The country-music industry moves notoriously slowly. It’s called a ten-year town because that’s about how long it takes most folks to find their place on Music Row — to hone their chops and refine their voice, but also to take enough meetings and hang at enough honky-tonks to be welcomed into the Über-exclusive club. Even the music itself lags like a download on dial-up; if you want to get a good sense of what will top the country charts in the coming years, simply look to the pop, hip-hop, and R&B charts from the previous decade or even further back. Who could have possibly predicted that, in a city teeming with homegrown rap talent ready to blaze any verse on a trap-beat-backed country bop, Nelly, of early-aughts Country Grammar fame, would become bro-country’s fave feature? Well … anyone who’s paying attention.
But over the past two days, country music appears to have shaken free from its sluggish state, at least temporarily. This time, for perhaps the first time, the industry is moving swiftly and, notably, in unison. The catalyst was, of course, Morgan Wallen’s N-word (hard -er) heard round Nashville, and later, the whole nation, via footage filmed by a neighbor leaked to TMZ. And as the rest of the world got a glimpse inside the country-music bubble — this thriving genre forever weighted with the baggage of the past, of backwoods clichés and redneck stereotypes — industry execs were forced to make a decision. Would they overlook this egregious racism from the newest face of country, the man with the No. 1 album in America for three weeks and counting?
The video of a drunken, slur-spewing Wallen dropped on Tuesday night, and within hours, the answer was clear: Despite a culture of white supremacy that continues to suffocate country music from its center, the powers that be concluded that the N-word was a step too far, an action too deplorable to dismiss. By Wednesday morning, Wallen’s music had been scrubbed from terrestrial radio and streaming playlists. By afternoon, his label, Big Loud Records, had suspended him “indefinitely.” Come evening, the Academy of Country Music announced that Wallen was officially ineligible for 2021 ACM Awards consideration.
All the while, as the Wallen fallout continued, the country-music community splintered, as it so often does. Too many fans were quick to point to the liberal use of the word in hip-hop songs, claiming that censorship and “canceling” should start in the Black community, while others channeled their anger into the charts, purchasing and streaming Wallen’s music with such fervor that, by night’s end, five of his songs were in the top ten on U.S. iTunes singles.
Among artists, the denouncement of the slur was fairly universal, though subsequent responses varied as widely as the music styles of Brandi Carlile and Gabby Barrett. Indeed, while Mickey Guyton, the only Black female artist signed to a major label, tweeted that “the hate runs deep,” some of her white counterparts had a different take. While Maren Morris wrote that Wallen’s behavior actually “IS representative of our town…”, Kelsea Ballerini tweeted to her one million followers that “[t]he news out of Nashville tonight does not represent country music.” Cassadee Pope agreed, noting that “[w]hat happened does NOT represent all of country music,” and even as a handful of folks pushed back on her tone deafness, she doubled down in a follow-up tweet: “Let me reiterate. The news about Morgan that broke does not represent ‘ALL’ of country music. As you can see, it represents some.”
But the question is, if Wallen’s behavior is only representative of “some” of the industry, where is the part that is safe for artists like Guyton and others, the part that is not only accepting of Black people but will also welcome them and actively invest in their career, too? Where can Guyton be free from the N-word, and also be free to build a career comparable to that of Pope or Ballerini, who is ten years Guyton’s junior and whose debut album, The First Time, was released in 2015 — a year after Ballerini had signed with indie label Black River, but four years after Guyton had signed with Capitol Nashville, and yet Guyton had still only been allowed to release one single?
More urgently, if influential artists like Pope and Ballerini can’t see or accept that Wallen’s behavior does in fact represent country music, how will the industry ever rid itself of these glaring blind spots? If Wallen’s successful peers continue to be allowed to rewrite history and recast the present, how does does the industry build a better future?
Adding further insult to the already significant injury inflicted by Wallen’s actions: as far as “progressive” labels and publishers in country music go, Big Loud is about as good as it gets. It is the empire built from the bricks laid by Florida Georgia Line’s massive success, beginning with the 2012 Nelly-supported “Cruise,” weaving through the 2017 pop-crossover smash “Meant to Be” featuring Bebe Rexha, and leading up to last year’s No. 2 hit “I Love My Country,” an ode to the duo’s country roots that combines their now-signature rap-style cadence with video images of fishing, skeet shooting, and, yes, lots of trucks. Big Loud is also home to Candice Watkins, the company’s VP of marketing and one of the highest-ranking Black executives in country music. And among songwriters with active publishing deals, the only two signed Black writers who are not also signed artists have deals via Big Loud: Jamie Moore is signed directly to Big Loud Publishing; Tiera, an up-and-coming country and pop singer who’s yet to land a recording contract, signed a publishing deal last summer with Songs & Daughters that was struck in partnership with Big Loud and Warner Chappell Nashville.
So, if Big Loud can produce a Morgan Wallen — an artist who’s flown so flagrantly above both rule and rebuke that even past brushes with both the actual law and the laws of political correctness couldn’t keep him from uttering one of the most hateful words in the English language — what does that say about other spaces within the industry where Black faces are nonexistent? What ugliness is hiding in plain sight, covered only by a sea of whiteness, where homogeneity renders respectability optional?
Guyton knows. Watkins knows. The innumerable Black artists and execs who didn’t get as far as Guyton or Watkins know, too. And when people like Ballerini or Pope protect an industry that has not only opened its doors to them but also afforded them wealth and fame once inside, they indirectly discredit Guyton, Watkins, and the others. As the country music PR machine kicks into overdrive, it leaves the Black folk naked and delirious in the town square. Black musicians have always seen this industry for what it truly is — they’ve never had the luxury of the alternative — and when Wallen is packaged and pushed aside as an abhorrent anomaly, they are forced to face alone the angry mobs who leer and sneer.
As I watched the Wallen drama unfold, I found myself bracing for this inevitability — this knowing that, while everyone can agree that the N-word is indefensible, there are too many people who are willing to defend the inherently racist status quo. I fear that those who were so quick to condemn Wallen — people like Ballerini, Pope, but also Cassie Kelley, who, as the wife of Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelly, doesn’t seem to see the link between Wallen’s slur and the band’s recent actions — are now comforted by their non-racist stance, even as true anti-racism remains far from their grasp. To be clear: This isn’t low-hanging fruit. Wallen’s actions are the product of a racist industry that has already fallen, fat and bursting, from the tree. Now it lies on the ground, rotting. And while most in the industry have stepped up to clear the waste beneath their feet, not enough are tending to the vines that remain overhead, choking out the sun, always ready to release their overgrowth onto the masses below. Even comparisons between recent events and the Dixie Chicks’ 2003 cancellation only serve to center whiteness while failing to get to the root of the industry’s original sin. I was as appalled as anyone by the backlash that followed the Chicks’ critique of former president George W. Bush, but I also know that there are too many Black artists who were rejected before they could ever be run out of town.
Big Loud’s statement announcing Wallen’s suspension was noticeably vague; the use of the word suspended instead of dropped is a clear sign that the door may remain open for Wallen’s return. If Wallen takes the time to understand the ramifications of his actions — not just as a white man, but as an artist at the top of an intentionally whitewashed genre — I believe that there is true potential for redemption. So far, both the Nashville chapter of the NAACP and Bebe Winans, an advisor for BMI’s Nashville office, have offered to help Wallen come to terms with the gravity of that word and his actions. In the meantime, education is in order for country-music apologists like Ballerini and Pope. And Big Loud, as an organization that appears to value inclusivity even as it provided the fuel for Wallen’s meteoric rise, needs to consider the measurable actions it can take to make amends for its artists’ bad behavior. Will the money that continues to roll in from streams and sales of Wallen’s music be donated to organizations that benefit Black Nashvillians, or Black people elsewhere fighting their way into the music industry? Will the funds previously earmarked for the marketing and promotions of Wallen’s superdeluxe Dangerous now be allocated toward the signing and/or development of Black artists, songwriters, or session players?
It’s too early to tell what steps the company will take from here, but this is the kind of work that will turn this industry around. Unfortunately, this is also the work that country music has rarely been hard-pressed to see through.