As some of the dust begins to settle from the fallout of Morgan Wallen’s inappropriate and offensive use of the N-word captured on a ring doorbell camera and leaked to TMZ—which resulted in Morgan losing most all support from radio and TV, awards shows, touring, and having his recording contract suspended—there’s an addendum that needs to be addressed in regards to the accusations of a double standard pervasive in country music.
One of the most high profile country artists to directly call out Morgan Wallen’s actions amid the fallout was Maren Morris. Respectfully disagreeing with Kelsea Ballerini who tweeted out at the Morgan Wallen news that his actions “…do not represent country music,” Maren Morris said in a February 2nd tweet about the situation,
“It actually IS representative of our town because this isn’t his first ‘scuffle’ and he just demolished a huge streaming record last month regardless. We all know it wasn’t his first time using that word. We keep them rich and protected at all costs with no recourse.”
Later, a songwriter named Bonnie J. Baker remarked, “If a female artist did 5% of the shit he has pulled she would be dropped immediately by everyone.”
Kelsea Ballerini concurred, saying, “The truth is the truth.” Maren Morris agreed as well, saying, “Yup. We’d be dropped, endorsements lost, social pariahs to Music Row…”
It’s most certainly true that Morgan Wallen has been given an incredibly long leash—one that led to this moment that now not just Morgan Wallen is paying a price for, but country music as well. But the acusation that if a female performer had done something something similarly egregious (or even 5% as egregious), they would have faced even more grave repercussions just isn’t true. As a matter of fact, the exact opposite is true. The double standard in country actually runs so diametrically counter to the assertion made by these women that it’s imperative to highlight, and how it has directly benefited Maren Morris and other certain artists in country music.
In the wake of the death of George Floyd in May of 2020, country artist Mickey Guyton became a focal point of media coverage as one of the few black women in the mainstream of country. She was subsequently asked to write an op/ed for Billboard about her experiences in country music, and how the country music community could improve to help artists of color. In the column, the most shocking revelation was not some systemic racism she had experienced in the country genre from her label or radio at some point. It was how she had been excluded and snubbed by her fellow women in the genre.
“I’ve gone to all the girl parties full of wine, ring light selfie booths, white female country singers and writers talking about ongoing projects and music they are putting out,” Mickey Guyton wrote. “On one occasion, I left my ailing husband, who almost died from sepsis, in California just four days after his life-saving surgery because I had been invited to be a part of a female empowerment music video full of these same women. I arrived at the airport exhausted but excited. I checked my itinerary only to find that the entry had been deleted; I had been disinvited. The song was about supporting women in country, yet they disinvited the only charting African American woman in country music. Do they know? Don’t they see that I support them? Do they care? Do they want to see me? The answer is no. Let that sink in.”
Readers of Saving Country Music will know where this story is going because it’s been harped upon here numerous times. But few others will, because despite the seriousness of the charge, Mickey Guyton’s story was systematically buried by the media en masse when it was revealed, and not even chattered upon on Twitter or other social media by the same personalities who will take things such as an Instagram story post by Jason Aldean’s wife, and turn them into an existential crisis for the genre.
Though Mickey Guyton didn’t name the female supergroup The Highwomen, or their 2019 video shoot for the song “Redesigning Women” as the subject of her op/ed at the time, it soon became evident this is what and who she was referring to. Maren Morris is a member of The Highwomen, along with Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, and Natalie Hemby. No public explanation from The Highwomen or anyone else has ever been made as to why Mickey Guyton was disinvited, or what specifically happened to where she didn’t feel welcome to attend a video shoot she had flown across the country to be a part of.
“Do they care? Do they want to see me? The answer is no. Let that sink in,” Mickey Guyton said.
Furthermore, there were no women of color involved in the “Redesigning Women” video. Along with The Highwomen themselves, a second group of women are featured in the latter stages of the video. This group included Lauren Alaina, Kassi Ashton, Cam, Lilly Hiatt, Wynonna Judd, Catie Offerman, Cassadee Pope, Erin Rae, RaeLynn, Natalie Stovall, Tanya Tucker, Anna Vaus, and Hailey Whitters. But there were no women of color. As these women were “redesigining” what it meant to be a woman in country music, minority representation was completely left out of the picture.
“Let that sink in,” as Mickey Guyton says.
To the credit of Maren Morris, she did address the situation indirectly on Twitter, and confirmed that Guyton was supposed to be part of the video shoot. But this was only as a response to a fan’s question, and was offered with little detail about what happened. Morris responded to the fan, “We were notified of this yesterday + were completely mortified that such a giant miscommunication occurred under our watch at the shoot that day & have each reached out to Mickey privately with the utmost respect & apologies. It shouldn’t have happened & isn’t what we stand for.”
However, neither Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, nor The Highwomen collectively have addressed the issue publicly, or directly. We still don’t know why Mickey Guyton felt she was “disinvited” from the shoot, and felt so injured she wrote an op/ed about it. If there is a simple explanation such as a logistical snafu made by a staffer, that’s fine and forgivable. But if this is the case, why haven’t The Highwomen shared that? Saving Country Music reached out to The Highwomen camp for an explanation or statement, and those requests went unanswered. Requests were also sent to the Mickey Guyton camp for clarification, and they were also not returned.
So the next question would be, is Morgan Wallen getting caught using a racial slur in jest while drunk towards one of his friends on a Ring doorbell camera, or a country music supergroup disinviting the only major label black female artist from a video shoot after she had flown across the country and left her ailing husband to participate the more egregious offense? Does the disinvitation of Mickey Guytoneven reach the 5% threshold presented in the Twitter exchange between Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, and Bonnie J. Baker?
Or think about it like this: What if Morgan Wallen, or Luke Combs, or some other male country star had disinvited Mickey Guyton or any black performer from participating in a video shoot last minute after they had flown across country to be there, and then the offended artist felt so injured by the experience, they decided to make it the centerpiece of an op/ed in Billboard? What would the repercussions be, and how would the media cover it? I think we all know the answer.
Of course the outcomes for Morgan Wallen and The Highwomen were completely different. By midday on February 3rd, Morgan Wallen had been removed from the radio playlists of all Cumulus and iHeartMedia stations, along with a host of regional and local stations. CMT had ceased to air all Morgan Wallen content. The CMA denounced him, the ACMs declared him ineligible for the upcoming awards in April, and his label Big Loud suspend his contract. The next day, his booking and representation agency WME dropped him as well. For all intents and purposes, his mainstream career was over, at least for now.
In the wake of the revelations about The Highwomen, not only were there no professional repercussions at all, not only did the media not even as much as mention it, or require The Highwomen to answer inquiries or issue a simple apology, The Highwomen went onto virtually sweep the Americana Music Awards announced on December 15th, 2020. They won Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Duo/Group of the Year. They’re also up for a Grammy Award in March.
The Highwomen are not racists. They collaborated with black British singer Yola on their “Highwomen” theme song, and Yola also performed with them at the Newport Folk Fest in 2019. The Highwomen likely don’t deserve to face major repercussions over the matter. But the public does deserve a detailed explanation of what happened to Mickey Guyton, and the media should insist upon it. If country music is serious about rooting out the systematic downgrading and exclusion of artists of color, this explanation is imperative.
“Do they care? Do they want to see me? The answer is no,” Mickey Guyton said of The Highwomen. “Let that sink in.”
But this instance is one of many where artists such as Maren Morris, The Highwomen, and others have been placed in a protected class from scrutiny due to the public stances they take on social media for progressive values. This instance isn’t even the only one involving The Highwomen shading out the contributions of marginalized artists in country music.
Included on The Highwomen’s debut record is the song “If She Ever Leaves Me.” Written by Amanda Shires, Jason Isbell, and Chris Tompkins, the group presented it as the first ever gay country song to the press and in promotional copy.
“Me and Amanda were in Jackson Hole, and I was on the elliptical and I thought about this project and went, ‘What if Brandi sang it?’” Jason Isbell said in a 2019 feature on the supergroup for Rolling Stone. “And I started going, ‘Gay country song! Gay country song!’ I called Amanda [Shires] and went ‘Gay country song! Gay country song!’”
Despite the decades-long lineage of gay country songs and artists in country music, and the participation of Brandi Carlile in the project (who is gay herself and should know better, along with the other members), Rolling Stone, the writer of the feature Marissa R. Moss, and the media at large allowed The Highwomen to market this song as the first gay country song, perpetrating the erasure of other gay artists and their contributions to the country genre.
Erasure of marginalized performers to make other artists or media members to appear as groundbreakers, or in some cases white saviors, is common within country and Americana music’s protected elitist class. Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland is regularly praised for her advocacy for women and the marginalized in country music, even receiving the inaugural CMT Equal Play Award in 2020 for her efforts. However, Jennifer Nettles and Sugarland were part of arguably the most exclusionary moment in modern country history when the duo parted ways with the original third member of the group, Kristen Hall, right as Sugarland was coming to prominence.
Kristen Hall is gay, and is believed to have been removed in 2005 because she didn’t fit the image Sugarland and the label wanted to present at that time. Kristen Hall later sued Sugarland over the split. Similar to The Highwomen, Jennifer Nettles has never had to answer or apologize for what happened to Kristen Hall. On the contrary, she is regarded as a hero and champion of marginalized voices in country music, just like The Highwomen.
Amid the praise for Jennifer Nettles in 2020, Saving Country Music was the only outlet to report on the double standard in her career. Aside from Billboard where the original op/ed ran, Saving Country Music was also the only outlet to report on the Mickey Guyton disinvitation by The Highwomen. This is also the only place that offered clarifications to widely-reported stories involving black erasure, including the false story of Mickey Guyton being the first ever black woman to perform on the ACM Awards stage in 2020 (which ironically, was a misnomer pushed to prominence by Jennifer Nettles), or the black erasure that surrounded the rise of Lil Nas X. The critical contributions of black performers are systemically being erased in the effort to portray country music as more exclusionary than it is.
Not to make this all about Saving Country Music, but this outlet has been labeled sexist, racist, and homophobic, and specifically by members of this protected elitist performer class, and their media allies. Maren Morris once referred to myself as a “basement dweller.” Jason Isbell recently called me an “incel” and a “coward.” Margo Price—also one of these protected elites—recently called me “uneducated,” along with being sexist, racist, and homophobic. Why is this? It’s not from any behavior against marginalized classes. Margo Price was asked specifically to produce evidence to her accusation, and forwarded nothing. Not a single credible accusation with evidence has ever been produced to validate these claims.
The reason for the effort to discredit Saving Country Music is because it’s the only outlet that has addressed concerning behavior dealing with race and marginalized classes in country music that is coming from this elitist and down-looking class of artists who are sheltered by the rest of the media, and not held to account for their actions compared to other performers. It’s also worth pointing out that that using words such as “uneducated,” “basement dweller,” and “incel” amid a pandemic when isolation, mental illness, and drug abuse are skyrocketing, speaks to the superiority complex these artists hold while holding back skeletons in their own closet.
The paradigm has completely shifted in country music. Where previously it was believed you must hold and share conservative values to be accepted and protected in the genre, now its the sharing of progressive values that will curry you favor with the media, while nothing is more dangerous than sharing conservative perspectives in country music. Similarly, if you’re in the media, and you simply hold artists to the same standards regardless of their political leanings, it will be assumed you’re conservative and must be excoriated and excluded from the community, even if you’re championing what would be considered progressive values like inclusion and accountability.
Maren Morris deserves credit for being the only member of The Highwomen to address the Mickey Guyton situation, though she has yet to apologize publicly. But the idea that herself, Kelsea Ballerini, or any woman in country is held to a higher standard than their male counterparts just isn’t true. Miranda Lambert has had her run-ins with publicity nightmares as well. In February 2019, police were called on her after she confronted another table of diners at a Nashville restaurant, dumped a salad in a woman’s lap, and Miranda had to be physically restrained. And not to get too deep into the gossip realm, but Miranda later broke up the marriage of Turnpike Troubadours frontman Evan Felker. Nonetheless, these incidents did not result in serious injury to Miranda Lambert’s career.
The reason many Morgan Wallen fans are upset about the 27-year-old being subject to such major repercussion is they believe it’s a double standard of a completely different sort. Morgan Wallen fans cite how black performers use the N-word all the time with no repercussions. In fact the specific phrase Morgan Wallen uttered (“Pu**y ass nig**”) is the very title of numerous hip-hop songs, including tracks from Boosie Badazz, Big Mook, Lil Ted, and 2 Live Crew. It’s a crutch phrase common to hip-hop callout songs, including from numerous songs by Lil’ Wayne, specifically “Beat The Shit” and “Gonorrhea.” The context in which Morgan Wallen used the word was likely in this vein. It’s been confirmed it was not used in anger or spite towards a black person, but towards a white friend in jest.
It’s also fair to point out that Rakiyah Marshall, the black founder and CEO of publishing and artist development company Back Blocks Music, recently posted:
But the Morgan Wallen fans that cite the double standard of black people using the N-word are wrong. The N-word was used to systemically downgrade black people for centuries, and that’s the reason it’s been stricken from the lexicon of acceptable language for white people. It probably would be advantageous if black performers and individuals refrained from using the word as well, and that would help hasten its deprecation. But there is a difference between a white person and a black person using it due to the word’s history. In 2021, everyone knows the repercussions of using it publicly, or even being caught saying it privately.
The double standard that is a legitimate concern is how other white individuals have used the word without facing similar consequences, from Post Malone being caught in a Vine video saying the word in 2015, to Bill Marr using the word in 2017 during a public broadcast of his HBO show Real Time. Neither of these public individuals faced anywhere near the punishment Morgan Wallen has. There was criticism, but no contracts were voided or suspended, no radio play or promotional opportunities were lost, and they continue to be prominent figures in their respective fields.
Ironically, being a country music star might be the reason Morgan Wallen’s judgement and execution has been so swift and sweeping. Despite the genre regularly going on blast for being exclusionary and insensitive to black America, the industry’s response was about as severe as possible, aside from perhaps his label only suspending his contract as opposed to dissolving it, though there may be legal reasons for this move. Another reason Wallen is facing greater scrutiny is because this is not his first public offense.
Make no mistake, Morgan Wallen deserved and earned major public rebuke for his actions, and his behavior is inexcusable. Some will read this article and take it as apology making for Wallen, and this is not the case. Others will opportunistically cut quotes out of this article to present an opinion that is not the one shared here, and to remove the context and nuance this discussing was broached with. We all know the gravity of using the N-word, and how it can affect someone’s career in the public sphere. Whether you believe Morgan Wallen’s punishment is proportional, it was most certainly predictable.
But the double standard presented by Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini ended up not being true. Morgan Wallen faced the most catastrophic of repercussions for using the N-word. Meanwhile, The Highwomen have never even been forced to publicly address the Mickey Guyton situation. Neither have Jennifer Nettles and others been asked to answer for their issues. Morgan Wallen publicly apologized for his actions. The Highwomen never have.
Like Mickey Guyton said, “Do they care? Do they want to see me? The answer is no. Let that sink in.”