Country’s most revered institution is shamelessly enabling Morgan Wallen's comeback
The Grand Ole Opry welcomed the singer who infamously said the N-word on tape.
For just another white dude with a mullet in some Wranglers singing about whiskey and party girls, a lot of ink has been spilled about Morgan Wallen. The rising country star saw his world turned upside down when he was caught on a neighbor’s security camera in Nashville in February 2021 using a racial slur. The scandal came after multiple other incidents in which Wallen was publicly exhibiting the cliche, drunken behavior that sometimes accompanies new fame, and the country music industry at large was quick to distance itself from Wallen in any way. He was banned from award shows and lost his representation. The backlash was swift and loud. It also saw his fans back him in an unprecedented way, by buying his double album Dangerous at such high numbers, it was the most sold album of any genre in 2021. With that backwards marketability, a pattern is emerging of people who would rather capitalize on Wallen than stay true to previous allegiances to anti-racism.
Unfortunately, those promises of allyship are often hollow, especially when they are inspired by controversy. What people and organizations do when no one is paying attention is far more indicative of their stance on the issue of racism and their status as an ally. And over the weekend, one country music institution, The Grand Ole Opry, made it very clear where they stand by slipping Morgan Wallen on stage to perform during his label mate ERNEST’s debut there.
Big Loud Records had previously suspended Wallen’s recording contract “indefinitely” at the time of the scandal, but it would appear that they too are going back on promises by helping to promote Wallen’s awkward redemption tour. Wallen is featured on their new artist ERNEST’s single “Flower Shops,” which is the song that they performed together on the Opry.
For those who are unfamiliar, the Opry is basically country music’s church. It’s the most revered institution in country music, and is widely credited for being the conduit by which country music was popularized. Members have to be inducted, and it’s a very sacred thing. Every Saturday they broadcast the live show on the radio, and having started in 1925, it’s the longest running radio show of all time. It can be corny as hell, but a lot of country staples are. And regardless of your feelings on the genre, it’s considered one of country’s biggest honors to perform on the Opry or be inducted as a member. So it’s a big fucking deal that they would give Wallen a platform, which is something that we can only assume they as an institution would have been aware of.
Part of the hot water they’ve gotten themselves into is being spurred on by the fact that in 2020, during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, The Opry posted to their social media, “Racism is real. It is unacceptable. And it has no place at the Grand Ole Opry." It would appear now that it was a gesture that was largely performative. Much like the black squares that were posted by misguided allies, not only does the Opry’s sentiment now feel momentary, it is clear that they don’t understand how to prevent racism from having a place at the Grand Ole Opry to begin with.
So far, the Opry’s social media still has all of its posts celebrating Wallen’s appearance live, and it has yet to make any kind of statement in response to the anger that his performance has caused. That hasn’t stopped Black artists and some white allies in the music industry from voicing their valid upset. Jason Isbell tweeted, “Last night @opry, you had a choice- either upset one guy and his ‘team,’ or break the hearts of a legion of aspiring Black country artists. You chose wrong, and I’m real sad for a lot of my friends today. Not surprised, though. Just sad.” Isbell is a well-known supporter of Black voices, having featured seven Black artists as opening acts at his nine-night residency at the Ryman in October. Wallen previously covered his song “Cover Me Up” and Isbell famously donated his profits from the release to the NAACP.
What is most disheartening about this entire episode is the pain that it has caused Black artists in country who have been dedicated to the genre despite its clear dismissal of them. They have worked so hard to infuse country music with something more, something better than white nonsense, and in return they get sonically stollen from, ignored and condescended onto. Allison Russell tweeted, “the rot of bigotry permeating mainstream country is rough. But take as #bellhooks said, ‘Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power-not because they don't see it, but because they see it & they don't want it to exist.’” Yola tweeted support for the open letter that the platform and organization The Black Opry wrote and sent directly to the Opry in response to the incident, “Please take time to read this letter penned by @BlackOpry founder @_love_holly_ that pulls no punches about the Opry and this MW dumpster fire! I for one will be watching this space with intent!.”
Holly summed up this deep heartbreak, “It felt like a slap in the face to see you all celebrate Charley Pride, only to pull this stunt 24 hours later. You should know that our community is extremely disappointed, though many are not surprised. A stage that was once a dream destination for many Black artists has now cemented itself as one of the many Nashville stages on which we know we are not respected.” The Opry did not immediately respond to Mic’s request for comment, but we will update this space if that changes. In the meantime, they are just another white institution that has proven incapable of allyship — something that should not be hard — and yet so many white organizations have trouble following through on their promises of anti-racist work. And Morgan Wallen clearly remains insistent on coming back, whether we like it or not. His apology on Good Morning America was widely panned as empty, and donations that he promised to make to black organizations have been reported to not have been followed through on. Yet people will continue to validate and propel him — like when Lil Durk released a single with him last month. It will continue to be disheartening to see the people and organizations that decide to support and platform that comeback.