Editor’s Note: For this week’s essay, I’ll start by violating two basic rules of journalism: “Don’t use an expletive” and “Never end a sentence in a preposition.”
It seems like winter is a good opportunity for Morgan Wallen to stir up some shit. And he seems to have plenty of sticks to choose from.
In January 2021, a month after his second album was released, the country superstar was caught on tape using a racial slur while out partying drunk with his friends. The reaction, as it is these days, was swift: Wallen was suspended by his label; major awards shows and radio abandoned him; and many in the industry — including the venerated Grand Ole Opry — said there was no room for racism in country music.
The last statement, especially coming from the Opry, gave some hope that things were finally changing in Nashville. But change, as it often is, was blunted by the all-mighty dollar.
The Contrition Conundrum
Birthed out of Black music from the Mississippi Delta, the country music industry and many of its icons always have had a difficult time talking about race. Instead, much of it focuses on hard work, drinking and driving and romance with a white Southern twist wrapped in an American flag. Nothing is wrong with that, per se, but by avoiding talk about race in most contexts — Johnny Cash being the rare exception — country also misses an opportunity to educate a mass audience.
And that’s where the money comes into play.
Not surprisingly, through much of last year, we saw Wallen check the boxes on the 21st Century contrition tour:
- Social media video apology? Check.
- Statement that he’s listening to leaders of the Black community? Check.
- Promised donation to various organizations? Check.
- Major media appearance? Check.
Given the fractious nature of our nation, especially around issues about “wokeness,” “cancel culture,” and race, it’s also not surprising that Wallen’s fanbase never abandoned him. In fact, “Dangerous: The Double Album,” was 2021’s top selling release, finishing in the top 10 for all but one week of the year. He has continued to sell out arenas and is planning a 46-city tour that starts Feb. 3.
Perhaps that embrace is why Wallen felt comfortable going on the Grand Ole Opry stage earlier this month to perform his new single “Flower Shop” with Ernest, a rapper who blends country into his music. Last weekend, also in Nashville, Wallen performed “Broadway Girls,” another duet with rapper Lil Durk at Bridgestone Arena.
Again, the reaction was swift, but this time it came from both sides.
Fear and Fracture
Black artists and others who support them, such as Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile, were quick to denounce the Opry amid what was dubbed “silent signaling.” Writer Holly G, who started the Black Opry blog in 2021 to create a home for Black artists and fans, told the Associated Press that “nothing has changed” for artists of color in Nashville.
“It’s the idea of a young Black artist walking into that venue and wondering if ANYBODY is on their side,” Isbell wrote on Twitter. “What a lot of us consider to be a grand ole honor can be terrifying for some.” His comments, coming from a liberal musician, were trolled by Wallen’s fans.
Wallen covered Isbell’s 2013 classic “Cover Me Up” on his Dangerous album, later acknowledging he didn’t know the song was written about Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires, and his recovery for alcoholism. In the days after the slur scandal, Isbell donated his publishing proceeds from Wallen’s cover — likely worth tens of thousands of dollars — to the Nashville NAACP. For seven of eight nights of his annual Ryman run, Isbell brought in Black artists — Brittney Spencer, Mickey Guyton, Joy Oladokun, Amythyst Kiah, Shemekia Copeland, Allison Russell, and Adia Victoria — to open his shows.
To no one’s surprise, the Opry has not released any statements about Wallen’s appearance.
Meanwhile, Wallen has become a symbol to fans who believe he’s an example of a “woke” culture that is quick to cancel people for making “a simple mistake.” They say he’s made amends and has apologized enough. Let him go on with his life already.
In March 2003, Natalie Maines was on a roll. The lead singer of the Dixie Chicks (now the Chicks) was the head of a multi-platinum selling group that — like Whitten — had crossed over into the mainstream. On tour in London, as the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq, Maines said she was “ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”
The Chicks soon found themselves cancelled. By whom? The same people protesting the alleged “cancellation” of Wallen.
It’s a reality in America that you can utter a racial slur and have people run to your defense. Make an anti-war statement — albeit one aimed at a person — and some will burn your records and say you should be charged with treason. Or, as a friend said this week, “There’s no greater sin than being unpatriotic in the American lexicon. If you get labeled that, there’s no coming back from it.”
The Reality of Ignorance
In an excellent New York Times essay on Wallen that appears this week, music critic Jon Carmanica outlines the issues surrounding the musician’s return to the traditional country fold. He notes Wallen has “largely opted for gestures of soft reconciliation over those of hard accountability, attempting to garner trust by proximity rather than action, largely shifting the burden onto Black people to forgive him and to do the work of public vouching.”
Carminica references Wallen’s “grimly awkward” interview with Michael Strahan on “Good Morning America,” in which he said use of the word with his friends “is playful, you know. I don’t know if that sounds ignorant but that’s where it really came from. I think I was just ignorant about it. I don’t think I sat down and was like, ‘Hey, is this right or is this wrong?’”
It would be easy to label Wallen as ignorant, especially since his 2020 appearance on “Saturday Night Live” had to be postponed because he violated the show’s Covid-19 protocols. (“SNL,” no stranger to the money and ratings game, later rescheduled him.) Also in 2020, he responded to celebrations over the election of President Biden with an Instagram post that said, “If it’s OK for us to party in the streets with no ‘social distancing’ then we can book shows right now.”
No wonder his fanbase loves him.
We live in a world where, for some, race is a daily issue. For others, it is something they would rather forget and not discuss. If you are rebuked for using a slur at any point in your life, you’re dismissed as “woke” or, worse in some minds, “politically correct.” The slings, rocks and arrows that follow are instruments to blunt rather than deal with a centuries-old problem that shows no signs of going away.
I have issues with both wokeness and with cancel culture, and it’s no wonder society has collective whiplash from this never-ending game of political Ping-Pong. I also understand how many people have and can rationalize art while not agreeing personally or politically with the artist.
But, as a music fan, what truly disturbs me about Wallen — if he truly has changed — is that he has an opportunity to bring his audience with him on the journey. That gesture, as Carminica notes in his essay, would require him to go outside his safe space and risk “introducing dissonance into it,” something he can’t seem to do out of “fear he might lose what ignorance had failed to take from him.”
It’s ignorance that, with the right number of misguided fans and sticks accompanying it, that is just waiting to be stirred up again.