When Ernest made his Grand Ole Opry debut performance on Saturday (Jan. 8), the audience got a surprise as Morgan Wallen joined the singer-songwriter on stage for their new collaboration, “Flower Shops.” Ernest had co-written Wallen’s 2020 No. 1 hit “More Than My Hometown.”
Wallen posted photos from his unannounced appearance on his Instagram Sunday (Jan. 9), and while many of his fans spoke out in favor of the performance, the Opry appearance also drew backlash from several artists and The Black Opry — an influential, fast-growing collective of Black country music artists and supporters– who expressed disappointment and frustration that the “7 Summers” singer was allowed onstage at the country music institution after a video surfaced of Wallen uttering a racial slur in February 2021.
— Grand Ole Opry (@opry) January 9, 2022
The surprise performance drew ire from many, including Jason Isbell, who tweeted, “Last night @opry you had a choice- either upset one guy and his ‘team,’ or break the hearts of a legion of aspiring Black country artists. You chose wrong and I’m real sad for a lot of my friends today. Not surprised though. Just sad.”
Isbell further commented in response to another Twitter user: “The thing that really upsets me is bigger than one person’s words. It’s the idea of a young Black artist walking into that venue and wondering if ANYBODY is on their side. What a lot of us consider to be a grand ole honor can be terrifying for some. Doesn’t have to be that way.”
Last night @opry you had a choice- either upset one guy and his “team,” or break the hearts of a legion of aspiring Black country artists. You chose wrong and I’m real sad for a lot of my friends today. Not surprised though. Just sad.
— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) January 9, 2022
Singer-songwriter Joy Oladokun shared her devastation at seeing Wallen onstage at the Opry. She tweeted, “Morgan Wallen’s thoughtless redemption tour is the nail in the coffin of me realizing these systems, and this town is really not for us. imma keep making my lil music in my attic, y’all can listen if you want. i don’t know that i’ll do this work forever.”
Other artists and music fans expressed anger and disappointment for what felt like an about-face for the Grand Ole Opry, who in June 2020 released a statement against racism following the death of George Floyd that read, “Racism is real. It is unacceptable, and it has no place at the Grand Ole Opry.”
Wallen’s Opry performance on Saturday also came one day after the 55th anniversary of Charley Pride‘s debut performance on the Grand Ole Opry in 1967, when Pride became the first Black singer to perform on the storied stage. The Opry tweeted about Pride’s anniversary.
The Black Opry founder Holly G tweeted a letter written to the Grand Ole Opry’s leadership, seeking an explanation.
In the interest of transparency I would like you all to know that this letter was shared with the Opry this morning, via email. We may not get the answers we want, but we will be heard. https://t.co/nZY9lTYHtp
— The Black Opry (@BlackOpry) January 9, 2022
The letter said that The Black Opry had previously been in talks with the Grand Ole Opry about “possible programming opportunities for The Black Opry,” but added, “at this time I’d like to express that I no longer have any interest in participating with the Opry in any capacity unless there is some clear form of accountability and structural change.”
Yola, who has two Grammy nominations at this year’s ceremony, retweeted The Black Opry’s letter to the Grand Ole Opry. Shee noted, “Please take time to read this letter penned by @BlackOpry founder @_love_holly_ that pulls no punches about the Opry and this MW dumpster fire! I for one will be watching this space with intent!” #blackopry #BlackTwitter
Please take time to read this letter penned by @BlackOpry founder @_love_holly_ that pulls no punches about the Opry and this MW dumpster fire! I for one will be watching this space with intent! 👀#blackopry #BlackTwitter https://t.co/fD8xRoxPKi
— Yola (@iamyola) January 9, 2022
Allison Russell, whose debut solo album Outside Child and song “Nightflyer” earned three Grammy nominations, also praised the work of The Black Opry, and recalled her own Grand Ole Opry debut performance last May. “So grateful for you and your advocacy,Holly. I feel heartbroken,” she tweeted in response to The Black Opry. “I was so proud to debut @opry last May & overjoyed that @amythystkiah & @TheValerieJune also debuted in 2021 — it felt like a long overdue shift toward greater inclusivity-beyond tokenism…this is such a backslide.”
Rissi Palmer added, “I believe now is the time to watch and move. Watch how people are responding and reacting and move accordingly. Systems only work when we continue to participate in them. The moment we stop and divest, they lose their power…I can’t say this enough: let’s stop running into a burning building. Let’s create platforms and systems that celebrate and welcome us. Never again will I beg anyone to love/accept me and neither should anyone else. Anyone that wants to participate in that, they can come sit w/ me.”
Singer-songwriter Will Hoge added of The Black Opry founder Holly G, “I met @_love_holly_ & loved her instantly. I was at the @BlackOpry show at Exit/In & stood slack jawed at the greatness I was witnessing from every artist on that stage. I’m embarrassed that the @opry didn’t put words into action to help make that genre more inclusive and safe.”
After TMZ posted a video in February 2021 of Wallen uttering a racial slur outside of his Nashville home, the country star was temporarily suspended by his record label Big Loud, and dropped from his booking agency WME (though, as previously reported by Billboard, a WME agent is still booking shows for Wallen “as a friend”). He was also deemed ineligible for certain awards and not invited to attend several awards shows, including the ACM Awards and CMA Awards. In July, Wallen spoke with Michael Strahan about the situation during an interview on Good Morning America. The musician told the host at the time that he had thought the use of the racial slur was “playful,” but admitted that it was “ignorant” and “wrong.”
Country radio and DSPs also temporarily banned Wallen’s music, though in August, he made his re-entry to country radio with his current single, “Sand in My Boots,” which is currently in the top 10 on Billboard‘s radio-driven Country Airplay chart.
During 2021, sales of Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album skyrocketed, with the album ultimately becoming the most popular album of the year in the United States, according to MRC data. The album finished the year with 3.226 million equivalent album units. Notably, Wallen included a rendition of Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” on Dangerous: The Double Album. As the writer of “Cover Me Up,” Isbell announced he would donate money from sales of the song to the NAACP.
On Feb. 3, 2022, one year after Wallen’s controversy began, Wallen will embark on his 54-city The Dangerous Tour, including three shows at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena in March.
Billboard has reached out to the Grand Ole Opry, as well as teams for Ernest and Wallen, for comment.