Controversial country star Morgan Wallen is booked to play a show next week in Nashville, and it’s a problem. It’s frustrating, because it’s a big-hearted event for a good cause. Wallen, along with Dierks Bentley, Hardy and Cole Swindell, is playing an acoustic show at Marathon Music Works to raise money for the people of Humphreys County whose homes were damaged or destroyed and whose lives were upended by a recent flood.
There’s no reason to doubt Wallen’s sincerity in wanting to help the people of Humphreys County. Unfortunately, this also feels like another step of his image-rehabilitation campaign. There are quite a few ways you can help flood victims, some of which my colleague J.R. Lind outlined. There are other shows, too: Producer Jeremy Vaughn has put together a Sept. 7 benefit concert at City Winery with Billy Ray Cyrus, Dennis Quaid and others, while Loretta Lynn hosts a show at the Grand Ole Opry House on Sept. 13 with Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood and more.
Nothing has changed about the argument you’ve heard many times since February, when TMZ posted footage of Wallen saying the N-word outside the home in Nashville that he recently sold. The word is an awful thing for any person who is not Black to use. It is an even bigger issue when it’s used by a country star who sold more records in the U.S. than any other artist during the first half of this year.
But the problem is much deeper than language. It’s about the ingrained racism that made Wallen feel comfortable using the word in a casual way. What gets lost in the shuffle is how racism doesn’t have to be outwardly violent or aggressive to be intensely harmful and destructive. Wallen doesn’t have to intentionally set out to hurt Black people to cause a lot of pain.
Before the filmed incident, Wallen was best known outside the country world as the guy who got a second chance to play SNL after getting disinvited for breaking the show’s COVID safety protocol. Despite being suspended by CMT and his label following his outburst and prevented by the Country Music Association from winning any awards this year, his streaming numbers skyrocketed.
It’s not the right of someone like me, another white guy, to adjudicate what is enough, but it doesn't feel like Wallen's copious public apologies and staying out of the limelight for a few months do anything to really address the problem. What might be a good start is hearing from Wallen’s own mouth his take on the broader implications of what he did, as evidence that he’s begun the work to change what’s going on underneath.
It’s those social underpinnings — that instinct that says “It’s OK to use a slur as long as no one who will get upset hears me” — that lead to decisions and longstanding policies that harm Black and brown communities. That’s how people who aren’t white get left out or frozen out of positions of power and influence and denied opportunities to build professional and social stability and wealth. That’s how these conditions and others — like police violence — get worse and worse over decades with little intervention until something horrific happens and gets caught on camera.
It isn’t my place to say what Morgan Wallen should do, either for Humphreys County or about making real change in himself. But with the massive and loyal fan base he’s built, he has an opportunity to be remembered as someone who made a difference. That window will only stay open for so long.