Is Morgan Wallen Country’s Next Global Star?
With his unmistakable voice, backwoods bona fides and rule-breaker charm, Morgan Wallen has become a country streaming sensation. His team is ready to make him a global star.
One summer night in 2019, Morgan Wallen got his ear pierced. The 27-year-old country singer-songwriter was touring with Florida Georgia Line, along with his fellow opener and close collaborator HARDY. Wallen had been eyeing a dangling cross earring, and HARDY had ordered it from Amazon. So, instead of going to the doctor or even a mall kiosk, Wallen imbibed some liquid courage and surrendered the duties to his buddy — who stabbed a guitar string through his ear.
“It was HARDY’s last night on tour, and we were feeling no pain,” Wallen remembers fondly today over Zoom. He knew by then, after all, that a seemingly impetuous act like a tour bus piercing could end up an unlikely genius move. About a year earlier, Wallen had decided on a whim to adopt a certain statement haircut after seeing a photo of his father rocking it in his younger days. “He came into the office and someone said, ‘Morgan’s got a mullet,’ ” recalls his manager, Big Loud partner/CEO Seth England, with a laugh. The label had just shot marketing photos and videos for Wallen with a completely different look. Then again, England wasn’t exactly surprised: “We were already used to him being the rebel on our roster.”
Wallen reckons his rebellious streak stems from his upbringing as a preacher’s kid who “was supposed to just be the leading example of Christianity,” an expectation he hated. “From a child, I was going to do the opposite. I can’t help it. It’s just who I am. Like I’ve got something to prove on my own.” And right now, he’s doing just that. Crowned the Country Music Association’s best new artist in November, Wallen is, on the surface, a conventional country boy: a native of the two-stoplight town of Sneedville, Tenn., who makes music that taps into those rural roots, small-town family values and sense of place. Both on- and offstage, he’s partial to sleeveless plaid button-downs (the perfect complement to that mullet). In the defiant “Still Goin’ Down” from his just-released, 30-track Dangerous: The Double Album, he proudly calls himself “more podunk than pop.”
But Wallen’s (often alcohol-soaked) songs about love, friendship and heartache — delivered in his pleasingly gruff, instantly recognizable baritone — have catapulted him to a kind of success far from typical for a country act. With over 3.2 billion career on-demand audio streams in the United States alone, he’s a major force behind his genre’s recent streaming boom; while overall streaming rose 3.1% in 2020 compared with pre-pandemic numbers, country soared 14.6%, according to MRC Data. Four of his first six singles reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, with “Whiskey Glasses” topping the 2019 Top Country Airplay year-end tally and “Chasin’ You” claiming the same spot in 2020 — making Wallen the first artist in 13 years to achieve that double shot.
Now, Wallen is poised to reach an even wider audience. Big Loud Records has partnered with pop powerhouse Republic Records in a bid to make him a truly global country star. That could be a tall task. The same good-natured unruliness that informs Wallen’s down-to-earth appeal has, of late, sometimes backfired: In October, he was disinvited from his debut Saturday Night Live performance when footage of his mask-free, decidedly un-pandemic-appropriate behavior at a football game (and bar after it) exploded on social media. And though Wallen has largely recovered from that — with an earnest apology and, ultimately, a return to SNL — he and his team face a conundrum: how to translate the very American specificity that makes him distinct to the widest audience possible. Can an artist whose new album features song titles like “Country A$$ Shit” and “Rednecks, Red Letters, Red Dirt” take on the world without diluting his sound?
“The internet does not stop at the Atlantic Ocean,” says Republic CEO Monte Lipman. “The world is becoming a smaller place. It’s not just, ‘Here’s a country crossover record.’ It’s, ‘Here’s a global superstar who happens to have music that’s resonating in the country marketplace.’ ” Wallen seems to already be proving his point. Last summer, he posted a snippet on Instagram of himself playing “7 Summers,” a song he wasn’t even sure he’d include on Dangerous — then watched it blow up on TikTok, ultimately inspiring over 16,000 unique videos. “I didn’t know what TikTok was,” he confesses. “But we recorded ‘7 Summers’ and put it out as quick as we could.” It ended up setting an Apple Music first-day record for a country song, with 4.6 million streams, and entered Apple’s Global Top 100 chart at No. 3 — alongside songs from Drake, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. “Everybody’s going to be playing catch-up in 2021, figuring out how to be as big as he is,” says Jay Liepis, head of business partnerships at Apple Music Nashville.
In his own way, Wallen is still figuring out how to be that big too. But just a few years into his career, he’s ready to make 2021 the start of a new era — for himself, and for his genre. He points to Luke Combs, a fellow country boy turned streaming success, as a compatriot. “I feel like we really have a position to usher country music into a streaming era,” says Wallen. “All these people are probably like, ‘Who the hell is Morgan Wallen?’ But it’s cool to get to be at the forefront of country music to say, ‘Hey, our fans are here too, now — just so you know.’ ”
In 2014, a fresh-faced, clean-cut 20-year-old Wallen was a contestant on season six of The Voice. He didn’t yet sport the mullet, nor did he have any clue how to break into the music industry; he’d only recently started playing guitar and writing songs. But coach Shakira sensed he had something special: She turned her chair less than 10 seconds into his performance of Howie Day’s pop ballad “Collide.” “Your voice is unique,” she said. “I think there are no voices like your voice on today’s radio.”
Despite her praise, Wallen ended up on Usher’s team, then Adam Levine’s, before getting cut — ironically, when he sang Florida Georgia Line’s “Stay,” the first country song he performed on the show. “That kid was really unsure of who he was just in general,” says Wallen of the experience. Back then, he was, by his own admission, a little adrift. In high school he had been a star pitcher and shortstop, but his dreams of playing college — and potentially pro — baseball had been dashed by a senior year arm injury. After his Voice elimination, Wallen paused to regroup.
“The disappointments just made me dig deeper and figure out why I didn’t win,” he says. “Some things in life are out of your control. Being the best you can be isn’t. I didn’t feel like I was the best I could have been. So I practiced harder and really tried to make my voice second nature.”
Less than a year later, his hard work paid off. Wallen had released a 5-song EP, Stand Alone, through indie label Panacea Records, including single “Spin You Around” (which has since earned nearly 40 million plays on Spotify). An attorney sent Wallen’s music to WME partner Kevin Neal, who a few weeks later invited Wallen to Nashville to sing for him. Drawn to Wallen’s writing and voice — and the fact that he thought the young singer resembled Sons of Anarchy star Charlie Hunnam — Neal signed Wallen on the spot.
Mike Bachta, then of Working Group Artist Management (who co-managed Wallen from late 2014 to July 2017 with Dirk Hemsath), sent the music to England, while Neal also talked up Wallen to Big Loud.
Along with his partners (producer Joey Moi and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer Craig Wiseman), England planned to sign Wallen only to Big Loud’s publishing division. Then he brought him in to play live. “That voice just struck me,” recalls England, echoing Shakira’s reaction to Wallen. “You know exactly who it is when it comes on the radio.” In addition to his own material, Wallen played Eric Church’s “Talladega.” “He jacked the key way up because he was trying to impress us,” says England. “He just melted it. It was a very memorable performance.”
It’s a common Nashville practice for a publishing company to schedule a writing session with unproven talent to test out their skills. The results for Wallen, however, were anything but. The first song he and Wiseman wrote together (with Jamie Moore) was “Chasin’ You.” Big Loud signed Wallen to not only a publishing deal but also its new record label, its second signing after Chris Lane. “Even though they’d only signed one other artist and didn’t have an established track record, it just felt right,” Wallen says. “I loved the family feeling there and that the label did things their own way.”
Launched in 2015 as a companion to Big Loud’s publishing and management divisions, Big Loud Records arrived just as streaming was starting to dominate in the United States — and at the time, recalls England, some friends in Nashville treated it “like a dirty word.” But having co-managed Florida Georgia Line — country’s first true streaming stars — from 2012 to 2020, England knew it could be a powerful tool. “Streaming can provide the road map for the unknown. If you don’t have a playbook in mind, it can provide you one,” he says. “If you have one, it can be a confident compass to emphasize the best moments of an artist’s career.”
Today, Big Loud’s roster has expanded to include Jake Owen, Hailey Whitters, Mason Ramsey and Wallen’s collaborator HARDY, and England’s motto — “Streaming is perfect for developing, and radio is perfect for proving” — guides their careers: No song goes straight to terrestrial radio before it has proved its success through audio/video streaming and Shazam searches. It’s a system refined by trial and error. “We had some singles not go the distance, and that’s where we learned,” says England. “We rarely miss now.”
To wit: After Wallen’s first single, “The Way I Talk,” peaked at No. 30 on Country Airplay, Big Loud’s early analytics suggested that his second could be his breakthrough. The 2018 song “Up Down” got a boost from an FGL feature — the pair wanted to help out newcomer Wallen just as Luke Bryan had for its own early hit “This Is How We Roll.” With its references to Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Freebird” and BFE — backwoods slang for “bumf–k Egypt,” or the sticks — the laid-back tune became his first Country Airplay No. 1.
For Wallen, those references aren’t just Southern small-town calling cards — they’re what he knows best. Raised in the same place as “King of Bluegrass” Jimmy Martin, he asked for a fiddle for Christmas when he was 5, but he developed diverse musical tastes early. His father played classic rock around the house: Skynyrd, Def Leppard, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles. The first album Wallen bought was Breaking Benjamin’s Phobia, and Lil Wayne’s “Steady Mobbin’ ” soundtracked his high school years. “Some of the people in my school, we were rednecks, but we had bandannas on our antennas because of the song talking about that,” he says.
Until he was a teenager, “I was living country music more than I was listening to it,” says Wallen. Then he discovered Eric Church. “The way he wrote songs and the way that he said things really struck a chord with me. His realness, raw emotion and authenticity drew me in. Then I started digging a little bit deeper and started listening to Keith Whitley. I finally got into country music more and when I picked up a guitar, that’s what I wrote.”
Now, Church himself is a fan. “He’s real damn good and he’s authentic,” he tells Billboard. “That’s the key. Morgan is not trying to be somebody else. He’s just doing him. It’s refreshing to see and hear.” He contributed a song to Dangerous — his own previously unreleased “Quittin’ Time” — and praises Wallen for “not just hitting the technical parts of the song but the emotional ones. Those are the ones that matter.” (His is not the only prestige country stamp of approval on the album; it also includes a duet with Chris Stapleton and a Jason Isbell cover.)
It’s still a little mind-blowing to Wallen that his musical heroes, like Church, are now not only his peers but his friends. Church “knows how much he means to me, which is cool,” says Wallen. “I don’t obviously just sit around talking about that all the time, you know, being weird. But I told him just to get it out of the way: ‘Hey, by the way, man, I love you, bro.’ ”
Though the second half of Dangerous feels like a party starter, Wallen’s ability to connect to a song’s emotional core suffuses both parts of the album. And while a few tracks do dip into country music’s more overused tropes, in most of Wallen’s tunes women are far more than anonymous gals in cutoffs — they’re the ones with the big dreams, who leave the protagonist alone and heartbroken. “So far every relationship that I’ve had, that’s the way it has ended,” says Wallen with a shrug. “So I guess it’s just what I know. I need [upbeat] songs for my set, for my energy, but I’m more drawn toward the sad song. I always have been, and I’m better at writing them.”
“I think he just tells the truth,” says England. That’s part of what convinced Grammy Award-winning songwriter Shane McAnally, who cowrote “7 Summers” with Wallen and Josh Osborne, to work with him. “His phrasing and his voice sound like he’s talking to you, and it’s so effortless,” says McAnally.
The most unexpectedly personal tune on Dangerous might be “Livin’ the Dream.” It’s about the corrosive nature of stardom, and the loneliness and isolation that can come as fame grows — a topic routinely bemoaned by pop stars, but one rarely addressed in country. When Wallen co-wrote it 18 months ago, he admits he was hungover and exhausted after a run of shows. Today, he calls it “prophetic.” Like many of his best songs, it’s rooted in a kind of disappointment he has come to know all too well.
On Dec. 5, Wallen walked on to Saturday Night Live without his guitar in hand. He was appearing in a sketch directly poking fun at a very un-fun memory. Two months earlier, right before he was to make his SNL debut, social media posts captured him at an Alabama football game and a bar afterward, mask-free, drinking and kissing various women. He was promptly disinvited, which wasn’t even his first coronavirus-era indignity: In May, he had been arrested outside Kid Rock’s Nashville bar for drunk and disorderly conduct. (The charges were ultimately dropped.)
Following the SNL cancellation, Wallen posted an apology video on Instagram. Celebrity mea culpas can seem a dime a dozen these days, but it came across as unusually, yes, authentic: Staring straight at the camera for two minutes, Wallen took responsibility for his behavior, admitting his actions had “affected my long-term dreams” and confessing, “I think I’ve lost myself a little bit.” He vowed to “take a step back from the spotlight for a little while to go work on me.” And then he did just that: retreating to the country, riding horses, four-wheeling, “fishing and bush hogging and stuff like that,” he says. “I wanted to try to reconnect with me as a child almost. I wanted to figure out ‘Who was that guy?’ Because it has been so long since I had a chance to do that.”
By the time SNL gave him a second chance, Wallen had gained enough self-awareness to realize that lightheartedly owning his misdeed could be an effective olive branch. “I signed on immediately to do the skit,” he says. “Let people see I don’t take myself too serious. A lot of the people that watch SNL don’t know me anyway. Their introduction to me was me doing something they severely disagreed with, so I wanted to let them know I’m human. I got it.” He closed out the skit with a ditty thanking the audience for “giving this poor Southern boy a second Yankee chance.”
Wallen’s two musical performances on SNL marked his first reunion with his band since March. He had been touring with Jason Aldean just as the pandemic hit, postponing those dates as well as a summer gig he had booked opening for Luke Bryan. Still, Wallen admits, “I can’t really complain too much. My career has expanded more during this time than ever before.” He’ll honor the rescheduled Bryan dates this summer, but he’ll set out on his own planned headlining North American arena tour in late 2021-22, tripling the size of the venues he was playing pre-pandemic.
As Republic’s Lipman sees it, those stateside shows will give Wallen’s profile a major boost. Over the next few years, “assuming his passport is valid, our man is going to be doing a lot of traveling,” predicts Lipman. Repeated treks to Europe and Australia, he says, will make the “multiple impressions” needed to incrementally build an international audience. “If you don’t go spend time, embrace the local cultures, it’s nearly impossible to break into these individual markets,” he continues. “But when you do, you set yourself up for a career that will last forever.”
Laying that global groundwork extends to Lipman and England’s streaming approach, too. At a time when many country artists only release EPs, the 30 tracks on the Moi-produced Dangerous look more like a move out of the hip-hop playbook, super-serving hungry fans with continuous content (and driving up album equivalent units). “Certainly when Post Malone came on the scene, it wasn’t just, ‘Run one song up the charts, come down, another one up,’ ” says Lipman. “We were just putting out song after song after song. Morgan and the Big Loud crew are open to that type of mentality, which is exciting.”
Lipman and England agree on one central point: Wallen is country through and through, and staying nimble won’t ever mean rejecting that. This fall, the team made an early effort to push “7 Summers” to pop radio — then pulled it. “In the streaming charts, the song was performing as big as any other record in the marketplace, so why wouldn’t you go to all formats and encourage people to play it?” says Lipman. “For whatever reason, there were pop radio stations out there that didn’t want to embrace it. Well, we didn’t want to force it either. Now is not the time to do that, because we’re still explaining to people who Morgan Wallen is — and that doesn’t happen overnight.”
As new fans discover Wallen through Dangerous — which Republic projects will earn 220,000 equivalent album units in its first week — they’re dipping back into his debut album. In August, in its 114th week on Top Country Albums, 2018’s If I Know Me finally reached No. 1, setting a chart record for the longest rise to the summit. Last year, Wallen’s Diplo collaboration “Heartless” reached No. 22 on the Mainstream Top 40 chart — an “instant audition around the globe,” says England, which sparked an increase in Wallen’s monthly listeners on digital service providers. “We saw a big difference when we started drop – ping Morgan’s country songs,” he continues. “There were way more people around the globe listening faster and earlier because they were turned on to him by ‘Heartless.’ ” (A new version of the song is on Dangerous.)
For now, Wallen is determined to remain “that boy from East Tennessee,” as he sings on “7 Summers.” “You watch TV shows, and all they do is make fun of people like that,” he says. “I want to bring some praise and pride in being from there, and I can only do that if I’m tapped into it.” Doing that as he becomes Morgan Wallen, Global Country Star is a challenge that can seem both exciting and scary — which is just the way he likes it. And as he makes those next steps, he’s focused on a very different, incredibly important role: dad. In July, he and his ex-girlfriend welcomed a son, Indigo Wilder. His boy has yet to inspire any songs, but Wallen can see that changing in the future. “It’s still kind of sinking in,” he says. “I’ll be watching him, and he’ll make expressions and stuff, and I’m like, ‘Oh, that is definitely my kid.’ I want him to be proud of me, so it definitely affects some decisions I make moving forward. But I also want him to know that dad didn’t follow all the rules, either.”
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 16, 2021, issue of Billboard.