During tonight’s (Nov. 10) CMA Awards, one of the most-watched categories will undoubtedly be album of the year.
Among the contenders in this industry-voted category is Morgan Wallen’s 30-song sophomore project Dangerous: The Double Album — which will vie for the honor alongside Brothers Osborne’s Skeletons, Eric Church’s Heart, Carly Pearce’s EP 29, and Chris Stapleton’s Starting Over.
Of the albums nominated, Wallen’s double album is far and away the top seller of the bunch — according to MRC Data, the album is the biggest-selling album of any genre during the first half of 2021. However, Wallen has also been embroiled in scandal for the majority of the year, after video surfaced earlier this year of the singer-songwriter uttering a racial slur at his home in Nashville.
With the release of Dangerous, Wallen saw his popularity surge to new levels. The set debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, a pinnacle reached by only two country albums on that all-genre chart in 2020: Kenny Chesney’s Here and Now, and Luke Combs’s What You See Is What You Get, which spent one week each on top.
Then, on Feb. 2, TMZ released a video of Wallen uttering a racial slur outside of his home in Nashville. Wallen issued an apology shortly thereafter. The backlash from within the music industry was swift — Wallen’s music was pulled from rotation on country radio and top digital service provider-curated streaming playlists. He was briefly suspended from his label home Big Loud Records, and his booking agency WME announced he had been dropped from their roster. Meanwhile, both the CMT Music Awards and the Academy of Country Music Awards stated that he was ineligible to be nominated for or to attend either awards show.
However, despite (or perhaps due to) his music being pulled from country radio and banned from streaming playlists, mass consumption of Wallen’s new set continued unabated, and Dangerous: The Double Album became entrenched atop the Billboard 200 for 10 weeks. The album remains a juggernaut on Billboard‘s Top Country Albums chart, remaining at No. 1 for 38 weeks.
Eventually, country radio let up on its ban — and in August, Wallen’s label Big Loud Records sent another track from Dangerous, “Sand in My Boots,” to country radio; the track is currently in the top 20 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
Wallen did pick up three wins earlier this year at the Billboard Music Awards, including a nod for Top Country Album (though Wallen was not invited to attend the ceremony). But while BBMAs finalists are determined by performance on the Billboard charts, the CMA Awards winners are decided by voting members of the over 6,000-member strong organization — members who work full-time in various sectors of the country music industry.
Thus, what would it say about the country music industry if Wallen were to win the album of the year honor? One artist manager tells Billboard that if Dangerous were to win, it would likely be a recognition from the industry of the album’s sales this year.
“I think if he would win, to me, it seems like people would be putting the consumer in the front position of the judgment,” says John Peets, who manages Church, Brothers Osborne and Ashley McBryde. “Just going, ‘Hey, this record has sold more and made more impact than anything else, any other choice, with the actual consumer’ — devoid of how you feel about the guy personally, or what he may have done or not done. You’re voting with your vision of not what you think, but what others think..”
Other industry members look at the national media attention a Wallen win would garner.
“The perception will be that country music embraces racism,” says Beverly Keel, dean of Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Media and Entertainment and co-founder of the organization Nashville Music Equality. “People may strictly vote the music, but the way it will be perceived nationally is negatively.
“Because of the situation and the national attention that it continues to garner, meaning will be attributed to this win beyond the music,” Keel adds. “It’s likely already an issue to most voters, meaning that they stop and think about it before they vote. Now, they may say, ‘Oh, I’m only voting for the music’ — but the fact that they had to stop and think about it means it’s an ongoing issue. It’s going to be easier [for the industry] if anyone else wins. Is that fair? Is that right? No, based on if you are just voting on the music, but it’s going to be an issue at every awards show — should he be nominated, and what happens if he wins? So I hate the message it sends out if he wins. But it’s a great album, and he’s a good artist.”
The CMA has previously stated that Wallen has not been invited to attend the CMA Awards, and his nominations are restricted only to “collaborative” categories which also honor other members of the industry — not individual categories (such as male vocalist of the year). Wallen’s lone nomination this year is for album of the year, an honor that goes not only to the artist, but also to the album’s producer(s) and mix engineer(s). The 30-track Dangerous: The Double Album was produced by Dave Cohen, Matt Dragstrem, Jacob Durrett, Charlie Handsome and Joey Moi (who also served as the mix engineer).
If Dangerous wins, it could also mean voters looked at the contributions of all the creatives on the project beyond Wallen and, at 30 tracks, that list is long.
“Album of the year is not just about the artist,” says one country music executive. “If you have 30 songs, that’s probably, say, 60 songwriters. Then you have publishers, musicians, background singers” who worked on the album.
The exec further says a win means voters were able to separate the music from Wallen’s racial slur. “Album of the year is based on quality of work — and if you look at Morgan’s record, for a mainstream country record, it’s extreme quality, it’s hard to deny that,” they say. “You can have all the other controversy surrounding that, but the music is quality. I don’t know if it means any grand statement if it wins other than its quality.”
Triple 8 Management’s Scott Stem agrees that voters may be looking at the overall work, but sees the issue as a complicated one.
“The country music industry as a whole is more progressive than the stereotype would have you believe — but I am sure that if Wallen’s album wins the award, our industry will be viewed through a negative lens by many,” he says. “However, I think the truth is that, if it wins, most of the voters will have chosen it because they are connected to it in some business fashion, via label/publishers/etc. — or they will vote for it in recognition of its massive success with consumers. I don’t think it will truly mean anything more than that. But personally, I think this controversy is overshadowing the fact that there are great albums from other artists in the category, and the award could go to any of them.”
The TMZ video of Wallen surfaced during a time when the country music industry’s lack of diversity was again in the spotlight, especially during the racial reckoning in America following George Floyd’s death in 2020. Though some artists of color, including Darius Rucker, Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen and Blanco Brown, have earned chart-topping country radio hits in recent years, both the country music’s creative and executive ranks remain overwhelmingly white.
The past year or so has seen numerous discussions regarding the long-held racial tensions surrounding the country music industry. At this year’s Country Radio Seminar, Luke Combs and Maren Morris discussed diversity and inclusion in country music. Nashville Music Equality hosted several panels, giving artists and music industry members of color a platform to share their experiences and challenges working within the industry, and to discuss how to move forward to gain greater equity and opportunities. Rissi Palmer launched the Apple radio show Color Me Country to highlight artists of color within the genre, while some artists and media members forged the Black Opry community, to highlight and advocate for artists of color within genres including country, folk and Americana.
Meanwhile, Wallen has joined artists including Church and Luke Bryan onstage during their concerts, while HARDY, a contributor on Dangerous, has spoken out against Wallen not being invited to attend the CMA Awards.
In the past year, all three major country music awards shows — the CMAs, ACMs and CMT Music Awards — featured black-and-white artist co-host pairings. Mickey Guyton became the first Black female solo artist to be nominated for a Grammy in a country category, while Allen picked up his first ACM Award win for new male artist of the year (an award he has twice been nominated for). At the same awards show, Brown also picked up his first win, for video of the year for his “Worldwide Beautiful” clip.
Heading into Wednesday’s awards, Brown is nominated for three honors, marking his first CMA Awards nominations, which come four years after Brown notched his first No. 1 hit in 2017, with “What Ifs.”
Guyton and Allen are both nominated for new artist of the year, marking the first time in CMA Awards history that two Black artists have been nominated for the honor in the same year. This is Guyton’s first CMA nomination, following a year that saw the singer-songwriter break through with songs like “Black Like Me” and “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” that are centered on or are influenced by her unique experiences as a Black female artist in country music. The momentum spurred the long-awaited release of her full-length debut album, Remember Her Name, which comes a decade after she signed her label deal with Capitol Records Nashville.
If Dangerous: The Double Album should win album of the year, Keel says the resulting perceptions surrounding the win could end up doing more harm than good on both sides of the issue.
“If he wins, then it continues the debate and it reinforces the Morgan Wallen fans who were doubling down on their support — which I believe does not help the movement for social justice in country music, because for those of us who want to bring about more diversity and inclusion in country, you want people to have open hearts and open minds,” Keel says. “If it looks like Morgan Wallen is continuing to be attacked a year later, his fans and supporters’ hearts and minds will not be as open to conversations promoting diversity and inclusion. Or it may be defeating the purpose if these ramifications continue much longer.
“My hope is that we turn this into a learning moment for everybody — not just an ongoing punishment for Morgan Wallen. Because the country music industry has long held and systematic issues of racism that need to be addressed, and while we are continuing to focus on Morgan Wallen, and pointing our finger at him through a window, then we don’t have to look in a mirror and see what we’re doing wrong. So, my hope is that we soon take the focus off of Morgan, let him get on with his life, and focus on industry-wide issues of racism and discrimination that affect artists, employees and fans.”
Melinda Newman provided assistance on this story.