This morning, the Academy of Country Music announced a slate of artists who will be recognized with special achievement awards at the 15th Annual ACM Honors ceremony, to be held Aug. 24 at the Ryman. Having won the organization’s Top New Female Vocalist, Female Vocalist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year awards at previous ACM Awards shows, Miranda Lambert will take home the Triple Crown Award at this year’s Honors. Legendary ASCAP leader Connie Bradley, who died last year, will get posthumous recognition with the Icon Award. Sonny Throckmorton and Shania Twain will each receive the Poet’s Award for their longstanding contributions. That all sounds great. Listen carefully and you can just about hear a record scratching when you reach the Milestone Award on the list.
The award is given in memory of Gene Weed, who produced the ACM Awards show for more than three decades. It’s presented each year to a solo artist, duo, group or industry leader, recognizing “a specific, unprecedented or outstanding achievement in the field of Country Music during the preceding calendar year.” The release notes that past recipients include Lambert, Garth Brooks and Jennifer Nettles, among many more. This year, the Milestone Award goes to Morgan Wallen. The ACM points to Wallen’s record-setting chart success, high grosses on his 2022 tour, and the fact that his Dangerous: The Double Album won Album of the Year at this year’s ACM Awards ceremony in March.
Nowhere does the release mention the controversy surrounding Wallen — who, in case you’ve forgotten, was caught on a neighbor’s security camera using the N-word in early 2021. Wallen apologized immediately. Later, his label Big Loud made donations to Black-led charities and anti-racist organizations on his behalf. (The label also appeared to slow-walk a response to Rolling Stone’s questions about the donations until after the magazine published a story asserting that no donations were made.) But he still hasn’t made any moves that you could characterize as substantive change.
Also not mentioned in the release is how Wallen’s already-strong sales and streaming numbers spiked after the filmed incident, presumably with help from some of the many fans who have come to his defense with hateful and racist vitriol. In January, Wallen made a surprise appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, and amid the backlash that followed, Black Opry founder Holly G explained the issue at the heart of the matter to Scene contributor Brittney McKenna.
“[Wallen] created an environment for racist people,” Holly G said. “He created a safe space for them. He’s apologized for what he’s done, but at no point has he come out and said, ‘I don’t want these people at my concerts. I don’t want them to follow me. I don’t want them harassing Black people on social media.’ So, he basically created this bubble where people that are racist can come and feel safe and feel comfortable. When you invite him somewhere, like the Opry, the message you send to Black artists is that it’s also OK for the people who follow him to show up, too.”
The ACM could have chosen someone else to recognize with this award. Back when it was just called the Special Achievement Award, comedian George Burns, who recorded a few country tunes for a 1980 album called George Burns in Nashville, was the inaugural honoree. The organization could have honored Mickey Guyton, who co-hosted the 2021 ACM Awards. Her debut album Remember Her Name, released in September, did not post chart numbers anything like Wallen’s, but it came after 10 years of stalling from her label, in an industry with a long history of incredibly poor support and frequently open contempt for Black women.
Spotlighting Wallen ignores all the work that needs to be done to make the industry — and hell, the concert experience — welcoming to people who aren't white and who love the music as much as anyone else. It's something that someone with Wallen's considerable clout could participate in, if they had the guts, and maybe the support of people around them.