After being caught on film partying without a mask, country music star Morgan Wallen half-heartedly apologized and Saturday Night Live re-scheduled his performance a few months back. Public relations crisis somewhat averted. Hold my beer, thought Wallen, apparently. Last week, he was filmed using the N-word outside his home by a neighbor. In doing so, the worst-kept secret in country music escaped from the basement and one of the most enduring genres of music is finally facing the music on several fronts.
Growing up white in the South, I was exposed to my share of Confederate flags and saw more than few Charlie Daniels Band concerts in high school. Thanks to MTV, most of my music passion focused on Duran Duran, Howard, Jones, Thompson Twins, and the like. However, country music has a way of being around even when you aren’t aware of it and in college, I was seeing Garth Brooks and Travis Tritt in concert. I even did some line dancing!
I lost my connection to country music before college ended as my personal beliefs and the music of the country artists started to drift in different directions. Apart from the Dixie Chicks, the genre was pretty much off my radar until the last few years. Sturgill Simpson was the first artist to capture my ear when I heard his cover of the 80s classic “The Promise” by When In Rome. Soon after, I picked up a Kacey Musgraves album and little by little, country music started to take up more space on my record shelves.
While the music industry as a whole lacks gender equality, country music seems far worse than most styles based on radio statistics. It is laughable that country music continues to focus on generic, cookie-cutter male artists when Musgraves, Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, and veterans like Tanya Tucker are releasing the most engaging records. Being a female country artist is as punk as it gets when you look at the machine they are fighting against.
When Wallen was caught on tape hurling a racial slur, was anyone really surprised? Country music has been steeped in racism almost from it’s birth. Need proof? Wallen’s sales have skyrocketed since the incident. If Wallen’s behavior was not representative of country music, why are his sales going up? The record labels and radio might be quick to denounce him but they helped create an industry where these attitudes hide in plain sight. David Bowie saw it with pop music back in the 80s. Remember when he called out MTV for not playing Black artists?
I’m grateful I’ve returned to country music in recent years and I believe that real change is coming to the genre. Just today, emerging star Brandon Stansell sent out some free digital copies of Mickey Guyton’s EP to those who responded and I was one of the lucky ones. Thrilled to listen, I was not surprised that Guyton was nominated for a country music Grammy. Her EP is full of potential hit singles. Don’t tell me Nashville radio wouldn’t trip itself to get “Rosé” into the rotation if it was a white artist like Miranda Lambert on the cover.
Here’s hoping the events of the last week hurt country music enough for the change to be real. Stop giving second chances to run-of-the-mill artists like Morgan Wallen and start giving first chances to artists like Mickey Guyton, Orville Peck, Brandon Stansell. These are the real voices of country music. The hint is in the name. Country music should reflect a country and I don’t want to live on the same street as a Morgan Wallen. Do you?
Let me know if you like what you hear. I want to pay-it-forward so the first response to this post on Twitter will get a free download code for Mickey Guyton’s EP.