Country Music Has a Morgan Wallen Problem. It’s a Complex One

photo: Ryan Smith

Morgan Wallen is the biggest artist in all of music at the moment not named Taylor Swift. It’s not Beyoncé. It’s not Post Malone. It’s not Drake or Kendrick Lamar. It’s Morgan Wallen. And for better or worse, he is a country star. He’s also currently part of the biggest song in the world that will probably be the biggest hit of the summer, and perhaps the biggest hit of 2024, “I Had Some Help” with Post Malone.

But country music, Nashville, and the American public doesn’t exactly know what to do with this guy. After strings of incidents where Morgan Wallen has embarrassed himself and country music by proxy by getting arrested, by getting caught using the ‘N’ word, and recently getting charged with three felonies for hurling a chair off a three-story building, it’s hard to know what needs to happen with Morgan Wallen.

Last week, country music held its annual ACM Awards, though you may not have noticed since it was truncated to two hours and broadcast on Amazon Prime. At that time, “I Had Some Help” was already the biggest song in the world. Morgan Wallen was also up for major awards on the night, including Male Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year, and the coveted Entertainer of the Year.

But Morgan Wallen wasn’t even in attendance. When pop star Post Malone took the stage to sing “I Had Some Help” and his country duet partner was nowhere to be found on a country awards show, it helped illustrate just how confusing and confounding the question of what to do with Morgan Wallen has become.

As we’ve seen regularly surrounding these awards shows, Morgan Wallen’s fan base was incensed that the biggest star in country music walked away with nothing, and wasn’t even featured on the presentation. You see words like “bias” being used about Morgan Wallen’s lack of success at award shows. But that’s not exactly what’s happening here.

It’s Morgan Wallen’s own fault he continues to be passed over for some of country music’s biggest accolades. The Morgan Wallen chair throwing incident happened on April 7th—a week before final voting for the ACM Awards occurred. Wallen also threw his chances of winning, and probably performing on the evening over the balcony that night as well. It’s also important to point out that awards are not just for commercial recognition. Critical acclaim and character also weigh into these decisions.

Morgan Wallen fans and many others are also quick to forget that in 2023, Morgan Wallen won the ACM’s Male Vocalist of the Year. Maybe he deserved to win even more than that, but the ACMs and the greater country community signaled that they would accept Wallen back into the fold if he behaved. But he didn’t. Yet by booking Post Malone to sing “I Had Some Help” on the 2024 ACMs, they were calling to mind Morgan Wallen, and his massive impact on country music that can’t be swept under the rug.

Something similar happened on the inaugural People’s Choice Country Awards in October of 2023. Morgan Wallen won all the evening’s major awards, including Artist of 2023, Album of 2023, and Concert Tour of 2023. Wallen was not in attendance because he was out on tour. But instead of accepting the awards via satellite, or handing them out in absentia, The People’s Choice Country Awards just ignored the biggest awards of the entire event, and acted like they didn’t exist on the telecast.

Earlier this year at the Stagecoach Festival in California, Morgan Wallen was the event’s pinnacle Sunday night headliner. Amazon had been broadcasting all the major performances via Prime all weekend. But when it came to Morgan Wallen’s set, it wasn’t available. According to Morgan Wallen’s camp, it’s because that footage was being held back for something else. But once again it called to mind how country music is trying to hide its biggest superstar at the moment, which puts country music in a precarious position at every turn.

Now on Tuesday evening, May 21st, the Nashville City Council struck down a request by the contractors for Morgan Wallen’s new bar on Lower Broadway at 107 4th Avenue North, right near the Ryman Auditorium. A proposed sign constituted an “aerial encroachment,” which meant the city council needed to give it specific approval. Wallen’s recent chair incident, as well as his ‘N’ word incident in 2021 were specifically cited by the city council in striking the request down. It was voted down in a rather stark 30 to 3 decision.

Morgan Wallen fans are crying foul once again and saying that it’s unfair. But once again, it’s Morgan Wallen’s own actions that have resulted in these decisions.

Most everyone believes in a path to forgiveness and reconciliation. But it’s not really any specific incident by Morgan Wallen that he needs to overcome. It’s the repeated offenses. Nobody was hurt in the Morgan Wallen chair incident. Wallen did not use the N-word in anger towards anybody, or towards a Black individual. He was simply repeating a phrase commonly used in hip-hop parlance. It still shouldn’t have been said, but the incident deserves context.

Nonetheless, it’s the cumulative over-and-over aspect of Morgan Wallen’s behavior that has made him such a pariah in many circles. What has also made him a pariah is the unfair and outright inaccurate characterizations of both the N-word incident, and the way both the media and activist organizations have portrayed it.

Nashville City Council member Brenda Gadd said in voting against the Morgan Wallen sign provision,

“Someone who continues to get second chances, I think the third party operator [of the bar], surely they don’t need any reminder about his racist comments, using the n-word, his pledge to the NAACP for funding and then him never fulfilling that commitment.”

The idea that Morgan Wallen did not pay a pledged $500,000 to Black advocacy organizations continues to be a false assertion, though widely prevalent. It was initially falsely reported by Rolling Stone, and continues to persist despite verified reporting to the contrary.

First, Morgan Wallen never pledged to give any money to the NAACP. It was songwriter Jason Isbell who pledged to give the additional profits he made off of Morgan Wallen’s version of his song “Cover Me Up” to the NAACP after the N-word incident. As Saving Country Music reported in February of 2022, Isbell did donate $53,000 to the NAACP.

Saving Country Music as well as USA Today and other media organizations also verified that Morgan Wallen had paid $400,000 of the $500,000 he’d pledged to Black organization at the time of the false Rolling Stone article. Wallen then fulfilled the final portion of the $500,000 pledge, donating $100,000 to the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville in January of 2022.

Nonetheless, amid the chair throwing incident, it’s still fair to ask if Morgan Wallen has truly changed his ways, or even if his label-appointed handlers can keep a handle on him. It’s likely the felony charges from the chair incident will be plead down to misdemenors, and Morgan will only have to pay a fine and fulfill community service, or minimal jail time. But what hangs over Morgan Wallen’s head like an “aerial encroachment” or a chair hurled off a balcony is, “What will it be next?”

As many Morgan Wallen fans love to point out, compared to the antics of country stars in the past, Wallen’s actions seem minimal, and his consequences punitive, at least within the music industry. Though the press loves to harp on the bad behavior of Wallen, it’s nothing compared to many of hip-hop’s biggest stars where murder, convicted felonies, and other infractions checker their past.

How can you compare Morgan Wallen to Chris Brown, who still is embraced by the music industry? How can you compare his actions to the actions of Diplo and Nelly, who’ve both been credibly accused of rape and other sexual assault by at least three women, and continue to be accepted in music, including in country?

There also must be an avenue for redemption for individuals. Jelly Roll is a convicted felon and served prison time, but it’s the redemption story that has made the career of Jelly Roll so lauded by the media and lauded by country music’s award shows.

Complicating the issue even more is unlike Morgan Wallen’s Bro-Country predecessors such as Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt, and Walker Hays, Wallen’s music itself has a complexity that doesn’t make him easy to pigeon hole, and is regarded by the public as less polarizing.

Though the propensity for true country music fans is to cast Morgan Wallen aside as pop, he also has many songs that would constitute traditional country. He covered Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up,” which speaks to some of the depth and complexity within his catalog. You also have some traditional country fans who otherwise wouldn’t ever touch Morgan Wallen’s music that sing his praises and act as apologists just because they want to “own the libs,” or don’t want to see Morgan Wallen become a victim of cancel culture.

What’s for sure is that Morgan Wallen the performer has in no way been injured by the many negative incidents. He’s America’s and country music’s bad boy for better or worse, always doing things that get him into trouble, but nothing reprehensible enough to ever do him in. It’s the idea that he is redeemable that makes him so intriguing to many, if not attractive.

The other irony about Morgan Wallen’s career is that there is no current or previous country music artists whose music has been more embraced by Black music fans and the hip-hop community. That’s one of the reasons he’s so popular, and his crossover success so robust. They know what Wallen said, and they know the context of it.

The reason the country music community continues to keep Wallen at arm’s length is the fear of being associated with racism. But this is more a concern coming from elitist and activist X/Twitter handles as opposed to the population at large.

Even if the country industry outright banished Morgan Wallen as some have agitated for, this is likely to only make him even more popular, and make his fans even more dedicated and apologetic towards him. Morgan Wallen can’t even appear on the Grand Ole Opry for fear it might stir controversy. And if country music’s institutions continue to act like he doesn’t exist, they continue to become less and less relevant to the general population.

Morgan Wallen is even more popular because the country music award shows refuse to crown him Entertainer of the Year. He’s championed even more by fans because the Nashville City Council votes 30 to 3 to refuse his bar sign. He’s become a folk hero who is standing up to the pearl-clutching priorities of elites and the powers that be, and winning.

As Morgan Wallen goes through this war with a demon on his one shoulder, and an angel on his other, so does country music. The industry is actively trying to distance from Morgan Wallen the man, while still embracing Morgan Wallen the music, if for no other reason than the music is currently making country music more popular than perhaps it’s ever been in history.

There are no easy answers here, unless Morgan Wallen actually grows up, becomes a man, and stops doing stupid shit. But we all know that’s unlikely. This is the reason the Nashville City Council refused his sign proposal.

© 2024 Saving Country Music