Megan Moroney is posted up in the bar of the London West Hollywood hotel on a recent afternoon, enjoying a second round of spicy margaritas as she and her team go over the details of the busy week for which they’ve just flown into Los Angeles.
Tomorrow the country singer will play her first late-night show with a performance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”; two days later, she’ll headline a sold-out gig at the Troubadour where Olivia Rodrigo will turn up to sing along and snap a cozy backstage photo. Before all that, Moroney has an appearance at the Grammy Museum scheduled for this evening, but that’s still a few hours away — just enough time to shake off what remains of her hangover from the Jonas Brothers concert she caught last night in Nashville to celebrate her 26th birthday.
“I think I ended up drinking vodka-crans,” she says with a baffled-looking expression. “I don’t know what that was about.”
Moroney, who starts every show by telling her audience that she has “absolutely horrible taste in men,” never takes more than a sip or two onstage. Anything more is “really scary,” she says. “I would overshare — might name-drop first and last: ‘So this song is about…’”
Yet she didn’t need to spell out the inspiration for the viral hit that’s made her one of Nashville’s most promising breakout acts. Based on Instagram likes and comments, fans concluded that Georgia-born Moroney wrote her song “Tennessee Orange” about a dalliance with Morgan Wallen well before Moroney all but confirmed it when she told a radio host last year that the Tennessee Volunteers T-shirt she’s wearing in a much-discussed photo belonged to the country superstar.
Now “Tennessee Orange,” the rare single by a woman to reach No. 1 at country radio, is nominated for song of the year at Wednesday night’s CMA Awards, where Moroney is also up for new artist of the year. She’ll perform too on a bill that also includes Wallen, Jelly Roll, Chris Stapleton, Tanya Tucker, Luke Combs and Lainey Wilson, among others.
A digital-marketing and music-business major at the University of Georgia, Moroney shrewdly capitalized on the social-media chatter about her and Wallen to bring attention to her song and to score a major-label record deal with Sony Music Nashville, which released her debut album, “Lucky,” this past spring. But it’s her songwriting talent and the soulful scrape in her voice — not to mention the clever way she toys with the presentation of gender — that distinguish her now that she’s arrived.
In the tender, waltz-time “Tennessee Orange” she’s a proud UGA Bulldog who falls so deeply for a guy from Knoxville that she dons the colors of the school’s archrival Vols to attend a football game; “I’m Not Pretty” imagines an ex’s new girlfriend scrolling through the singer’s Instagram, “zooming out, zooming in, overanalyzing like the queen of the mean girls’ committee.” The sound of the LP is vintage yet modern, full of knowing riffs on honky-tonk tradition that can suddenly clear away for a doleful ballad like “Why Johnny,” in which she wonders what kept June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash together for decades despite his philandering and substance abuse.
“She writes actual songs: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge,” says Kenny Chesney, who announced this week that he’ll take Moroney on the road next year as an opening act. “People don’t do that so much. It’s a lot of short, choppy phrases and cuts. Megan takes her time, creates these worlds, develops the emotions inside the song. And her sense of melody is so clean and classic. It’s refreshing.”
In a year when country music is dominating pop charts — due in part to reactionary hits by Jason Aldean and Oliver Anthony — Moroney is connecting with millennial and Gen Z listeners slowly reshaping Nashville’s established power structure through the use of streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music, where Moroney’s songs took off before radio programmers got on board. (On Spotify alone, “Tennessee Orange” has more than 150 million plays.) She’s also part of a broader musical moment that feels increasingly centered on young women’s emotional lives thanks to mega-popular songwriters like Rodrigo, SZA and Taylor Swift who think about romance and ambition with a witty if jaundiced understanding of how the world works.
At the Troubadour, Moroney tells the crowd, “I assume there’s some Swifties in the audience tonight,” then offers up a spirited, slightly twangy rendition of Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” that goes off like a bomb.
“Taylor was the first artist where I thought, everything she’s saying, we’re on the same page,” Moroney says of Swift back at the London. Onstage and in photos, the singer plays up her hyper-feminine image — her guitar strap is emblazoned with the words “emo cowgirl” — but in the bar she’s wearing sweats, her long blond hair tucked beneath a ball cap. “On the plane today, I was listening to ‘Lover,’ but sometimes I’m morbidly depressed so I’ll put on ‘All Too Well [10 Minute Version],’” she adds, noting that she has tickets to see the “Eras Tour” concert movie in Bakersfield in a few days. “It’s like she has a song for everything.”
As a teenager in Douglasville, Ga., Moroney also looked up to Kacey Musgraves, whose 2013 album “Same Trailer Different Park” made her want to start writing songs after years learning to play covers at home with her dad and her older brother. “She’s so honest and her lyrics are so smart,” she says of Musgraves. “And she’s never given a s— what people think. I mean, ‘Follow Your Arrow’” — Musgraves’ decade-old call to “make lots of noise / Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into” — “was way ahead of its time.” (Asked if she’s detected a sizable queer contingent in her audience, she says, “We’re vibing, me and the gays.”)
Moroney played her first gig while she was a student at UGA, warming up a crowd for country singer Chase Rice, whom she’d met at a philanthropy event for her sorority. Afterwards, “Chase was like, ‘You don’t even need to go to college — just come to Nashville,’” she remembers with a laugh. “I told my parents he said I was ready, and they were like, ‘That’s cute.’” She completed her degree, which involved an internship with Kristian Bush of Atlanta’s hitmaking Sugarland, before moving to country music’s capital, where she initially supported herself as an influencer hawking CBD gummies and “hair products that kind of worked” on Instagram.
She hated the job but admits today that the 70,000 followers she amassed gave her a head start when she turned her attention fully to music. So did that raspy voice, which Bush says stopped him cold when she reconnected with him (after having never told him she sang) and asked him to cut a demo at his studio.
“It was the crack in it,” he says, recalling their first session together. “I told her, ‘In a perfect world, you could make your voice break right here because it’s the emotional part of the song.’ She was like, ‘Oh, cool, I can do that.’ I was stunned. She could make it go anywhere she wanted to, like Melissa Etheridge or Rod Stewart.”
With Bush producing, Moroney recorded “Tennessee Orange” and dropped it independently in September 2022; the song quickly blew up on TikTok, which drew the interest of any number of record labels, including Sony Music Nashville. Randy Goodman, the company’s CEO, remembers traveling to Louisville to woo Moroney only to find her so mobbed by fans at her merch booth that he and members of his A&R team stepped in to help sell T-shirts.
“The deal,” he says, “was really competitive.”
Which isn’t to say that Moroney has avoided the suspicions many female musicians face in country music. Has she ever felt underestimated as a songwriter?
“Hundred percent. I wrote a song with Luke Laird and Lori McKenna and Rodney Clawson,” she says of “Kansas Anymore,” a moving love-gone-wrong number she penned with those respected songwriters, “and I see things all the time where people say I didn’t write a word of it.” Her response is to lean in: “If you don’t like me in dresses and boots, I’m gonna wear sparkly dresses and glittery boots just to piss you off.”
Though she says her personality is the same whether she’s glammed-up or not, Moroney acknowledges that a year of speculation about her dating life has led her to ponder the separation between her public and private selves.
“I got a therapist this year, so we’re working through it,” says the singer, who’s set to play April’s Stagecoach festival the same night as Wallen. “There might even be some happy songs coming” — a surprise, perhaps, for a woman whose debut closes with a gorgeous barroom weeper called “Sad Songs for Sad People.”
What inspired them?
“Not getting treated like s—,” she says, alluding to a new boyfriend. “Like I said, I don’t have good taste in men, so it’s weird to have a guy be nice to you.”
She laughs. “But honestly he could screw me over like everybody else,” she adds. “You never really know.”