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How mullet-sporting Morgan Wallen is pulling country music into the 21st century

Country performer Morgan Wallen.
Morgan Wallen’s “7 Summers” is a streaming sensation and a crossover smash: “If you got a hit on TikTok, you got a hit everywhere.”
(David Lehr)

The country song that everyone’s talking about right now is by a guy with a committed mullet haircut reminiscing about the one that got away.

“I wonder when you’re drinking if you find yourself thinking about that boy from east Tennessee,” Morgan Wallen sings over a shimmering midtempo groove in “7 Summers,” which debuted this week atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart — and blasted onto the all-genre Hot 100 at No. 6, the highest bow for a solo male country act since Garth Brooks’ “Lost in You” started at No. 5 in 1999.

“To me, it’s like a young-love-type song,” Wallen, 27, said the other day from Nashville. “Reminds me of high school and what I was doing then.” He laughed. “Might’ve been a little longer than seven summers ago, but that’s the place it takes me.”

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Despite that throwback mind-set, “7 Summers” is a thoroughly modern success story powered by the song’s runaway popularity on TikTok and on streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, where its daily plays set new records for a country track when it came out Aug. 14. It even reached No. 3 on Spotify’s hip-hop-dominated U.S. Top 50.

In the week after its release, “7 Summers” racked up 23.5 million streams overall, according to Nielsen Music — second only (among nonholiday country songs) to “10,000 Hours” by Dan + Shay and Justin Bieber, which notched 33.3 million streams in October.

“I love the song, and I’m proud of it — but, man, I’ve seen some of those stats,” Wallen said, “and I never expected to have kind of a pop-culture moment, or whatever you would call it.”

For genres other than country, streaming is where hits have been happening for years. This month, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s raunchy rap single “WAP” rang up 93 million streams on its way to a No. 1 debut on the Hot 100.

Yet Nashville, which still relies heavily on radio airplay and sales, has been relatively slow to embrace the consumption format. On Billboard’s Streaming Songs chart, which “7 Summers” entered at No. 4, country tunes including Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” and Maddie & Tae’s “Die From a Broken Heart” are greatly outnumbered by songs from pop and hip-hop acts such as Drake, the Weeknd and Harry Styles.

“Country music was a bit behind,” said Seth England, chief executive of Wallen’s label and management firm, Big Loud. “We’ve seen how reactive Rap Caviar and New Music Friday can be,” he added, referring to a pair of popular Spotify playlists that quickly cycle through fresh hits. “Now we’re finally starting to feel that in country.”

To some extent, the genre’s catch-up was inevitable, given streaming’s growth among listeners of all kinds. (In its midyear report on the music industry, Nielsen said streaming accounted for 85% of total audio consumption in the first half of 2020.) In the country genre, streaming is up 22% so far this year over last.

What’s surprising about “7 Summers” is that it’s not an obvious crossover ploy à la Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” or Wallen’s own “Heartless,” a throbbing country-trap collaboration with producer Diplo that’s been streamed more than 160 million times on Spotify since it dropped last year.

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Cowritten by Wallen and two experienced Nashville pros in Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne (both known for their work with Sam Hunt and Kacey Musgraves), the smooth and dreamy “7 Summers” recalls an era long before Kane Brown was hooking up with Marshmello.

Wallen said it reminds him of the old Eagles and Fleetwood Mac records his dad played at home when he was a kid, while McAnally zeroed in on the wistful quality that distinguishes the tune from more lighthearted stuff like Justin Moore’s “Why We Drink” or “One Margarita” by Luke Bryan.

“It’s not such a ballad that you feel like you’re crying looking out the window, but for some reason your heart is breaking,” McAnally said.

Country singer Morgan Wallen.
Morgan Wallen on “7 Summers”: “I love the song, and I’m proud of it — but, man... I never expected to have kind of a pop-culture moment.”
(John Shearer)

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Lyrically, Wallen — who was born in tiny Sneedville, Tenn., and broke into music after appearing on “The Voice” in 2014 — vividly evokes his background in lines about “sippin’ on a sixer” by the river and buying “a few acres couple roads off the highway.” Like his haircut, his down-home accent is pure country too, even as he nails the tricky vocal flourishes that give “7 Summers” a quietly soulful tug. Imagine a more tender, rhythmically nimble version of what Luke Combs or Chris Stapleton does.

“I think in most of my songs, I’m trying to paint a picture of where I’m from,” said Wallen, whose other hits include the similarly plaintive “More Than My Hometown” and the slightly rowdier “Whiskey Glasses.” (After after he was eliminated from “The Voice,” he moved to Nashville and befriended the members of Florida Georgia Line, with whom he parties on a boat in the video for his first top 10 single, “Up Down.”)

“I’ve been all over the place now, but east Tennessee is still my favorite place in the world,” he said. “So getting to picture my home in my head — it’s a comforting thing.”

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Wallen laid the groundwork for “7 Summers’” online reception in April, when he posted a snippet of a demo of the song on Instagram in response to an internet challenge; fans went on to use the music in countless TikTok videos dramatizing the action in the song’s first verse: “Probably got a big ol’ diamond on your hand right now / Maybe a baby or a couple by now / Long driveway to a big white house.”

By the time Wallen released the finished version this month — he’s currently at work on the follow-up to his 2018 debut album, “If I Know Me” — demand for “7 Summers” had built to the point that England “had an idea it was going to be a streaming monster,” the executive said.

Asked why he thinks his song, or just a small part of it, captured folks’ attention, Wallen credited its “nostalgic feel” and pointed out that, even if teenagers aren’t familiar with Fleetwood Mac, they unknowingly recognize the group’s echoes in music by the likes of Styles and Musgraves.

“I even hear it in Miley Cyrus’ new song,” Wallen said, referring to the “Edge of Seventeen”-ish “Midnight Sky.”

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The singer, who was supposed to be touring arenas this summer as Bryan’s opening act, also acknowledged the role of the COVID-19 pandemic: Had he been on the road, he said, he might not have felt compelled to post that video on Instagram; had people not been stuck at home, they might not have repurposed it on TikTok.

“And I guess if you got a hit on TikTok, you got a hit everywhere,” he said.

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Indeed, though Wallen’s current radio single is “More Than My Hometown,” more than a dozen stations added “7 Summers” this week — an unusual move in the orderly country-music world, where labels prefer to let a song run its course before working an artist’s next one.

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England said he hopes the speed of Wallen’s streaming ascent with “7 Summers” leads Nashville to move faster than it does now, when songs can stay parked on the country chart for 40 or 50 weeks. “Program directors need to chase the heat,” he said, more like they do in the hip-hop and Top 40 formats. “You can see what the fans want.”

Take Wallen’s “legendary mullet,” as England described it. A clean-cut guy in a baseball cap in the “Up Down” video, Wallen got the haircut as something of a joke after he came across a wedding photo of his dad rocking a similar look. He didn’t intend to keep it, England said, “but then it became a whole thing.”

“My girlfriend told me it was less attractive but 10 times hotter,” the executive added.

Wallen, thus informed, said: “Thanks, I guess?” But he admitted he’s been enjoying the attention it’s brought him. “I’ll keep it as long as I can,” said the singer, who became a father himself last month when an ex gave birth to their son.

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“Hopefully, my little guy can carry on the tradition one day.”


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