Country stars Luke Combs and Maren Morris took on the elephant in the room in a joint interview for the annual Country Radio Seminar conference Wednesday, addressing perceptions of racism and a lack of diversity in the genre that have gone from behind-the-scenes Nashville discussions to the talk of the nation in the wake of the Morgan Wallen N-word scandal two weeks ago.
Although Morris has been the most outspoken of the two on these issues prior to their Q&A, it may be because of her famous existing candor that more attention will be trained on what the previously shyer Combs had to say. And what he said may not cause ripples in too much of the nation, but is bound to stir a few in his native South: The Confederate flag, which he had previously posed with, is not okay.
Combs acknowledged that when he released a single a few weeks ago urging understanding and reconciliation titled “The Great Divide,” there was a rush to do a “gotcha” by recirculating old photos, one of which had the singer standing in front of the Confederate flag and another of which had a sticker with the image on his guitar.
“When I released the song, there were some images that resurfaced of me,” he told interviewer Ann Powers of NPR, “snd it’s not the first time that those images have surfaced and have been used against me. And obviously those are images that I can’t take back. …. Obviously in the age of the internet, those things live forever. And there is no excuse for those images. … It’s not okay. As a younger man, that was an image that I associated to mean something else. And as I’ve grown in my time as an artist, and as the world has changed drastically in the last five to seven years, I am now aware how painful that image can be to someone else.” He added, “At the time that those images existed, I wasn’t aware what that was portraying to the world and to African-American artists in Nashville that were saying, ‘Man, I really want to come in and get a deal and do this thing, but how can I be around with these images being promoted?’ And I apologize for being associated with that.”
Morris addressed flack she’s taken for speaking up on social media about Wallen, when not many in her elevated position as a star have, with some comments to the effect that she has betrayed the country music family by knocking Wallen or saying that racism has been an ingrained part of country.
“This isn’t about going after people or a fan base for sport,” said Morris. “That doesn’t give me pleasure. But I think (saying) ‘We’re different; we’re country; we protect our own; we don’t go after people in public’ … Well, I mean, going after someone saying the N-word is bad? That’s the least we can do is not say that. I think that your fans are a reflection of you and what you’re about. And you can’t control a human being, but you absolutely can let them know where you stand. And I appreciate Morgan saying ‘Quit defending me’ to his fans, because it’s indefensible. And he knows that; we know that… All we can do is, so there isn’t an elephant in the room, is say that out loud and hold our peers accountable.
“I don’t care if it’s awkward sitting down the row from you at the next awards show — call them out! If this is a family and you love it, call it out when it’s bad, so you can rid the diseased part so we can move forward. All of us — (including) people of color, LGBTQ-plus, and all — feel like we are a part of this family. This whole ‘We’re a family; we’re protecting our own’ is protecting white people. It’s not protecting Black people, and that’s the long and the short of it.” She said that those who put out statements on social media saying “‘This is not representative, actually, of our town’ — I think that by saying it isn’t (representative) with this whole controversy is absolutely diminishing the plight of Black people in country music that are trying to make it in this genre… That is what they see representing it every day.”
Added Morris, “My husband — because I had some fans coming after me after just calling it out — was like, ‘I’ve never seen someone so willing to get the shit kicked out of themselves’ — talking about me. And I was like, yeah, that’s true. But I mean, imagine what a Black person in country music feels every day. So this is like a sliver of it. I just think if you love something, you absolutely should call out the parts that are complicit and wrong, so we can move forward in a healthier way. And I think sitting here having this conversation with you, Luke, at CRS, the week of country music (pros gathering), is a huge step.. We’ve all got healing to do. And accountability is the first step of that. I think that we’re on the road to a very hopeful place, but we have to be willing to have these conversations with each other and with our friends. I don’t care if you’re holding them accountable on Twitter or if you’re holding them accountable after a show when people are drunk on the bus — just call them out when you see it happening so we can move forward.”
As CRS executive director RJ Curtis previously told Variety, the idea of having the joint Q&A focus on racial attitudes and accountability was not the outspoken Morris’s, perhaps surprisingly, but that of Combs, who called Morris up the day after the Wallen controversy broke and said they needed to change the topic for their already scheduled appearance.
Both stars acknowledged that they take heats from all sides in daring to say or sing anything about these topics. Morris was hit by some on the right for her recent song “Better Than We Left It,” which, especially in its music video, addressed police killings of Black men and showed support for Black Lives Matter protesters. Combs, for his part, is one of several country artists that have taken heat from the left for releasing songs urging racial harmony at a time some believe musicians should be more overtly calling out problems instead of celebrating unity. The only sure win, seemingly, is to just shut up — but neither singer wants to take the easiest way out right now.
“The music is the perfect way to reach your fans, like Maren did with her song,” Combs said. “That was an incredibly brave thing to do…. When Maren released her song and I released mine, we were trying to do something positive, and I think there’s always an attempt.to say, ‘Well, you didn’t do this the right way’ or ‘You should’ve done it this way.’ B… I think sometimes when you’re attacked for (your expression), when you’re coming at it with great intentions, that can make you want to clam up in a shell and go, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to talk about it.’ Because you feel like, ‘Man, I’m, I’m trying to be better. and people just keep attacking me for that.’ I think it starts with the music, and that’s a painful process as an artist, because you do have people that want to cut you down and say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ But you just have to know where your heart is and know that you’re doing it for the right reasons.”
Combs said he wanted to make this the topic of their panel because “I think we just wanted everyone to know that we’re here and that we want to be stewards of our genre, because we are proud of it. And you do hear the old adage of ‘country music is a family.’ And I do believe that more than anything, but I want it to be a family that everyone can feel like they’re a part of. Because it has changed my life; it has changed my band’s lives and my best friends’ lives that I write songs with. And I want everyone that wants to feel that to be able to experience it because it’s an incredible feeling. I just want everyone out there to be able to come into our community and be accepted and not feel excluded or pushed out. … I want those people to have the same opportunities that I had to feel that incredible feeling of having their dreams come true in the amazing genre that we have.”
And his message was personal. Alluding to his once being willing to pose with the Confederate flag, Combs said: “People can be changed. I mean, I think I’m a living, mouth-breathing example of it right here.”
Morris stepped up to address the issue of racial disparity at the CMA Awards in November when, in accepting the award for best female vocalist (among others she picked up that night), she reeled off a list of Black artists she felt deserved a fair hearing and to ultimately also be up for that award. Between that, her “Better Than We Left It” single and her reaction to the Wallen scandal, she’s been increasingly looked to as a spokesperson for diversity. But she’s not unaware of the fact that it’d be better if Black women had that platform to speak up for themselves and each other.
“I really didn’t set out to be this activist, and obviously none of us are the authority on racism, because we are white people in a space that is historically rooted in a lot of racism,” she said at the outset of the CRS Q&A. “So I think it’s really hard for me as a white person to deconstruct all of that. And I think the initial sort of white fragility moment is like, ‘I’m not racist. I haven’t done anything racist. I have friends that are Black.’ Yada yada, you can go down the list. But I think once I took that layer away, it’s kind of liberating to not bow up anytime someone questions a motive or an action of yours. So I think that I’m still shedding that insecurity that white people especially in country music get when we don’t want to really face the history of this genre that I would say we all love dearly and has shaped us as human beings and as artists.”
She continued, “But it is really important for me to look at that history, and know who created it. And how do I, as one person, have enough of a ripple effect and do what I’m doing in my own lane to make room for more Black people that want to be in country music, whether that is a songwriter, an artist, a musician, or someone that wants to be in the industry? So I feel like that’s what I can do with my power as an artist…. That’s where my head is perpetually at, especially this last year. A little late, but better late than never.”
Morris said she looks forward to getting to the place “where we can have these kinds of conversations without getting offended or having friction that we’re going to make missteps as we get to the place we want to be where it’s more inclusive and we have more Black people on these CRS panels.”
Returning to the subject of the flag, Morris joined Combs in saying there’s no place for it… and she took it a step further in urging that it be banned at country concerts and festivals.
“I’m from Texas, she said. “This is just sheer ignorance and privilege, but I did not know that the rebel flag meant what it meant until I was probably 15 or 16 years old. I mean, this is how horribly whitewashed history is and how it has failed us. ‘The South will rise again’ — those are all just terms thrown around. There was no explanation behind it. And I think a large majority of people that listen to country music don’t know, either, the deeper meaning of what that flag signifies. Or maybe that’s hopeful, wishful thinking, but I don’t think they understand what that really signifies.
“At these country music festivals, I see the Confederate flags in the parking lots. I don’t want to play those festivals anymore. If you were a Black person, would you ever feel safe going to a show with those flying in the parking lot? No. I feel like the most powerful thing we can do as artists in our position right now is to make those demands of large organizations, festivals, promoters, whatnot. One of the things we can do is say, ‘No, I’m not doing this. Get rid of them.’ .. There’s no place for it anymore.”
No one might have expected gardening to enter into the conversation, het Combs made the subject relevant.
“I agree with what Maren said on not knowing the full scope and the full impact of what that flag means to somebody else,” Combs said, “and not having to grow up being afraid of that image and not seeing that image as something that says, ‘I’m not welcome here.’ You know, thinking back on all the times and places that I’ve seen that flag, and how, if I were a Black man or a Black woman I’d just go, ‘This is definitely not somewhere where I’m being welcomed’ — I never considered that up until seven or eight years ago. And it comes down to how it’s something that’s not really talked about a lot in the South, you know? And I think Maren’s right, in that II’d like to think most people are still unfamiliar with that. And I know that that’s probably surprising to a lot of people out there. and I’m not making excuses for anyone… But I understand it in the sense of ‘I’m from the South and I’m proud of that.’
“Maren’s from Texas. She’s proud to be from Texas. I’m f proud to be Na North Carolinian. But there are so many things beyond the rebel flag that we can do to be proud of being from the South. You can go plant a vegetable garden in your yard of heirloom plants that your family used to grow 200 years ago, to be proud of your Southern heritage. You can cook a meal that your grandparents made! You don’t need the flag to be proud to be from the South, and I think that that’s something that unfortunately is still being figured out. It’s been a slow process.”
Morris mentioned being called out by a Black writer, Andrea Williams, on Twitter last year and resisting the criticism.
“She was like, ‘Maren. Love that you’re doing R&B songs on your record. Love ‘RSVP.’ Why are you doing them with a bunch of white people?’ And I remember when she said that on Twitter, you know, you sort of bow up, like, ‘Why are you coming for me? I love Black people!’ And I think just accepting that, ‘Oh, okay, actually, that’s a really good question. Why am I doing these R&B influenced songs, because that is in me, with a bunch of white people?’ So I think for me going forward, I have got to correct that and acknowledge that, yeah, absolutely, cultural appropriation, culture vulturing, is a real thing. And I love country music so much. I have my version of it, and I think that going forward, I just want to pay respect to the people that actually built it for me, nd just continue working and educating myself and trying to educate people around me.
“I mean, I can’t shove it down anyone’s throat, but if you’re gonna follow me, if you’re a fan of mine, you absolutely know where I stand. And this is not about a pile-on or talking a bunch of smack about country music and its peers. It’s about accountability for all of us, including me.
“I remember watching the amazing Ken Burns ‘Country Music’ documentary, and just myself being so ignorant to the roots of what this genre started in — like not knowing that the banjo is a West African instrument, and this is so integral to the sound of country music’s beginnings. Things like that… My relationship with country music, what I’ve always loved about it, is the honest truth of it. And if we want to pride ourselves on being three chords and the truth, we need to be truthful with ourselves, and know who started this genre. It wasn’t just white people. And going forward, making room.”