On Thursday, Morgan Wallen kicks off one of the year’s most anticipated tours in Evansville, Ind. The eight-month, Live Nation-produced outing includes two stops at New York’s Madison Square Garden next week and three at Bridgestone Arena in Wallen’s adopted hometown of Nashville in March.
The opening date comes exactly a year after Wallen’s career took a shocking turn. On Feb. 3, 2021, the day after TMZ revealed a video of a drunken Wallen casually calling a friend the N -word — and with his second Big Loud set, Dangerous: The Double Album, sitting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — leading radio chains, streaming services and CMT dropped him from their playlists, his label “suspended” him, WME removed him from its agency roster, the Academy of Country Music declared him ineligible for the 2021 ACM Awards and other organizations condemned his actions.
Since then, Wallen’s career has not only rebounded but exploded, with his temporary exile spurring his fans on. Dangerous, which came out Jan. 8, 2021, surged in sales, spending 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — the most of any album in nearly five years — and earning 3.226 million equivalent albums last year, making it the most popular album in the U.S., according to MRC Data. As of this week, it has spent 54 nonconsecutive weeks in the chart’s Top 10 — the second most of any country album ever. In December, “Broadway Girls,” a duet with rapper Lil Durk and Wallen’s first new release since Dangerous, topped Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, and Wallen’s own “Sand in My Boots,” stands at No. 4 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
While the fans and radio stations, which widely re-added Wallen’s music last summer, have largely moved past any issue they might have had with Wallen, members of the country music community interviewed by Billboard are still wrestling with how to proceed. Some say Wallen deserves forgiveness and the ability to put his actions behind him, while others want more public evidence that he’s educated himself on racial issues as he pledged to do in an apologetic Feb. 10 Instagram video. Two Black leaders Billboard talked to, including one who met with Wallen last year, also weighed in.
Despite where they fall on the spectrum, everyone interviewed by Billboard expressed a desire to move the spotlight off Wallen, agreeing that a continued focus on the star distracts from the much greater issue of racism and lack of diversity in country music.
“Morgan Wallen has sucked up all the energy for a year,” says Beverly Keel, dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University outside of Nashville. “Let’s talk about how we can improve country music. As long as we obsess about Morgan Wallen, we don’t have to address the serious problems.”
Keel understands the complexity over when the time is right — for some it may never be — to talk about Wallen without referencing the video. “On one hand, you want to say he should be able to resume his life,” she says. “On the other hand, it’s just as wrong today as it was when he said the word, so it’s a tough situation.”
While some acts expressed dismay at Wallen’s actions — and the exclusionary country music eco-system that is dominated by white, male artists — many of Wallen’s fellow mainstream country artists have remained silent or shown support for the singer by liking his Instagram posts, including photos of him fishing with his musical hero Eric Church and jumping on stage with Luke Bryan.
Many, like “Fancy Like” hitmaker Walker Hayes, can separate the sin from the sinner. “My greatest need, as a believer, is just continual mercy,” Hayes told Billboard, when asked if the time was right for Wallen to re-emerge. “I do not know [Wallen] personally, but I do know he is a gifted artist…… I love pretty much anything he puts out. His actions, they don’t deter me from enjoying his music. I haven’t really kept a close eye on what he’s done to make amends for the trouble he got in. All I can say is I enjoy Morgan’s music and obviously don’t condone, and I don’t want to perpetuate, racism by any means. I can understand if someone was like, ‘Ah, too soon.'”
One Nashville executive believes the intense national attention that Wallen’s video attracted — and the swift recriminations — were heightened due to the increased tension around racial injustice following George Floyd’s 2020 murder by Minneapolis police. “If there was a worse time for him to do what he did, I don’t think you could have found it,” the executive says. “Instead of saying, ‘Hey the guy made a mistake,’ he became the poster child for the anger that was going on in America. That’s not to say he didn’t say something wrong and stupid, [but] it became where you couldn’t forgive him because the whole world was so focused on it.”
As another executive adds, “I think it’s going to be very difficult for anybody to ever quantify a moment when everything is okay again [with Wallen], because I think people are so scared to be viewed as racist themselves.”
As the country music industry collectively grapples with racism and a lack of diversity, Wallen’s slur remains a thorny issue, says RJ Curtis, executive director of the Country Radio Seminar (CRS).
“There’s this divide between what the fans are going to do and what they care about — which is the great music — and the industry, [which] struggles with it because they can’t align themselves” with what Wallen said, Curtis says. “They can’t co-sign onto that.”
It’s rare for a country act to have the year’s most popular album, but this predicament meant that the country industry couldn’t unabashedly celebrate Wallen’s accomplishments. Instead of being able to herald Wallen’s commercial successes as a sign of country music’s soaring popularity — as the industry did 30 years ago when Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ The Wind became the first country album to debut at No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard 200 — the industry remained largely mute.
“It made me mad,” says another country music executive. “There were a few weeks before [the video] happened when the project was doing phenomenal and we are waving the flag, ‘Look at what country music can do!’ Now you can’t wave the flag in the same way because of the mistake that the guy made.”
Other companies are taking cues from Wallen’s fans. When asked in October about adding Wallen back to its country radio stations, Audacy’s executive vp/head of programming Jeff Sottolano told Billboard, “Our job is to follow the audience in a lot of respects and to be responsive to what our consumers want. I think that in large part they’ve demonstrated that they are ready to forgive him and give him an opportunity to redeem himself. “
Like Audacy, most programmers and streamers are back in the Wallen business, although CMT still has not re-added his music. Senior vp of music strategy and talent Leslie Fram declined to comment for this story.
Yet when Wallen appeared unannounced on the Grand Ole Opry on Jan. 8 to join Ernest on their fast-rising single, “Flower Shops,” controversy erupted.
The hallowed institution drew online backlash with several artists, including Jason Isbell, Yola and Rissi Palmer, as well as the Black Opry — an influential collective of Black country music artists and supporters founded in April– expressing frustration Wallen was allowed back onstage after his transgression, especially after the Opry tweeted in June 2020, “Racism is real. It is unacceptable. And it has no place at The Grand Ole Opry.” The incident makes it “evident how slippery that slope is” for some organizations bringing Wallen back into the fold, Curtis says.
The day after Wallen’s appearance, the Black Opry’s founder Holly G posted on Twitter an email she sent to The Opry expressing her disappointment. “A stage that was once a dream destination for many Black artists has now cemented itself as one of the many Nashville stages on which we know we are not respected,” she wrote, adding that the Black Opry was no longer interested in any programming opportunities with the Opry the two entities had previously discussed.
She has yet to receive a response from the Opry and Opry representatives did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Billboard.
For Holly G, the Opry’s lack of response serves as an unfortunate blueprint for any awards shows that wants to showcase Wallen after banning him last year, or for any television program or radio-promoted concert that wants him on their stage. “[The Opry] got lashed on social media a good bit, but that blows over,” she says. “[They] ignored it and moved on…So now they set the tone for other institutions to welcome him back and they don’t have to acknowledge it.”
As the 2022 awards season launches, it remains to be seen when Wallen, who won the CMA Award for new artist of the year in 2020, will return to the awards circuit. Academy of Country Music Award nominations will be announced next week. Wallen was on the first-round ballot, but the academy did not respond when asked if he would be invited to perform on the March 7 ceremony if nominated. He was not nominated for any Grammy awards.
Some executives say they would feel better about publicly supporting Wallen if he had spoken out more on the work he has done. Following his Feb. 10 apology video, he posted a handwritten letter on Twitter in April announcing he had no plans to tour during summer 2021, and reiterated, “I’ve made some mistakes… I apologized because I was truly sorry and have been making my amends. “
The only interview Wallen gave was in July. During an awkward conversation with Good Morning America’s Michael Strahan, Wallen announced that he was donating $500,000 — the amount he and Big Loud estimated he had made from the spike in sales for his album after the video emerged. He also said he met with members of advocacy organization Black Music Action Coalition (BMAC), Black record executives Kevin Liles and Eric Hutcherson, and gospel singer BeBe Winans. When Strahan asked if country music had an issue with racism, Wallen said, “It would seem that way. I haven’t really sat and thought about that.”
Since then, Wallen has remained silent. However, he has made good on the donations he pledged. As first reported by USA Today and confirmed to Billboard, Wallen, through his More Than My Hometown Foundation, finished dispersing the $500,000 in January by donating $100,000 to the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville after he visited the museum twice and met with museum vp Tuwisha Rogers-Simpson.
Additionally, $100,000 went to Rock Against Racism (donated by Big Loud on behalf of Wallen from his royalties), the BMAC, which received $165,000; and another $135,000 to various charities handpicked by those who counseled Wallen, as overseen by the BMAC.
BMAC co-founder/co-chair and artist manager Willie “Prophet ” Stiggers tells Billboard six BMAC board members met with Wallen last February after the singer’s team reached out. The hour-long meeting “went well,” Prophet says, with BMAC members sharing stories of systemic, institutional and personal racism. The BMAC also suggested actions Wallen could take, “if he was serious about atoning or trying to show his fans that this behavior was inappropriate, that racism needs to end,” Prophet says, including supporting the [now stalled] George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and using his platform to ban the Confederate flag at country concerts. (Last year, Maren Morris suggested during CRS that she would no longer play festivals that flew Confederate flags, while on the same panel, Luke Combs apologized for his use of the flag on some of his imagery. Years ago, Alabama quit using the image on any of its merchandise).
Wallen, whom Prophet says “appeared to be extremely sincere,” told the BMAC members that he was going to rehab and the conversations would reconvene after that.
Several weeks later, the BMAC members who met with Wallen received an email from him that included 14 other people, unfamiliar to the BMAC, that he had also met with. Wallen thanked them for their counsel and wrote he wanted to make a $15,000 donation in the name of each of the 20 people on the email to organizations of their choosing. The email recipients could also opt to donate their portion to the BMAC.
While appreciative, Prophet says, “We were still anticipating the follow-up meeting to discuss [his] platform being used and him making some real strides at being an advocate for the anti-racism movement.”
The group has not had another meeting with Wallen, though has continued conversations with his manager/Big Loud partner Seth England. “We were told from [Seth] that Morgan was not prepared to support those things at the moment. He didn’t want to get political, so that’s where that landed,” Prophet says.
“We thought there was a truly missed opportunity for him to wake up a fan base that will be the future congresspeople, the future senators, the future leaders of this country,” Prophet says. “He and his platform could do so much in helping to educate that base on the realities of this nation that could lead to a more equitable society.”
England tells Billboard Wallen remains open to other ideas, efforts and partnerships with BMAC.
A representative for Wallen adds more meetings are planned with Black community leaders but declined to share names until the meetings happen. Wallen declined to comment for this story.
“Morgan was never the issue,” Prophet says, adding the bigger conversation is with the industry and Wallen’s fans. “The streams went up, the success continued. It was clear the fans weren’t going anywhere, so I’m not surprised by sold-out tours or this and that, because it was clear that the fan base wasn’t offended,” he says.
Holly G agrees, noting that in some ways Wallen opened the door to difficult conversations the industry has ignored for too long.
“The story and the narrative are so much bigger and more important than him,” she says, adding her interview with Billboard is the last time she will talk about Wallen. “He didn’t put a black eye on country music, he revealed country music to be exactly what we as Black people have been experiencing. What he did from our vantage point was help us open up some of these conversations because for a long time we’re being told, ‘You’re just imagining that.’ What he did was lay his cards on the table so we could say, ‘What about now? Do you see now? Do you get it?'”
Assistance on this story provided by Jessica Nicholson.