This story is part of Billboard’s 2022 Grammy Preview issue, highlighting the artists, issues and trends that will define awards season. Read our cover story on Halsey, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross here.
As the album of the year race takes shape, the music industry must grapple with a difficult reality: The year’s most popular album is also its most controversial contender.
At the beginning of 2021, Morgan Wallen established himself as country music’s biggest new star: His single, “7 Summers,” had debuted in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, and his Dangerous: The Double Album scored blockbuster sales upon its January release. Then, just weeks after Dangerous bowed at No. 1, TMZ posted a video of an intoxicated Wallen using the N-word. It wasn’t the first time Wallen’s name had made headlines for less-than-desirable reasons — in 2020, he was arrested in Nashville for drunk and disorderly conduct, then disinvited from Saturday Night Live for violating its COVID-19 safety protocols.
This time, though, the repercussions were immediate and wide-ranging. His label, Big Loud Records (which partnered with Republic Records on Wallen’s music in 2020), suspended his contract, and major streaming services removed his songs from their biggest playlists. The Academy of Country Music Awards ruled him ineligible for its April gala; at the Country Music Association Awards, which will take place Nov. 10, Dangerous is nominated for album of the year, but Wallen himself is banned from the ceremony.
The Recording Academy has yet to issue any kind of proclamation about Wallen’s Grammy eligibility or attendance at the next ceremony in January, but in the meantime Big Loud and Republic have confirmed that Wallen has been submitted in eight categories, including album of the year, record of the year and song of the year (for “7 Summers”), along with four different country categories. And if Wallen wasn’t under fire, Dangerous would likely be too big for the academy to ignore. Five of the last six albums that topped the year-end Billboard 200 chart also received album of the year nominations, and Wallen’s fans didn’t exactly abandon him: After TMZ’s post of the clip, sales and streaming numbers for Dangerous spiked, the album spent an additional six weeks atop the Billboard 200, and it has now earned a 2021-best 2.7 million equivalent album units, according to MRC Data. With that kind of commercial success, a nod for the top prize may be inevitable.
But with the timing of Grammy voting, the path ahead for the Recording Academy isn’t clear. Eight months after the incident, Wallen remains in a kind of professional purgatory. Country radio has gradually started playing his songs again, and artists including Eric Church, Luke Bryan and Kid Rock have welcomed him onstage, but the kind of mainstream appearances and promotion that would signal a full-blown comeback have yet to return.
Part of that hesitancy, says Nashville Music Equality co-founder Beverly Keel, is that the country community, especially its artists of color, thinks Wallen “did the crime, but he hasn’t done the time, because he’s not showing that he’s putting in the time to talk to the Black community to learn why this term is so offensive.” Following the February incident, Wallen apologized, calling his use of the racial slur “unacceptable and inappropriate,” and in July, he pledged a $500,000 donation to racial justice charities; sources say that further anti-racism initiatives have been presented to Wallen’s team, but nothing has been finalized.
“I just think he needs to show that he has done the work, that he understands why it was so wrong,” says Keel. “And then the conversation will turn to something else.”
Until then, Wallen scoring a handful of nominations would result in “head-shaking, eye-rolling and brow-wiping” from a country music community that is striving to be more inclusive, says RJ Curtis, executive director at Country Radio Broadcasters. “It’s a tough one for the industry, because they don’t like an artist behaving that way,” he continues. “Nashville gets a lot of s–t thrown about it being racist and insensitive, but nobody here accepted or normalized [what Wallen said].”’
Nashville insiders say it’s still anyone’s guess how Wallen will fare when Grammy nominations are announced Nov. 23. One Grammy board member points out that if this controversy had occurred as recently as last year, a Big Four nod likely would have been much harder for the country star to get. At that time, nomination review committees still discussed the top 20 vote-getters for those categories and picked eight nominees out of that group. Now, with those committees disbanded by the academy in April, any voters can champion Wallen from the privacy of their own homes and send him into the Big Four.
If Wallen does get shut out, Keel believes it will be a watershed moment for the Grammys — proof, after years of problematic artists earning award nominations, of a shift in how voters consider an artist’s moral behavior in the critical evaluation of his or her art. “It’s one of the best albums made in Nashville last year,” says Keel of Dangerous. “But voters may be more likely to vote for character over creativity.”