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Country Music’s Morgan Wallen Reckoning

The biggest star in the genre was caught on tape using a racial slur this week. The backlash has been swift and severe, but what happens next?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The second-biggest story in country music this week is T.J. Osborne, frontman for brawny rockers the Brothers Osborne, who came out as gay in an interview with Time on Wednesday. “I want to get to the height of my career being completely who I am,” he explained, revealing a secret he’d kept for the whole of the duo’s eight-year, three-album career as rising Nashville stars. “I mean, I am who I am, but I’ve kept a part of me muted, and it’s been stifling.”

If you’re an optimist, this is a golden opportunity for stuffy old Nashville to broaden its mind and widen its embrace. “Others will now feel invited to the country music party for the first time,” Osborne’s friend Kacey Musgraves told the magazine. “Country music deserves a future even more honest than its past.”

But the single biggest story in country music this week, and in the music industry writ large, is another tale of a rising star showing us who he really is. On Tuesday night, TMZ posted an amateur video of Morgan Wallen—easily the biggest new country artist in years, whose sophomore effort Dangerous: The Double Album, released in January, has topped the Billboard album chart for three weeks running—using a racial slur amid a rowdy group of friends outside a house in Nashville on Sunday night. The last country star to have the no. 1 record in America for three straight weeks was Taylor Swift; Wallen has, in the past six months, approached the precipice of full-blown mainstream superstardom—the height of his career, quite possibly—as a lovable fuckup who makes the most of his various second chances. But what happens now will say just as much about who country music invites to the party and who it won’t.

The industry blowback to Wallen has been swift and severe. Big Loud, his record label and management company, announced that it had suspended his recording contract indefinitely. The radio conglomerates iHeartMedia and Entercom both pulled his songs from the airwaves in more than 150 stations, alongside fellow major outlets Cumulus and SiriusXM; cable-TV powerhouse CMT pulled his videos from all platforms, and the Academy of Country Music announced that it would “halt Morgan Wallen’s potential involvement and eligibility” in the ACM Awards scheduled for April. Spotify (which owns The Ringer) and Apple Music both pulled Wallen’s music from playlists, an especially significant blow given that much of his recent chart dominance owed to his popularity on streaming sites, a rarity within a country ecosystem still largely driven by CD sales and ticket bundles. If not for the pandemic, Wallen would very likely be headlining a blockbuster arena tour right now, and that tour would be in grave peril.

Wallen quickly apologized via a statement to TMZ: “I’m embarrassed and sorry. I used an unacceptable and inappropriate racial slur that I wish I could take back. There are no excuses to use this type of language, ever.”

Meanwhile, other stars debated—on Twitter, naturally—what this said about the country ecosystem as a whole, and what it didn’t.

Mickey Guyton is one of the few prominent Black female artists in the mainstream Nashville system; in 2020, in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd and the nationwide protests that followed, her single “Black Like Me” emerged as the rare country-radio song to address the uneasy national mood in blunt terms: The chorus ends, “If you think we live in the land of the free / You should try to be Black like me.” In the Trump years, Nashville mostly got political via vague and hilariously anodyne calls for unity with titles like “Most People Are Good” and “Get Along”; country radio, by the way, is notorious for hardly playing female artists at all. Ask pop-leaning singer Kelsea Ballerini, who attempted to strike a note of unity after the Wallen video leaked.

But Maren Morris—one of Nashville’s biggest crossover stars, and among the most politically outspoken—vehemently disagreed.

Read the replies to that tweet—I don’t actually recommend this—and it’s clear there is not broad public agreement that Wallen even did anything particularly wrong; delve into this debate in any way and it’s entirely unclear what the proper punishment might be, in terms of either severity or length. Wallen will not ultimately be “canceled,” whether you believe cancelation to be a real thing or not; though his removal from streaming playlists undoubtedly hurts, the backlash to the backlash against him could very well drive his numbers even higher.

And so here we’ve got an outright catastrophe: for Wallen, but also for the Nashville military-industrial complex he’d only recently come to dominate. For a country release, and even a major one, Dangerous got an uncommonly large amount of uncommonly glowing reviews (including my own) that often revelled in the contrast between his music—which at its most effective is mellow and lovelorn, hard-drinking but soft-spoken—and his burgeoning reputation as a rowdy disruptor. I greatly enjoyed typing out the full name of the Nashville bar (Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk & Rock ’N’ Roll Steakhouse) outside which Wallen was arrested in May and charged with public intoxication and disorderly conduct. And I recounted, as nearly every review did, the blow-by-blow of the singer’s much-discussed Saturday Night Live debacle. (He was set to be a musical guest in October, but got kicked off the schedule for blowing COVID protocols after TikTok videos surfaced of him partying after a University of Alabama football game; SNL invited him back on in December and also let him star in a skit spoofing the whole fiasco.) A portrait was emerging of an unstoppable phenom who’d somehow turned stupid decisions into a crucial part of his brand.

But the country-music scene is hardly a fount of wisdom these days, on any front. The decision in November to hold the annual CMAs—the genre’s other major award show—indoors and largely maskless (Wallen was a featured performer) was baffling, and echoed a handful of minor country stars who threw crowded concerts last summer, raging pandemic be damned. (Charley Pride, honored at that CMAs ceremony with the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, died a month later of complications of COVID-19.) As for any matters involving race, recall the frigid reception country radio gave Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” back in 2019. Or for that matter, recall the ongoing mega-cringe saga of the Grammy-winning artists formerly known as Lady Antebellum, who announced in June that after 14 years under that very stupid name, they were changing it to Lady A to show greater racial sensitivity, except there was already a Black blues singer in Seattle named Lady A, who is now suing the band for copyright infringement. (Technically, the band sued her first.)

The Lady A situation is the sort of catastrophe you get when a major Nashville player at least wants to be seen as doing the right thing: Add now, to this volatile environment, an extra-volatile young superstar riding higher than any young country singer in the past half decade or so, whose various foibles and blunders to this point only made him stronger and more popular, now caught on tape hurling a racial slur for all the world to see and hear. What should the country-music world do with Morgan Wallen, and under whose moral authority, exactly, should it be done?

Here’s a nightmare vision I’m having trouble shaking: Wallen onstage in April at the ACM Awards—given COVID, maybe not onstage, but there’s a precedent!—tearfully dueting with a Black artist to be named later, singing of forgiveness and reconciliation and second chances. A very special performance. A teachable moment. A time for healing. Most people, after all, are good. Is this inevitable? Is this vision of the future more honest than country music’s past? Is Morgan Wallen cancelable? Is Morgan Wallen redeemable? You know he’ll be back. You know it’s just a matter of when. Can anybody really be invited to the country music party? And alongside the question of whether it’s justified, can anybody ever be kicked out?