Morgan Wallen’s racial slur cost him an invite to the CMA Awards. What will the Grammys do?
At the upcoming Country Music Association Awards in Nashville, Morgan Wallen’s “Dangerous: The Double Album” will be vying for the prestigious album of the year trophy, alongside such stars as Chris Stapleton, Eric Church and Carly Pearce. Wallen may have sold more albums than his country peers in 2021 — in fact, he’s on track to sell more albums this year than any artist in any genre — but one thing’s for certain: Win or lose, Wallen won’t be attending the Nov. 10 ceremony. That’s because he’s not invited.
On Feb. 2, TMZ published a video in which an inebriated Wallen was caught using the N-word. The fallout from the incident was swift: Country radio stopped playing his music, streaming services ceased promoting him, label Big Loud/Republic “suspended” him and his booking agency dropped him. Still, to the embarrassment of many in Nashville, a wide swath of fans supported Wallen, and sales for “Dangerous” spiked, then settled into a steady presence in the top 10.
Following the murder of George Floyd, Nashville, like other entertainment sectors, was facing something of a reckoning over its historic lack of inclusiveness. The Wallen incident, and the subsequent six months of crisis management and TV apologies, created a no-win situation for country music’s gatekeepers: One of their brightest young stars had disgraced himself and the genre, yet fans didn’t seem to mind.
Sarah Trahern, CEO of the Country Music Association, explained her organization’s decision to recognize Wallen’s album but exclude him from attending or performing at the ceremony.
“This was something we looked at from so many angles,” she said. “The decision, ultimately, was the man would not be allowed, but the music and the people who were part of it [songwriters and producers] could be eligible. That made his music eligible in five categories, and ultimately, he was nominated in one.
“This is the first time in the history of the CMA, to my knowledge, anyone has ever been disqualified for conduct. Honoring him as an individual this year is not right, and he will not be allowed on the red carpet, on our stage, or be celebrated in any way.”
Next in line to answer the “What to do about Morgan Wallen?” question are the 12,000 voting members of the Recording Academy, who will decide on the nominees for the 64th annual Grammy Awards, scheduled for Jan. 31 at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.
Awards shows like the CMAs and Grammys have seen steep viewership declines in recent years, but they still confer significant prestige — and boost record sales — for those artists who receive nominations or are asked to perform on the TV broadcast.
Big Loud/Republic confirms to The Times that it has submitted Wallen in eight Grammy categories (recordings released between Sept. 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021, are eligible): “Dangerous” for album of the year and country album; “7 Summers” for record of the year, song of the year and video; “Sand in My Boots” for country song and country solo performance; and “Only Thing That’s Gone,” featuring Chris Stapleton, for country duo/group.
Grammy nominations will be announced on Nov. 23.
Author and culture critic Andrea Williams, who has written extensively on country music and racism for Vulture, is concerned that the CMA nomination for Wallen will encourage Grammy voters to reward him, despite his slur.
“The CMA is acting as the CMA has always done: They are a trade organization to market country music,” said Williams. “If the Grammys follow Nashville’s lead, then yes, he’ll be nominated. You don’t ask somebody outside the house to discipline your child.”
Rissi Palmer, a well-regarded country artist, host of Apple Music’s “Color Me Country” radio show and a Grammy voter, sighed at the question of Wallen on the Grammy ballot.
“I want to talk about more positive things,” she said. “I’d love to have a conversation about Carly Pearce’s phenomenal record, or Mickey Guyton’s. Or Adia Victoria’s ‘Southern Gothic,’ or Chapel Hart or Miko Marks. I hate this is even a thing I’m weighing in on. But I can’t think of a time when someone’s behavior has kept them from being nominated for a Grammy. So I would not be surprised if he’s nominated.”
“The numbers don’t lie,” Big Machine label group Chairman Scott Borchetta said via email. “Morgan’s album is not only the biggest country album of the year but is on track to be the biggest consuming album of the year, all-genres. It deserves to be judged on its merit and impact. ... Morgan has apologized for his racial slur. He didn’t hide from it. He’s very publicly dealing with his issues.
“Do we want to be judged as a people so caught up in social media that we weren’t willing to exercise forgiveness?” he added.
Asleep at the Wheel leader and nine-time Grammy winner (and Grammy voter) Ray Benson said, “Country music has to come to terms with its racist past. But should they blackball this kid because he said the N-word? Not if they’re making it about the music.”
Carl Jackson, a two-time Grammy-winning bluegrass artist and Grammy voter, shares Benson’s opinion. “My belief is that the Grammys are for the best in MUSIC,” he said via text message. “I don’t know Morgan Wallen and I cannot read his mind. If his music is deserving, then it should be recognized with no political or ‘woke’ prejudice.”
Greg Thompson, president of Big Loud Management, which oversees Wallen’s career, maintains that the singer has accepted responsibility for his actions and made amends with representatives of the Black community. “I do not believe Morgan Wallen is a racist; he said a slur while drunk in a non-derogatory way, and those words are used frequently in pop culture,” he said. “Those phrases are unacceptable, and Morgan’s met with Black artists and executives, who I’ve found to be the most forgiving. I’m not saying they condone what he said, but they’re willing to accept his apology and move on.”
(Last week, Rolling Stone published a report that Wallen had reneged on his commitment to donate $500,000 to various Black-led groups and organizations. USA Today subsequently reported that Wallen and his team had, in fact, donated the majority of the funds as promised.)
Wallen’s peers have begun to welcome him back to their fraternity. Eric Church, Darius Rucker and Dierks Bentley have recently popped up in Wallen’s social feeds, while Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan welcomed Wallen onstage with tequila shots and bro hugs at his July 30 performance at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, alongside Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard.
Meanwhile, Wallen returns to the road in late October, with a handful of tour dates in the friendly confines of Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia.
And after every major radio chain dropped his songs following the TMZ video, at least 100 stations now are playing “Sand in My Boots,” propelling it to No. 24 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.
Of the 20-plus executives and musicians across the industry interviewed about the Grammys, the consensus is that Wallen will be nominated for best country album at minimum, and possibly for the all-genre album of the year award; many feel if it is solely based on music, he should be nominated.
“I don’t believe in this person being flogged every time he walks out the door,” said Palmer. “But he didn’t do this 10 years ago, it’s less than a year.
“I don’t want a pound of flesh, but there are consequences.”
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