By the time night fell on Feb. 3, 2021, the career of Morgan Wallen, country music’s next superstar, was in freefall. Just 24 hours earlier, a video of Wallen casually using a racial slur outside his Nashville home appeared on TMZ. The next morning it was everywhere, and Wallen was in the eye of an industry-wide backlash. His music was removed from streaming playlists, his label Big Loud Records said he’d been “suspended,” talent agency WME dropped him as a client, and, most notably in radio-driven country music, stations around the U.S. pulled his songs from rotation.
Deemed ineligible to compete for the genre’s major awards and barred from attending the ceremonies, Wallen was, at least in some circles, persona non grata for the better part of last year.
A year later, however, Wallen is on top of the world. This Feb. 3, he’ll kick off a U.S. arena tour in Evansville, Indiana, a sold-out run that includes multiple nights not just in Southern markets like Nashville, Atlanta, and Orange Beach, Alabama, but in coastal hubs Los Angeles and New York (he sold out two nights at Madison Square Garden). On the resale market, pit tickets at some shows are listing for upwards of $1,700. Just like Wallen’s juggernaut Dangerous: The Double Album, the most consumed album of 2021 in all genres, the singer’s Dangerous Tour is shaping up to be one of this year’s biggest successes.
That Wallen has rebounded seemingly unscathed from his scandal is, to some, a repudiation of cancel culture, and just one more exhausting example of ingrained racism to others. Using his album consumption and the hot ticket sales as a metric, it’s not a stretch to say the controversy actually helped Wallen’s career.
“It’s been so obvious that people leaned into this guy,” says a Nashville artist manager speaking on condition of anonymity. “It made him a martyr oddly, to people that hold what I would say are prejudices, and to other people who so firmly believe in being able to say whatever they want. It’s disappointing. I feel like there could have been a situation in which people welcomed him back, but I don’t feel he did the work.”
Seth England, CEO of Wallen’s label Big Loud Records and his manager, disagrees. “Morgan’s doing the work and not virtue signaling. It’s a slower process than you’d think,” England tells Rolling Stone in an email. “And he takes his meetings, sits with what’s said, finds ways to walk it, to internalize it & sometimes even goes back and takes what he learns to the next mentor.
“What Morgan hasn’t done,” England continues, “and it’s caused problems, but I’m proud of him — he’s not used these people, mentors and advisors, throwing out their names and forcing them into this discussion, without their consent. Seeing how it’s hijacked almost every country artist’s interviews for a year, he hasn’t wanted to add to the questions people who’ve been so generous with him are being asked.”
In the wake of the uproar, Wallen did make a string of apologies and promises to “do better.” But the damage control was half-baked at best. A sitdown on Good Morning America in July with host Michael Strahan captured Wallen ill-prepared and confused, admitting — a full six months after the slur video had surfaced — that he hadn’t stopped to consider if country music has a race problem. In the same interview, he talked about donating $500,000 from album sales following the incident to Black organizations, including the Black Music Action Coalition.
But the way the money was ultimately donated was convoluted. Big Loud, not Wallen personally, gave $300,000 to BMAC in the names of 20 people who had counseled Wallen, who could then donate their share to the charity of their choice or keep the money within BMAC. Another $100,000 went to a revived version of an organization called Rock Against Racism. This past December, Wallen’s More Than My Hometown Foundation donated $100,000 to the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, completing the original $500,000 pledge. (Rolling Stone confirmed the donation with a NMAAM representative.)
While Wallen mostly laid low in the weeks after the controversy, he turned up everywhere in the months that followed. He posted photos of a golf outing with Eric Church, surprised fans at a Luke Bryan concert in Nashville, jammed with Church at the VIP opening of a new Broadway nightspot, and hosted a fundraising concert to help victims of Tennessee’s August floods (it raised $835,000). In October, he again reunited with Church, joining him onstage for five songs at Church’s Philadelphia tour stop.
“If there is a lack of real change within the Nashville industry out of this and instead we brought back Morgan Wallen, it represents a very unsurprising but very disappointing ending to this particular story,” says historian Charles L. Hughes, the author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South. “It’s dangerous to welcome him in without there being an accompanying change on the side of racial equity, because it implies that all white people need to do is convince other white people that they’re sorry. When Eric Church brought him out last fall, that’s what I saw there. My bet is what Eric Church was doing was saying, ‘Oh, we’re forgiving and forgetting.’ And that can be more problematic when it’s not accompanied by a serious atonement on [Wallen’s] behalf.”
So far, outside of Wallen’s financial donations, any gesture to illustrate he’s aware of what his controversy represents in country music — like publicly affording a platform to a Black country artist — has been largely absent. Instead, he boosted his Big Loud labelmate Ernest by guesting on the single “Flower Shops” and recorded a feature for rapper Lil Durk’s track “Broadway Girls.”
During the week of Jan. 24, “Flower Shops” was the most added song at country radio and broke the Top 30 of the Country Airplay Chart in just three weeks. Wallen and Ernest performed their duet on the Grand Ole Opry that same month, an appearance that elicited criticism from fellow artists like Jason Isbell and Joy Oladokun. To many, a historic institution like the Grand Ole Opry allowing Wallen back on its stage with little more than a tweet reading, “Surprise!” was country music’s problem with race writ large.
“Once you exhibit certain behaviors, there are certain things you no longer deserve,” says Holly G, the founder of the Black Opry, a grassroots organization that promotes the music of Black performers in country and roots music. “That doesn’t mean you don’t have a career. Him not playing at the Opry doesn’t mean his career is over. It just means he blew an opportunity because he didn’t have the integrity to do it.”
A week after the Opry appearance, Wallen made the most head-scratching cameo of his comeback yet: Taking the stage with Lil Durk at “MLK Freedom Fest,” a multi-artist rap concert held over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in Nashville. According to video of the show, Durk introduced Wallen as being “genuine at heart” and remarked how he’s not canceled.
“Lil Durk is good with him. Start there,” England says. “He came forward because he sees Morgan for who he really is, and that made him reach out for ‘Broadway Girls.’”
Walking onstage, the country singer was met not with approving cheers or outraged boos, but with bemusement.
“Black people don’t really know who he is, because they’ve never been conditioned to pay attention to or give a shit about country music culture, because we aren’t welcome in it,” Holly G says. “If I have a conversation about Morgan Wallen with a Black person, I have to go through the entire backstory of who he is, why he’s controversial. It was probably confusing for them to see some white dude march out onstage. Then the comments Lil Durk was making, they probably had no context for that.”
“The Lil Durk record was so fucking stupid,” says the anonymous manager. “It was like, ‘Let me show you I have street cred.’ That was never in question. Go get a record with Brittney Spencer or give someone a platform who otherwise wouldn’t. Or go sit with Mickey Guyton and convince her why she should endorse you and why you should do a duet together and help her career take off. It’s no less patronizing, but it at least comes from a place of wanting to help another artist within the genre and showing people that he’s not who you thought he was.”
Despite any lingering criticism that may follow him, the reality is that Wallen is not only “back,” he’s hotter than ever. His single “Sand in My Boots” is poised to hit Number One at country radio and his music is back in rotation — even if country radio hasn’t fully re-embraced Wallen as a personality.
“I think there’s some social distancing going on there,” says RJ Curtis, executive director of Country Radio Broadcasters, “where playing the music is one thing, but radio’s traditional tactic of closely aligning themselves with a huge artist via on-air station imaging, or even more so, marketing efforts like billboards and wrapping a station vehicle, aren’t happening in this case. I’ve had several programmers and marketers tell me it may not be time yet — or appropriate — to wrap themselves up with him, as it may be seen as some kind of co-sign, or endorsement of his behavior, which nobody can support.”
Wallen is booking headlining slots on the festival circuit too. He’ll anchor night one of the Tortuga Music Festival in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in April, opposite artists like Luke Combs, Brothers Osborne, Nelly, and The War and Treaty. Brittney Spencer performs on the same day as Wallen. So does his Dangerous Tour opener Larry Fleet (Neither Fleet nor Hardy, Wallen’s other tour mate, chose to comment for this story).
On Wednesday, Wallen was also announced as one of the headliners of the Watershed Festival, held every July in George, Washington. Kane Brown and Miranda Lambert are the other headliners. Like Wallen’s tour, Watershed is produced by Live Nation.
“A lot of those festivals have suffered economically because of Covid and they might see him as a sure thing — and maybe even gettable at an affordable price,” says our manager source, “because he wants to be seen as gaining mainstream acceptance again.”
Wallen is also once again in the awards hunt. After being barred from last year’s ACM Awards, he’s eligible to be nominated when the 2022 ACM nominees are announced this month.
In other words, he is far from canceled. But that may never have been the point to begin with. Hughes says it’s more important to look at the bigger picture — which is not a problem with Wallen, but a problem baked into the country industry.
“Whether or not Morgan Wallen is canceled is of very little interest to me,” Hughes says. “If the argument becomes whether or not Morgan Wallen symbolizes a larger problem, that’s a completely different conversation. It’s not like all of a sudden nobody’s buying his records. You’re not going to end up poor in the United States if you bet on white resentment and white privilege.”
England says that Wallen’s critics should watch what his artist does in the future. “The right move for Morgan right now is not to talk about what he’s doing, but to show us who he is and what he wants to stand for,” he says. “You’ll see more, as he evolves, but no one who is mindful and really trying to understand the deep dynamics goes from zero to perfect by flipping a switch.”
Additional reporting by Jon Freeman.
From Rolling Stone US