The Best Single of 2023: Maren Morris, “The Tree”

Single of the Year

Maren Morris, “The Tree”

There’s not much to add to the 1000-odd words we’ve already written as to why “The Tree” is our pick for the best country single– and yes, it’s a country single– of 2023. It’s a choice that comes down to the quality and depth of Morris’ songwriting and the fire in her performance, not to a desire to make a particular political statement by virtue of having chosen this single at all. What likely sits uneasy with Morris’ detractors is that country music should be embracing artists who can write and sing like this, and it’s indicative of the rot at the roots that Morris has been treated similarly to The Chicks a generation ago.

Because we don’t actually demand any sort of ideological purity from artists, it’s worth pointing out that it is a highly questionable decision that, since releasing “The Tree,” Morris has chosen to record with accused rapist, cultural appropriator, and all-around sleazebag, Diplo. But because humans are complex and because multiple things can be true at once, that isn’t some kind of “gotcha,” and it in no way undercuts the power of “The Tree” or the caliber of Morris’ artistry here. It’s the best single of Morris’ career by a huge margin, and we never even considered anything else for our Single Of The Year pick.

Why? Like we said before:

Certainly, the details and tone of “The Tree” do support a reading that it’s a direct response to the country music industry itself. When she delivers the single best lyric she’s ever written– “The rot at the root is the root of the problem / But you want to blame it on me”– there’s a depth of history reflected in how Music Row, at a systemic level, has always been driven by principles that uphold a narrow vision of white male supremacy. That’s a truth that sits uneasy with a lot of folks who directly benefit from those exact systems and who believe that an entire industry that historically and presently marginalizes or tokenizes voices of anyone who isn’t a white male is, somehow, a meritocracy.

In that sense, “The Tree” is a through-the-looking-glass take on one of Morris’ biggest hits. When the bones are good, the rest might not matter. But what’s at stake and how should a person respond when the bones aren’t good? When, in fact, there’s rot at the root, and the soil is blighted?

For me, that idea resonated not because I’ve ever been branded a Lunatic Country Music Person in the right-wing mediascape, but because of past relationships that were toxic and, similarly to what Kevin describes above, because of previous work environments that were abusive. It’s exhausting and psychologically damaging to spend “10,000 hours trying to fight it with flowers”– and, as an aside, I appreciate the nod in that line to the adage that it takes 10,000 hours to develop expertise in something– when kindness and loyalty are not reciprocated and are the equivalent of the proverbial knives at a gunfight.

Morris gets that. And when she wails, “The tree was already on fire,” with a power that she’s never previously unleashed on record, it’s a moment of rage that is both self-directed– for the time and effort wasted on trying to save something that she failed to recognize was beyond repair– and outward-facing at the broken thing itself.

And it doesn’t matter if that broken thing is the country music industry… or Morris’ marriage to singer-songwriter Ryan Hurd… or any one specific thing at all. It’s the same reason why it doesn’t matter if Taylor Swift wrote “All Too Well” specifically about Jake Gyllenhaal: That should ultimately be no more than a footnote. “The Tree” is a wonder of fecundity in terms of actual interpretation because of the precision with which Morris and her two co-writers have drawn its central metaphor. Regardless of genre, that type of depth represents popular songwriting at its full potential, and to take an ax to that kind of critical thought is to cheapen music as an art form.”


Best of 2023

The Preamble:

The family tree was already on fire

The Thirty Best Albums of 2023:

Album of the Year: Jason Hawk Harris, Thin Places

Ten Best | Next Ten Best | Rest of the Best

The Sixty Best Singles of 2023:

Single of the Year: Maren Morris, “The Tree”

Cover Bosses | Friends in High and Low Places | The Lord’s Work

(Occasionally) On the Radio | The Politics of Identity | I Want Your Love

Optimist Prime | Love Done Gone

Uptempo Hard Shit | Life Lessons & Cautionary Tales

Open in Spotify

1 Comment

  1. …maren morris, pavlov’s bell to many a thread (and commenters) at “saving country music”, earns “single of the year” honors at this corner of the country universe. remarkable. not at all undeservedly so, however. the clip to the song is also a beauty. she seems to go through a rather rough patch in her life currently, let’s hope it all ends up in an album and not in an even bigger mess.

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