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January 18, 2017 10:30 AM

With her massive hit “My Church,” a Best New Artist CMA win and four 2017 Grammy Award nods, Maren Morris became country’s newest darling in the past 12 months. But her success wasn’t overnight.

“They say it can all change with one song, and in my case, that rings very true,” Morris, 26, says in the new issue of PEOPLE. “I was shocked that it happened this quickly.”

The Music City breakout’s rise to fame went from zero to 60 after she released “My Church” in January — followed by her critically acclaimed album Hero in June — but Morris has been hustling for over a decade.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 12,” the singer-songwriter says of pursuing music professionally, which she first thought “was just a little-kid dream.”

Morris went to great lengths to finally achieve that dream. At 14, she attended the inaugural Grammy Camp to learn about the music business. And over the years, she performed at honky-tonks and block parties and hit the county fair circuit, meeting fellow would-be country stars Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves along the way. Her long journey to stardom even involved reality competition auditions, striking out on both The Voice and American Idoland releasing three full-length albums that flew under the radar.

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But Morris persevered, and in 2013 she moved to Nashville, where she scored a publishing deal and began writing songs for A-listers.

“My Church” aside, the one song that may have changed everything for Morris was “Last Turn Home,” a country ballad she cowrote with longtime friend (and now-boyfriend) Ryan Hurd that Tim McGraw ended up recording for his 2014 album, Sundown Heaven Town.

“To have Tim be the first person to ever cut one of my songs was just the purest form of validation,” says Morris, who would go on to score writing credits on songs by Kelly Clarkson, as well as the Nashville cast.

Having established herself as one of Nashville’s best-kept secrets, Morris got the itch to record her own music.

“I missed being onstage behind the microphone,” she says. “After a while it was hard to hear another voice singing my lyrics.”

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Indeed, Morris says it would have been heartbreaking to give up “My Church” — and in time, her breakthrough LP Hero came together. The same week of its release, she hit the road to tour with Keith Urban and watched as, “each weekend, more and more people in the crowd were singing back to me.”

And Morris’ growing star culminated in an unforgettable night in November, when she took home the Best New Artist CMA Award and performed “My Church” as country royalty sang along in the crowd.

“Being onstage, I could really only see the first few rows, and I didn’t realize until it was over that everyone had stood up to sing the last chorus,” says Morris, who watched the show at a bar across the street just a year prior. “Especially watching the broadcast back, I could see the moment that everyone started to — you could see it in my face, that I was really shocked and just humbled by the whole thing. It was the 50th anniversary, and having all these legends know the lyrics to a song I wrote a year or two prior? That was one of the biggest pinch-me moments I had.”

As for her next big awards show moment, Morris will hit up the Grammys next month, where — with “My Church” and Hero — she’s up for Best New Artist, Best Country Solo Performance, Best Country Song and Best Country Album. Joining her in the New Artist category is fellow country up-and-comer Kelsea Ballerini, but don’t go searching for any catty bad blood.

  • For more on Maren Morris, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.

“Kelsea was the first person I texted that morning when the announcement came out because I was shocked to be up for that nomination, honestly, because we rarely see country artists in that category,” Morris says. “So to have two — and two female country artists that are brand-new — in that category, it felt so cool. So if there’s any competition there, it’s a healthy one!”

Before the Grammys, Morris will kick off her first headlining tour in New York City on Feb. 2. So for the time being, she’s enjoying a little down-time with her boyfriend and tight-knit circle of friends, her “baby” (an 8-month-old white German Shepherd named June) and tequila (“I love a margarita!” she says with a laugh).

“I love playing with my dog and just sitting on the patio with people I don’t get to see very often anymore. I’m a pretty simple gal,” says Morris, whose latest single “80s Mercedes” continues to climb the charts. “I’m getting to call the shots now, and that’s a really awesome feeling.”

The 2017 Grammy Awards will air live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 12 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.

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