Maybe you’re aware that on Thursday, September 28th, they attempted to launch a fourth televised country music awards show. Or maybe you’re not aware since the ratings weren’t exactly stellar. The new show pulled in 3.96 million viewers, and was the second most-watched program on network TV behind The Bachelor. For context, the 2022 CMA Awards last November pulled 9.7 million viewers. So this new awards show didn’t exactly set the world on fire.
It was called the People’s Choice Country Awards. They were launched through the new partnership between NBC Universal and the parent company of the Grand Ole Opry called Ryman Hospitality Properties. In April of last year, NBC Universal paid $293 million to purchase about 30% of Ryman Hospitality. A new awards show was their idea of how to “unlock synergies” between the two companies.
The inaugural awards weren’t a disaster necessarily, but they were still pretty terrible. People are still talking about Toby Keith’s moving performance of “Don’t Let The Old Man In.” But the presentation lacked significant star power. Kelsea Ballerini got called out for lip syncing, though it turned out that a camera that was out-of-sync, not the music. Blake Shelton won the “Social Country Star of 2023,” but openly questioned just what the hell the award even was in his acceptance speech.
The way they sold the People’s Choice Country Awards to the public was that just like the all-genre People’s Choice Awards that have aired since 1975, it’s not the industry choosing the winners like the CMAs, or musical peers like with the Grammys. It’s the people that choose the winners. It’s fan voted, which sometimes means the most popular artists win, and sometimes the fan base that is most mobilized brings home the trophy for their favorite artist.
It turns out that the people of country music chose Morgan Wallen to be the inaugural People’s Choice Country “Artist of 2023.” They also chose Wallen’s album One Thing At A Time for “Album of 2023,” and his tour for “Concert Tour of 2023.” Aside from Jelly Roll who won four awards himself, Morgan Wallen was the biggest winner of the night, and won three of the biggest prizes.
But if you watched the People’s Choice Country Awards, you would have no clue Morgan Wallen won anything. Aside from his name being mentioned a few times as a nominee for awards that others won, it was never revealed on the telecast that Morgan Wallen won anything at all, let alone three of the top awards. It was only after the awards that this information was revealed via press release.
So the obvious question is, why wouldn’t the People’s Choice Country Awards not reveal the top prizes during the telecast? Some may point out that it was only a two hour presentation as opposed to the three hours of most awards shows, so maybe they didn’t have time. Another theory may be that since Morgan Wallen wasn’t there, they didn’t want to call attention to that fact since the presentation lacked significant star power.
Jelly Roll wasn’t even there in person. He was playing a show in Cincinnati, though they did beam him in via satellite to accept the Male Vocalist of the Year. But just because an artists isn’t present doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hand the award out. That happens all the time, and they did it for Jelly Roll. It rarely if ever happens that they just don’t hand out the award, especially if it’s a major one.
What it really looks like is that the People Choice Country Awards did not want the heat that would come with Morgan Wallen winning their top awards, especially if he wasn’t even there. So instead of running the risk of public backlash on Twitter, they just dropped back 20 yards and punted.
Remember, the main country music institution behind the People’s Choice Country Awards is the Grand Ole Opry. In January of 2022, Morgan Wallen jumped up on stage at the Opry to perform his duet with country performer Ernest called “Flower Shops.” Wallen wasn’t even scheduled or asked to appear on the Opry; it was simply an impromptu appearance. The Opry did post a video of it on social media though, and a firestorm ensued.
Jason Isbell, The Black Opry, and others heavily criticized the Grand Ole Opry for allowing Morgan Wallen on stage. At the time, it was just shy of a year since the notorious N-word incident. As the media ran with the story, the Grand Ole Opry didn’t address the situation, didn’t release a statement, and went radio silent on social media for weeks, not posting anything in fear of the comments getting dive bombed by anti Morgan Wallen activists.
It seems the People’s Choice Country Awards backed by the Grand Ole Opry decided to take a similar tact to dealing with Morgan Wallen’s wins during their inaugural show. Instead of acknowledging the results and standing behind them, they simply pushed the info out via press release and tried to pretend it didn’t happen.
From a PR aspect, perhaps it’s hard to blame them. Whether they didn’t want to promote Morgan Wallen winning, or didn’t want to promote that the biggest winner of the night couldn’t even bother to be there, they decided to brush the awkwardness under the rug. But it undercuts the entire premise of these awards. Morgan Wallen fans mobilized to make sure he would win, and then they didn’t even get the satisfaction of an acknowledgement on the broadcast.
Obviously, Morgan Wallen remains a polarizing character. But it seems like most of the public has moved on. Despite false characterizations in the press, Morgan Wallen apologized multiple times for the N-word incident in January of 2021, donated $500,000 to Black charities, and continues to make strides to rehabilitate his character and image.
This is not a full-throated defense of Morgan Wallen by Saving Country Music. If it was up to this website, something like the People’s Choice Country Awards wouldn’t even exist, and if they did, artists like Zach Bryan, Tyler Childers, Cody Jinks, Billy Strings, Sierra Ferrell, and The War and Treaty would be winning them. Ironically, the International Bluegrass Music Awards happened on the same evening, with Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle walking away as the big (and deserving) victors.
But in many ways, The People Choice Country Awards and the Grand Ole Opry by proxy showed their ass with their decision to not even mention Morgan Wallen at all. It feels like a cowardly move. Many country fans wish that Morgan Wallen wasn’t the most popular artist in country for a host of reasons, including that much of his most popular music isn’t country. But own the results of your awards. It’s what happened.
If you’re worried about promoting performers with shady pasts, look no further than Jelly Roll. He’s a convicted felon for armed robbery and sold drugs for years. He was also part of the Mikel Knight country rap universe that resulted in multiple individuals getting killed.
That’s not to say that Jelly Roll shouldn’t be eligible for awards. It’s decidedly illiberal to not offer a path of redemption and rehabilitation for people, and to not allow country music to be that path. We should applaud and welcome artists who use country music as a way to find the straight and narrow.
But in some circles, simply mentioning Morgan Wallen is still seen as toxic. Though similar to the Streisand Effect that ensued when they tried to cancel Morgan Wallen, not mentioning him on the awards broadcast almost makes it more obvious and a bigger talking point than if they’d announced his awards and had someone else accept them on his behalf.
Morgan Wallen performed on the CMA Awards last year, and the world didn’t catch on fire. Can you image the public and media backlash if the CMAs just didn’t announce who won Entertainer of the Year one year?
Ultimately, it’s hard to see how the People’s Choice Country Awards continue on. If they’re held again next year, it’s likely that Morgan Wallen will win again. They’re a popularity contest. That’s the People’s Choice Awards methodology, and Morgan Wallen remains incredibly popular, including with Black and Brown fans. Ironically, Wallen might have the most diverse fan base in all of country music.
How the People’s Choice Country Awards didn’t see this issue coming is pretty shortsighted. Before they even announced the awards they had to know Morgan Wallen would be a major contender. But if Wallen’s fans don’t play ball next year, you can expect the voting engagement and viewership to be even smaller.
The Grand Ole Opry has been making some great moves lately in modernizing and diversifying the institution. But the People’s Choice Country Awards was a bad idea from the beginning. The whole weird handing of Morgan Wallen’s wins just underscores how poorly thought-out and executed it really was.