Home Blog The rise of Morgan Wallen, America’s controversial country music star – The Guardian

The rise of Morgan Wallen, America’s controversial country music star – The Guardian


The singer’s record-breaking success spotlights the divide between coastal city culture and what’s played elsewhere
For the past six weeks, Miley Cyrus’s Flowers, the most dominant song on the Billboard charts, was decently ubiquitous, as much as one can determine song ubiquity in my particular bubble of Brooklyn. I heard it in Ubers, at the nail salon, during at least two pop-ins to Duane Reade. References to it were all over Twitter and whatever TikTok stream reaches me. The same cannot be said for its usurper on the Billboard Hot 100: Last Night by Morgan Wallen, a 29-year-old country singer from eastern Tennessee. The song is one of five that he has notched in the top 10 this week, all from his third album, One Thing at a Time, released earlier this month. (In 2023, Billboard charts are calculated by a combination of radio airplay, sales and streaming numbers.) He’s the first core country act to achieve the mainstream music feat – which, depending on where you are, is either obvious or head-scratching.
Wallen’s career presents a conundrum: he is not only the biggest star in country music, but one of the biggest stars in pop music, period. One Thing at a Time, which runs at nearly two hours and has 36 songs, had the largest streaming debut of any album so far in 2023, according to Spotify. His 2021 release, the 30-song Dangerous: The Double Album, was the third most streamed album in the US in 2022, behind Bad Bunny and Harry Styles and ahead of Taylor Swift’s Midnights. And yet his popularity is one of the starkest examples of cultural silos in the US. Loosely, what Paramount’s Yellowstone is to TV – the most popular show on cable television with strong viewership in smaller markets but largely ignored in coastal cities – Wallen is to popular music: regional, segmented, massively recognizable to some and unheard of to others. You either listen to Morgan Wallen or you don’t.
Wallen’s appeal makes sense, at least for a longtime country music listener like me. His voice is twangy and husky yet commercial, the woodgrain raspiness of Chris Stapleton filtered through the machine of reality television; Wallen first gained recognition as a contestant on The Voice in 2014, when he was 20 years old and working as a landscaper in his home town of Knoxville, Tennessee. His music is almost aggressively median bro country – beer, the Bible, women, whiskey, regret, reclaiming the word “redneck”. It’s at best charming and surprisingly clever, sometimes cliched far beyond the point of self-parody, but generally catchy. His songs are boozy, drenched in nostalgia, swilling about the evergreen draw of someone bad for you or mining the fantasy that you could make such an impression on a man that he’d sing about it for years afterward. They’re easy songs to drink to, which is, as I’ve mentioned, a recurring theme. (“But if I never did put that can to my mouth / I wouldn’t have nothin’ I could sing about, yeah”, he sings on the new album opener Born With a Beer in My Hand, which ambivalently handles Wallen’s newfound sobriety.)
Wallen’s post-Voice makeover for his 2018 debut album, If I Know Me, took a nod from 90s country and Brooklyn fashion – objectively ugly but worn with such confidence that it works – with a Billy Ray Cyrus twist (a mullet and sleeveless flannels). Female fans on TikTok responded to his insouciant charm and assertively retro style enthusiastically. A 2020 New Yorker profile of Wallen quoted a South Carolina mother on Instagram – “Lord have mercy im bout to bust”, she commented on a picture of him leaning against a truck – which remains an apt summary for that segment of his fanbase. There is, for better and for worse, a perennial appeal to a man wearing a backwards hat who just likes his beer and can’t seem to help his habits, his aching heart, or himself.
The compartmentalization of Wallen’s popularity is partly due to the genre bounds of country, which remain Nashville-based, predominantly white and exurban, even as country music itself, and particularly the pop-leaning, bro-country lane in which Wallen traffics, borrows beats and styles originated by hip-hop. (Wallen’s drawling delivery can veer toward rapping, though he defines himself against urban music or culture in general. “Call it cliche, but hey, just take it from me / It’s still goin’ down out in the country,” he sang on Saturday Night Live in December 2020, two months after the show rescinded its first invitation after Wallen broke the show’s Covid isolation protocols at a bar in Alabama.) Though the game of country music stardom has, like every fame game, shifted to social media and TikTok in recent years, it’s still a genre heavily dictated by radio airplay (that may help explain the sheer volume of Wallen’s albums) that infrequently crosses over to pop radio.
And it’s partly due to Wallen’s own torpedoing of his crossover career – namely, a video filmed in January 2021, in the thick of the Dangerous album release, of the singer drunkenly shouting the N-word at friends outside his Tennessee home. Condemnation, especially mere months after nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, was swift, though temporary. His label put him on indefinite hiatus (“such behavior will not be tolerated”), Country Music Television removed his appearance from their platforms, and he was disqualified from the 2021 Grammys and the Academy of Country Music Awards.
Wallen released a short, self-filmed apology video asking fans not to defend his actions, and explained his use of the racial epithet as “hour 72 of a 72-hour bender”. He retreated from the spotlight and, as he told Michael Strahan, a Black anchor, on Good Morning America months later, went to rehab for “deeper issues”. In the same interview, Wallen explained that he and his close friends “say dumb stuff together” and “in our minds, it’s playful. That sounds ignorant, but that’s really where it came from, and it’s wrong.” He said he didn’t use the slur frequently and “didn’t mean it in a derogatory manner at all”. He pledged $500k to Black-led groups, although that money was not promptly forthcoming.
Wallen may have been “cancelled”, but his commercial base stayed with him. His apology tour (or lack thereof) was seen by many of his fans as unnecessary, frustrating, a middle finger at mainstream respectability or a culture war cudgel. And to many others, particularly Black country artists in an industry that has long excluded and marginalized Black musicians and whitewashed its roots, it was not nearly enough. In January 2022, the Grand Ole Opry welcomed Wallen to its stage – a hallowed milestone for a country musician, and a move met with derision and resigned disappointment from Black country artists and advocates as an indication that the industry was all too eager to forget the incident and move on.
That has largely been the case. The Academy of Country Music awarded Wallen its highest honor, album of the year, in 2022. His 2022 Dangerous Tour was, as the New York Times music writer Jon Caramanica put it, a return to a “safe space” – vague atonement, gratitude to those who stuck with him, no mention of racial justice or change, and no stopping audience members from turning his success into a political weapon (ie shouting expletives about President Biden).
One Thing at a Time is the musical equivalent of that – vague grappling with mistakes, even vaguer repentance, a lot of lovesickness and drunkenness and stating outright who he is (a “good ole boy”, for one). The fallout from the racial slur video may have dashed hopes of Morgan Wallen as a true country crossover smash a la Shania Twain or Taylor Swift (once), but it has not put a dent in his fanbase. In providing more and more of the same, his star continues to rise and rise.



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