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Songs We Love: Maren Morris, 'Once'

What makes a torch song a true showstopper? Great lines help, and Maren Morris' tearjerking ballad "Once" offers one right off the bat. "Darling, we were too gone to stay," she sings in an alto that's as blue as two hours after midnight. "Couldn't get through the night, so we had to call it a day." The melody descends, perfectly matching the resignation in Morris' lyric. It's like when Adele intones, "And you're married now" in "Someone Like You," or when Dionne Warwick utters "What am I to do?" after the big choral climax in "Anyone Who Had a Heart." To execute such a subtle turn, a song must be perfectly calibrated, and the vocalist must have total command of her instrument. Morris' signature ballad, offered here in a new live version recorded with her band at Nashville's historic RCA Studio A, shines with both qualities.

Morris has range. When the buzz started to build in Nashville about this young country music innovator, her songwriting captured people's imaginations. Then came her first smash hit, "My Church," a gospelized country rocker that proved her traditionalist bona fides. When Morris's debut album, Hero, came out earlier this year, her love for the R&B sounds of Beyoncé and Rihanna sparkled in tracks like the reggae-ish "Rich" and the buoyant "Just Another Thing." Now she's claiming her space among the divas: In the video she wears a white ensemble à la Celine Dion, and is shown holding a lap dog before she takes the mic. (Divas and lap dogs: It's an endless romance.) Having released one of the most sonically adventurous country albums in recent memory, Morris continues to prove that she doesn't intend to stay within one musical zone — except that one labeled "excellence."

Hero is out now on Sony.

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Ann Powers
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music podcasts.