Saturday night, rising singer-songwriter Ernest performed on the Grand Ole Opry. He also brought with him a great deal of controversy in the form of an unannounced appearance by Morgan Wallen, who has a feature on Ernest’s new single “Flower Shop.” Musicians and critics are pointing out how disappointing and dispiriting the move is, even if it’s not surprising.

It hasn’t been quite a year since Wallen was filmed casually using the N-word. That preceded — and, it can be fairly argued, precipitated — a surge in streams and sales of his record Dangerous: The Double Album. The annual MRC Data (formerly Nielsen) year-end report marks it as the biggest seller of 2021 in the U.S.

In the wake of Wallen’s surprise Opry appearance, Holly G of Black Opry, an organization that makes space for Black country and roots artists, shared a letter she’d written to the Opry team.

“It felt like a slap in the face to see you all celebrate Charley Pride, only to pull this stunt 24 hours later,” the letter reads in part, referencing a tweet from the Opry account on Friday. “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.”

An array of musicians have also spoken up. Among them: Adia Victoria offered a reminder that, despite its online pledge that racism has no place on the show, the Opry has a long history of racist practices, like broadcasting minstrel performers.

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Joy Oladokun noted that even if it isn’t a surprise, the bold reminder that the deck is stacked against Black and brown artists is disheartening.

Jason Isbell, who had Victoria and Oladokun among the openers on his recent eight-night Ryman residency, echoed the point. “The thing that really upsets me is bigger than one person’s words,” he wrote. “It’s the idea of a young Black artist walking into that venue and wondering if ANYBODY is on their side.”

Wallen made a public apology; he was also censured in some ways that ultimately proved to be minor, and donations were reportedly made on his behalf by his record label to Black-led nonprofits. When Wallen sat for an interview with Good Morning America in July, Michael Strahan asked him what he thought about the problems with race in country music. Wallen responded, “I haven’t really sat and thought about that.”

And that’s the deeper problem, made apparent once again. None of the people who make major decisions in the mainstream country world seem to be willing to truly hold Wallen accountable — or help him confront racism, or even to really sit and think about it. Without real action, the racism that’s ingrained in the industry is making some of the best young talent consider whether making country music professionally — or making music in Nashville at all — is what they want to do.

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