“What I’ve always loved about [country music] is the truth of it, and if we want to pride ourselves on being ‘three chords and the truth,’ we need to be truthful with ourselves and know who started this genre,” Maren Morris said Wednesday (Feb. 17) during a virtual panel on inclusivity with Luke Combs at the annual Country Radio Seminar.
“It wasn’t just white people, and going forward, making room [for Black artists]” is essential, she continued. “It’s not to diminish my hard work or Luke’s hard work, but we’ve absolutely had more doors open for us from being white.”
The country music industry has grappled with how to become more diverse across the board — from the artists labels sign and radio stations play to executives hired at country music companies to the overwhelmingly white fanbase — but a more purposeful examination began after this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and intensified following Morgan Wallen’s use of the N-word in a video released on Feb. 2, even though Wallen’s name wasn’t uttered until more than 40 minutes into the panel.
The Q&A, thoughtfully moderated by NPR’s Ann Powers, featured two of country music’s biggest stars talking about the issues, both keenly aware of the statement they were making by presenting a united front on calling upon themselves and the industry to do better when it comes to fighting for racial equity.
Morris has been extremely outspoken on social media about the lack of diversity — for both women and artists of color — whereas Combs has been more hesitant, but he realized that his role as a leading artist in the format now demands he step up.
“Maren has obviously done a fantastic job of sharing her opinions and the things that she believes in and I admire her a lot for that because that’s a big risk in the climate of our genre,” Combs said. “Just saying there are things that need to change and taking a moment to be aware of that and knowing that there are problems that exist is the biggest first step that I have taken. And the biggest first step that anyone out there who may be watching that’s in the industry can take is to say, ‘These things do happen. Let’s not sit here and say that they don’t, because they do.’ I’m here to learn. I feel like I’m kind of at this highly successful moment of my career and I couldn’t just sit back and not do anything.”
Pictures of Combs with the Confederate flag surfaced recently after he and Billy Strings released “The Great Divide,” a plea for unity. He apologized for his past behavior and pointed to himself as an example of someone who can grow and evolve.
The images were seven or eight years old, Combs said, and he has had to deal with the fact that he may have changed, but the images live forever on the Internet. He added, though, “There is no excuse for those images. I’m not trying to say this is why they were there and it’s OK that they’re there because it’s not OK. I think as a younger man, that was an image I associated to mean something else, and as I’ve grown in my time as an artist and as the world has changed drastically in the last five to seven years, you know, I’m now aware of how painful that image can be to someone else. … I would never want to be associated with something that brings so much hurt to someone else.”
Both Morris and Combs acknowledged how education has led them both to understand that the Confederate flag was a detrimental symbol and did not only represent Southern pride.
Morris, who said she was 15 before she understood the harm in the imagery, said, “I think a large majority of people who listen to country music don’t know that either — the deeper meaning of what that flag signifies — or maybe that’s wishful thinking,” before suggesting that event producers may think twice about letting the flag fly.
“I see these Confederate flags in the parking lots. I don’t want to play those festivals anymore,” she said. “If you were a Black person, would you ever feel like going to a show with those flying in the parking lot? No. I feel like the most powerful thing as artists in our position right now is to make those demands of large organizations, festivals, promoters, whatnot. That’s one of the things we can do, is say, ‘No, I’m not doing this. Get rid of them.’”
In Nashville, there’s a frequent saying: “It all begins with a song.” Both Combs and Morris addressed bringing more people of color into the songwriting process personally and as an industry. “If you’re a publisher and a Black writer comes in, are you giving them the same look that you’re giving me if I come in?” Combs asked. “If you work at a label, are you giving everyone that walks through the door the exact same chance that the last guy had or the next girl has?”
Given that the panel was taking place at a radio conference, Powers asked, “What happens to the sound of country [radio] when we have racial equity and fight to be anti-racist?”
Morris said there are other steps that needed to be addressed first including enabling “more Black creators, Black songwriters, Black artists, because I feel so many writers, myself included, have become artists in the process,” she said. “We’ve seen it with Jimmie Allen. I hope very much that we can get Mickey Guyton a No. 1 song. There’s an influx of Black talent, and it’s only going to make our genre, our songs, what we consider catchy, better. We kind of have to start at home — Black songwriters in the room making hit songs with us, feeling comfortable and welcome to do so, will change the sound of country radio for the better.”
As Morris suggested, there is no way to calculate how great the cultural loss is when all parties aren’t invited to the table.
“That’s the point of inclusion. If you’re shutting out Black writers, Black artists, you have no idea if you are shutting out the next hit song, do you?” she continued. “Imagine over the last 50 years the songs that we haven’t gotten to hear because we shut the door in a Black person’s face.”