Grand Ole Opry Unfairly Attacked After Morgan Wallen Appearance

When Morgan Wallen was caught using the N-word in a playful moment with a friend on a Ring doorbell camera on January 31st, 2021, he put himself and country music by proxy in a terrible position. Any and all ramifications Morgan Wallen faced subsequently were of his own doing, and fair game. We all know the seriousness of using that word, and Morgan Wallen was already on thin ice due to previous high-profile trespasses.

There is no excusing Morgan Wallen’s actions, and those attempting to make excuses for him by bringing up how others are allowed to use the N-word overlook how that word has been used to demean an entire race of people for centuries, and should never be uttered by a white individual, in jest or otherwise. It is fair to contextualize that Morgan Wallen did not use that word in anger towards a black individual, and that the specific phrase that he uttered is common parlance in hip-hop songs, and this was likely the origination and reference point of his utterance, not naked racism.

Still, the Morgan Wallen incident offered an opportunity for a teachable moment. But instead, the incessant obsession over the incident, and the criticism of every single move this young man has made subsequently has turned this situation into a circus, and has now bound so far beyond rightful repercussions for the seriousness of the original incident, it is seeding allies for Morgan Wallen out of country fans who would otherwise find both his music and his person reprehensible, and even bringing in people completely repulsed by country music to his side.

Not only are these viral instances of Morgan Wallen admonishment ineffective at injuring his continued popularity, they are actively working to feed it as his fans see both the obsession and overreaction, and work to counterbalance it with their full-throated support, while the Streisand Effect fueled by the media’s obsession continues to swell attention to Morgan Wallen overall.

The Grand Ole Opry is currently facing sharp criticism for allowing Morgan Wallen to perform on Saturday night’s Opry on January 8th. The first detail that everyone must understand is that Morgan Wallen was not a scheduled performer for Saturday evening’s Opry. This is a critically important point that is being overlooked by many in the fracas. He did not have his own performance slot, nor was his name used to promote the presentation, or the broadcast. Morgan Wallen was not booked by the Grand Ole Opry as a performer. If it had been, the Opry would have seen a lot more attention on the evening due to the popularity of Morgan Wallen, and the support he enjoys.

All that Morgan Wallen did was jump on the stage and guest on the song “Flower Shops” that is a current single for the artist Ernest who was a scheduled Opry performer. Morgan Wallen is a featured artist on the radio single of the Ernest song as well.

But of course, the situation has been used to attack the Grand Ole Opry for inviting Morgan Wallen onto its stage, or at least, allowing the collaboration to occur, with many going directly for the heart of the Grand Ole Opry without any context of where the Opry is in 2021.

In 2021, and under the new management of Dan Rogers, The Grand Ole Opry has been making very specific strides towards being more inclusive to artists from the wide panorama of country music, and not just along racial lines, but also along racial lines specifically. In fact, you can make the case that in 2021, The Grand Ole Opry presented its most inclusive and forward-thinking year ever when considering who was given debut slots, who performed overall, and who was selected as new Opry members.

Independent artists who for years have been paying dues in country music finally had opportunities to debut on the hallowed Grand Ole Opry stage in 2021. Jason Boland and the Stragglers who’ve been around for over 20 years finally enjoyed their Grand Ole Opry debut on December 7th, 2021. So did Flatland Cavalry, who happen to have a Latin frontman, and who played their Opry debut on October 22nd, 2021.

Looking at the new members of the Grand Ole Opry in 2021, it has been a banner year for country music women. Carly Pearce, Rhonda Vincent, Lauren Alaina, and Mandy Barnett all became members in 2021, as well as two groups with female members, The Isaacs, and (*cough*) Lady A. All of 2021’s new Opry members were either women, or groups that include women.

And as for the Black performers who apparently are supposed to be broken-hearted and feel excluded from the Opry because Morgan Wallen jumped up on stage for one song, 2021 was an unprecedented year for both Black performers, specifically Black women, and even more specifically for Black debut artists.

Consulting with Grand Ole Opry historian Byron Fay of the excellent Fafare’s Opry Blog, here were the appearances by Black artists on the Grand Ole Opry in 2021.

Jimmie Allen – 5 Appearances
Brittney Spencer – 4 Appearances + Debut (May 14th)
Darius Rucker – 3 Appearances – Grand Ole Opry Member since 2012
Wendy Moten – 3 Appearances
The War & Treaty – 3 Appearances
The McCrary Sisters – 2 Appearances
Tony Jackson – 2 Appearances
Keb’ Mo’ – 2 Appearances
Willie Jones – 1 Appearance + Debut (March 5th)
Allison Russell – 1 Appearance + Debut (May 28th)
Amythyst Kiah – 1 Appearance + Debut (June 29th)
Tiera – 1 Appearance + Debut (August 17th)
Valerie June – 1 Appearance + Debut (September 21st)
Breland – 1 Appearance + Debut (November 5th)
Charley Crockett – 1 Appearance
Rissi Palmer – 1 Appearance
Yola – 1 Appearance
Louis York – 1 Appearance
Dom Flemons – 1 Appearance

Looking at this list, it’s difficult to assert that the Grand Ole Opry is being exclusionary or insensitive to Black performers as many of the critics of the Morgan Wallen appearance asserted. Jimmie Allen is also considered by some Opry observers as a possible candidate for an upcoming invite to full Grand Ole Opry member status. Also, by saying that the Grand Ole Opry does not support Black artists, and not contextualizing how 19 separate artists made 35 total appearances including seven debut slots just last year works to erase the contributions Black artist are making to the Opry institution.

Allison Russell, who made her Grand Ole Opry debut on May 28th, 2021 said amid the latest Morgan Wallen imbriglio, “The rot of bigotry permeating mainstream country is rough. But take as #bellhooks said, ‘Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power—not because they don’t see it, but because they see it & they don’t want it to exist.'”

Rissi Palmer, who made her first Grand Ole Opry appearance in 2007 and also appeared in 2021 said in part, “I believe now is the time to watch and move. Watch how people are responding and reacting and move accordingly. Systems only work when we continue to participate in them. The moment we stop and divest, they lose their power. I can’t say this enough: let’s stop running into a burning building. Let’s create platforms and systems that celebrate and welcome us.”

One such organization attempting to do that is called The Black Opry, who sent a letter to the Grand Ole Opry after the incident, which first mentions “possible programming opportunities for The Black Opry,” but goes on to state, “at this time I’d like to express that I no longer have any interest in participating with the Opry in any capacity unless there is some clear form of accountability and structural change.”

Unquestionably, the Grand Ole Opry has a checkered past when it comes to race, like so many other institutions of American society. The Democrat Party was where the Confederacy grew from, and later Jim Crow laws and segregation. But just like the Democrat Party, the Grand Ole Opry has moved on from that history, and deserves to be judged upon its actions in the here and now.

Currently, The Grand Ole Opry is the only major country music institution giving opportunities to independent country and Americana bands like Flatland Cavalry, Jason Boland and the Stragglers, and Saving Country Music’s current Artist of the Year, Charley Crockett. Mainstream radio, awards shows, and major labels certainly are not. The Grand Ole Opry is the only institution supporting women in a disproportionate capacity, as illustrated with the new members it inducted in 2021. And let’s also not forget that the Grand Ole Opry is the only major country music institution older country music artists past their years of commercial prominence on radio, awards shows, and major labels can depend on for performance slots.

And most importantly in this context, The Grand Ole Opry is the only major institution giving performance platforms to Black artists such as Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah, Wendy Moten, Valerie June, Yola, and so many more that mainstream radio would never play, and major labels will never sign. The Opry should be receiving applause for its leadership in this matter, not the widespread condemnation it’s currently receiving.

The reason certain individuals continue to overhype and overplay the Morgan Wallen situation is because it’s a useful attack vector in their attempt to usurp power from these institutions that they can then take for themselves. And if their efforts are ineffective, they will work to destroy these institutions for all time. That’s why attempting to appease these actors will continue to be purposeless. This is not about Morgan Wallen, or even race. This is about Twitter engagement, this is about certain journalists using Morgan Wallen to push their media brands and to produce click bait, and this is about certain artists and organizations using Morgan Wallen to garner attention—or sometimes—raise funds.

And not only do these attacks continue to be ineffective, they are actively counter-productive to removing Morgan Wallen from popular country, or attempting to make country music a more inclusive space. Once again, Morgan Wallen was the biggest story in country music in the days after his brief appearance on the Opry stage. As long as he continues to dominate headlines, his reign at the top of country music’s streaming and sales charts will continue, and artist who could upstage him will remain at a disadvantage, starved for press coverage as the media and Twitter continue to obsess over Morgan Wallen.

The Grand Ole Opry is for everyone, as long as they have a love of country music in their hearts. It should be a place of inclusion, and of redemption.

© 2023 Saving Country Music