Lucky,” that bears no skips among its 16 deluxe-edition tracks.
Moroney was named one of the finalists this week for Country Radio Seminar’s New Faces program, the arbiter of what country programmers view as the wave of the future. That freshman plaudit follows her re recent best new artist nominations at both the CMA Awards and ACM Awards, and her win this past summer at the CMT Awards, where she won female breakthrough of the year. It wasn’t just newbie categories that Moroney found herself in, as “Tennessee Orange” was enough of a career single to score a CMA nod in the song of the year category.
There are more where that came from, with the wry ode to social media gaffes that is “I’m Not Pretty” currently out, with a music video co-directed by Moroney, and a Kristian Bush– (of Sugarland) – produced album that’s abounding in possible follow-ups, like the saucy title track, “Lucky.” Wherever the charts lead her, she’s already well beyond being a one-hit wonder, as far as reviews are concerned.
Variety caught up with her in Nashville, where she’s re-located since signing a co-deal with Sony Music Nashville and the company’s mainstream Columbia division, although she makes no bones about her true colors being located back in Georgia.
You name-check John Prine and Loretta Lynn on the album, but you’ve also cited some pretty contemporary influences, in terms of Taylor and Kacey and Miranda. There’s a strong sense of humor throughout a lot of your material, for starters, that could have come from being weaned on any of those artists, really.
Yeah. I like to describe my music as if Taylor Swift and Kacey Musgraves had a child. Growing up with my parents, my dad (provided) a lot of influences —he was the one that was (responsible for) the John Prine and Loretta Lynn. He’d have me listen to Gram Parsons, the Eagles, Jackson Browne — that was my dad’s influence, when I was really young. But growing up, voluntarily, I was listening to Taylor Swift, and so I think it has always been been in my brain that it’s OK to be that honest, because Taylor Swift was honest, and she puts you right there. And then Kacey Musgraves’ first album, “Same Trailer, Different Park,” was the album that made me want to start writing my own songs. Because I was like, how is she so smart with her lyrics? How did she think to say that? I think those two come up the most in my music, because that’s what I was voluntarily listening to the most.
You’re one of only 10 solo country women who have ever gotten a No. 1 hit with a debut single, with “Tennessee Orange.” Was that a surprise, considering the extent to which people must have sort of warned you, “Listen, we have to start slow; the odds are against you”? Or do you have that confidence from the start that of course it’s going be No. 1, and you’re not thinking about how historically unusual it is?
I didn’t focus too much on the statistics of what it was. I was just hoping that it would do well at radio, and even like the week of going No. 1, my radio team was very honest, like, “We’re working this as much as we can, but no promises.” So it was never an “Oh, we have this in the bag”-type thing. I don’t think there will be another No. 1 that will be as exciting as that one. To have the first one be a song that I originally released as an independent artist, and then it turns into that, is pretty mind-blowing to me.
“Tennessee Orange” became a hit partly through its TikTok popularity. Which is interesting, because TikTok favors things that are easily excerptible and immediately comprehended. Whereas “Tennessee Orange” is a story-song, about how you are into a guy so much that you will literally change your colors — your college football team colors — for him. It’s clever enough and developed enough that you have to actually listen to the song for at least 30 seconds, probably, to get it, don’t you think?
I think it’s actually what’s the most interesting part about “Tennessee Orange” blowing up on TikTok is that they would only use the first part of the chorus, where it’s like, “I met somebody who’s got blue eyes, he opens the door, don’t make me cry. He ain’t from where he from, but he feels like home…” And no one was including the actual “Tennessee Orange” part; they were connecting with the first part of the song without even including the hook of the song. And I think that’s why so many people were able to make it their own — because when they discovered it, it wasn’t about football. It just made them think of someone they care about.
You’ve said that girls or young women started showing up in homemade Tennessee jerseys at your shows. Maybe that’s inevitable, with that strong a chorus hook, about embracing another team because you’ve embraced the guy. But maybe those fans don’t understand that you don’t actually totally switch your allegiance in the song.
Yeah, I think that part is still going over some people’s heads. I’ll say something about Georgia, and people are like, “I thought you liked Tennessee?”— and I’m like, guys, do you listen to the song? Yeah, Tennessee orange has kind of become a staple for outfits at my shows now. But I think it’s cute that they say they’re wearing Tennessee orange for me. It probably should be Georgia red, but I’m like, “I’ll take it.”
Your current single is “I’m Not Pretty,” which describes having a current beau’s ex accidentally like one of your photos on Instagram, leaving a telltale sign that you’re being cyberstalked just a little. People can still see the bathing-suit photo that you posted on IG that actually got the like. Big mistake on this other woman’s part… but have you ever been on the other side of that, where you’re looking through the account of someone who used to be with your partner, even though you didn’t make the rookie mistake of clicking on it?
With “I’m Not Pretty,” I think everyone has been on both sides, and so it’s a universal experience that we can all relate to. It’s just a light- hearted take on a real situation that happened. With a lot of my songwriting, I like to take something that you could take negatively, but turn it into a confident anthem. And I think that’s definitely what this is. I see everyone — guys included! — scream “I’m not pretty” at my shows. It’s just a fun anthem, and I’m glad it’s being perceived the way I hoped it would be.
The whole album is very strong, with no skips… including the deluxe edition with additional tracks adding up to 16, all told. You’ve proven you have a strong writing voice. Your image, meanwhile, doesn’t make it look like you are thirsting for cred with the alt-country crowd or anything. You’ve got a lot of bold and vivacious looks in your imagery, where some people may focus so much on the image that it takes a while to check out the actual writing. Like the image that goes with “Lucky,” where you’ve got the big hair and curls and short skirt standing by the slot machines. Is it fine with you if people are taken by the image first, and then they’ll discover your talent as a songwriter later? It worked for Dolly.
Yeah, I mean, I’ve got the big hair and the short dresses and the boots, because that’s how I feel confident on stage. And if you look at me and you immediately write me off and don’t think that I can write songs, then that’s your problem. Because I know that I’m proud of my songwriting, and that’s kind of how I look at things: OK, if you don’t like the way that I am dressed, or whatever, and you don’t give my songs a chance, oh well.
Let’s talk about your industry origin story, because not everyone knows how quickly and unusually this happened. You interned with Kristian Bush, but then it maybe took a little bit before you came back around to being able to make a record with him. You had been putting out stuff independently. Was it a case of it now being where you kind of have to generate your own story before you get signed by a major anymore?
Yeah. When I moved to Nashville on June 1, 2020, it was obviously in the middle of a pandemic, and there wasn’t too much going on. So, for the first year, I really just worked on my songwriting. I was writing, like, 45 songs a week. And if I was showing up to rooms with hit songwriters, I would have five unfinished songs and be like, “Which one do I want to write (with them)?” So the first year I really learned a lot about work ethic. Having been in the music business program at the University of Georgia, I had a basic understanding of the music business. Obviously, you learn more once you’re actually in it, but I felt like I knew how things worked and what not to do, right when I got into town. And so I really just worked on my songwriting and building my social media during the first year and a half, until I felt like I had enough songs.
My agent was like, “You know I can’t put you on the road until you release enough songs to go out and play a 30-minute set to be able to open.” So once I felt like I had written the right songs, that’s when I had Kristian’s help and he was on board. Kristian introduced me to Julie Griffith, who’s my manager. It’s a very small team, and it was one small goal at a time. I need a body of work to put out so that I could tour. And that happened to be the “Pistol Made of Roses” EP that came out in July. Then from August on, I went on tour with Jamey Johnson, Kameron Marlowe, Warren Zeiders, Larry Fleet, touring and just really still doing the whole independent artist thing I knew I wanted to do.
All of the marketing and branding was 100% me, and I felt that it was easier to do it myself. But we kept saying, it’s going to get to a point where I’m going to need help doing this, because it’s a lot for me to write the songs and sing and perform them and be on tour and also be the marketing and creative director and the logistics person.
Then, maybe a couple weeks after the EP came out, Spotify came to us with an opportunity that they offered to independent artists. It was called their Fresh Finds program. They were like, “We do this for independent artists, and if you give us a song, it can be released on other DSPs, but we’re gonna be the ones to announce it and promote it, and you just need a song that’s not released yet.” We looked at the timeline, and the timeline was around football season. Now, earlier that year, in March of 2022, I wrote a song called “Tennessee Orange.” Because it was football season… I was like, “Well, this will be pretty easy to incorporate this time of year, so we might as well just give them this song and we’ll put it out.” We thought about, is it going to water the EP down? Because I had just spent all this time and money making an EP — and then you put out something right after that, that’s not on the EP? But we just went with our gut and ended up releasing it.
When my EP came out, I had, I think, three record deals on the table, but they were pretty bad deals — not something I would really entertain. And they were talking to us and they were like, “Oh, well, we want to put out ‘Tennessee Orange.’”I knew that for my friends that have signed record deals that the negotiation process is several months, and, as an independent artist, trusting our gut and me doing what is best for me was always our plan, and I figured it wasn’t in my best interest to not do this Spotify thing. So, we put out “Tennessee Orange,” and it blew up on TikTok, Instagram, all of the social media platforms.
And then by the end, we had all the record deals, and I got to handpick the right team. I went with Sony Nashville and Columbia Records because I feel like they were most willing to let me be myself. Because all the marketing and branding and the strategy behind all of my releases, I had done 100% myself — with my manager —we were like, we need a label that is going to let us keep doing us, but just will help with what we want to do. They let me do it with this album, and it’s been great so far. So, I always tell my friends that haven’t signed a deal yet: Until you know exactly who you are, exactly what you’re going to say, exactly who you’re talking to, until you know all of those things, don’t sign a record deal. Because then the label will decide that for you, and that makes it inauthentic. The reason I’m able to be so authentic, still, is because the label trusts what I want to do because I had proven myself, before I signed, that I was capable of being successful.
Is there a way to sort of encapsulate what you had figured out was your biggest strength, prior to making any kind of deal?
I think it’s just knowing who I am. Sometimes artists turn into the artist (over time), and that’s who that is. But I feel like my brand is that I just am gonna be as true to myself as possible. Like, all the dresses and stuff, I love dressing up — that’s just how I am. What I see other artists sometimes struggle with trying to be another artist, or trying to be something that they’re not. And so it takes a lot longer to perfect that — being someone that you’re not — or, if you don’t know what you want to say, you’re like, what do I think people want me to say? I think that’s a horrible way to go about things. So, I think knowing who I am and knowing what I wanted to say as a songwriter was the first step, and then how to brand that visually and make it — that’s all definitely super-important with how I got signed.
You’ve got some pretty famous songwriting names in there you wrote with, but also a team of lesser known writers that seem to have been a real core for you in really helping capture your unique personality. It sounds like from what you’ve said that you like to come in with a song that’s half-formed and then have people bring it across the finish line with you. Is that what happened a lot of the time?
Yep. Yeah, if I’m not mistaken, I think every title except for “Another on the Way” was one that I brought into the room. So usually I’ll come up with a hook and I’ll have the title. And, if I don’t have it half-written, I’ll be like, “The first verse is going to do this. Second verse, we’ll do this..” That’s how it’s easier for me to write songs with people, when I can come up with an idea and then wrap my head around it for a while and then bring it to people to help me. I’ve now written with enough people where I’ve kind of found my group and I know who I need to bring what to. And all that writing during my first year and a half in town, strictly, every day, definitely helped me get good at deciding which writers write what kind of songs.
Before you ended up being produced Kristian Bush, you interned for him, right?
I did, yeah. My senior year at the University of Georgia.
Did he immediately recognize recognize yhour talent, or were you even starting to show off your songs to him during the internship?
No, the entire time I was their intern, they did not know I was a songwriter, and they didn’t know I sang. I actually walked into their office the first day and saw Grammys on the wall and was like, “OK, I’m not gonna like say anything at all.” Because at this point, I didn’t really start writing songs I was proud of until after that year and a half into Nashville, and so I was just like, “I cannot sit here at these professional, incredible musicians and be like ‘I write songs’ and show them, like, three mediocre songs.” So I didn’t bring it up to them until after.
And then my advice in town was like, “You should get some demos made, because maybe you need a publishing deal.” And they were the only people that I knew that could make demos. I think Kristian actually had reached out to me randomly to see how I was doing, and I was like, “Honestly, I’m doing OK, not great, but could you help me make some demos?” They were like, “Wait, you write songs?” And so I sent him a bunch of songs that I had written 100% myself, and they were excited about it, so the rest is history, I guess.
You’re signed with Columbia proper as well as Sony Nashville. Is there any advantage to that for you? Because people who are affiliated with both the Nashville office and somebody on the coast with major companies tend to be people with pop aspirations. And this is not a super-pop album, by any means, although undoubtedly there are lots of possibilities for you.
I think it’s usually you sign to a national label and then you switch to pop whenever you want to go pop. But, I wanted both teams involved immediately, so that’s kind of how we do things. I think it just helps because there’s a bigger team. They’re both having to let me be myself, and there’s not too much power anywhere because they’re both having to share the power as well, and make a decision as a team rather than like, “Oh, well, we’re the labels, we’re gonna do this.” I think it’s it’s worked well for me so far. I think country labels and pop labels obviously work really different and they have their own strengths. And so it’s nice to be able to take advantage of both of their strengths — but still remain country, because I wouldn’t say any of my stuff is pop right now.
This is a pretty Georgia-infused album, all the way down to, obviously, the song “Georgia Girl,” where you kind of state that Georgia people might be more strong-willed than somebody from somewhere else who would just roll over in. a situation. Of course that’s some home state pride there, but is there something unique, you think, about being a Georgia girl?
I think with my debut, I still didd’t really realize how much I talked about Georgia till all the songs were there. I think that’s just second nature to me and my songwriting, because I write about what I know, and I’ve lived in Georgia my whole life until now. So, that was just infused in there. But after I had realized that, I’m glad that my debut album had a lot of Georgia, because there’s no doubt if you listen to the whole thing, you’re going to remember that I’m from Georgia, and that’s an important part of my personality and my life.
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