Morgan Wallen returned to the stage Thursday night in Nashville for his first officially billed headlining gig since his career went into crisis back in February. And his most diehard fans were able to hear the words they’ve hoped to hear out of his lips for seven months now:
“This is the new single we have out at country radio.”
One woman near the rear of the crowd at the Marathon Music Works club reacted with audible, and somewhat pleased, shock — “Wait, he’s on the radio?” — as if it had been a given that Wallen would continue to be the world’s only superstar who can only be heard via streaming.
That simple preamble to “Sand in My Boots” — a song that Big Loud Records began promoting to the format late last month — was further indication that Wallen’s baby steps back into the public eye are beginning to turn into medium strides, furthered by the fact that he’s now able to top a bill in Tennessee without almost no one batting an eye. Many among the progressive flank of country music still think it’s too soon for Wallen to come back, or that he hasn’t evidenced anything truly learned from his N-word scandal, and that welcoming the singer back without further ado means brushing serious issues under the carpet. But there’s little doubt that his fans — and seemingly the larger part of an industry that’s just tired of talking about it, teachable moment or not — are looking to move on.
Thursday’s show at the 1700-capacity club wasn’t a normally scheduled one: It was a hastily scheduled benefit concert for victims of the recent flooding in and around Humphreys County, Tennessee. At the end of the nearly three-hour show, in a somber moment capping an otherwise raucous night, Wallen brought out a family he said had lost two children in the flooding, shortly after appearing on stage with a giant check showing a total of $725,000 had been raised.
Especially given that the event came together in little more than a week, that total “far exceeded anything I could have ever imagined,” Wallen said. Tickets for the show, which went for $150-200, were an easy advance sellout, with an estimated 2,000 more paying $50 to watch a livestream of the show. A guitar auction featuring instruments donated by Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, Bentley and others also upped the ante, including one guitar signed by the night’s headliners that went for $20,000 all by itself in a live auction.
Wallen had plenty of company at the fundraiser, which was formatted as a Nashville-style acoustic “guitar pull” with guests on stools taking turns singing one number at a time. Fellow stars Dierks Bentley and Cole Swindell joined Wallen in the night’s second half, along with up-and-comer Hardy, a frequent co-writer of the singer’s on “Dangerous: The Double Album,” which still stands — until Drake is able to topple it, at least — as 2021’s most popular album. Among those making cameos were two rising Black artists out of Tennessee (whose alliance with Wallen provides a topic of discussion for his supporters and detractors alike): Lathan Warlick, who provided a guest spot on Wallen’s “Wasted on You,” and Breland, who sat in with Bentley on the recent hit “Beers on Me” and earned a huge audience response by singing his own “Don’t Touch My Truck.”
The night’s earlier round robin featured Lainey Wilson, Ernest, Ben Burgess and Jared Mullins.
Allusions to Wallen’s troubles this year were in short supply, at least while he was on stage, beyond his initial declaration of how good it was to be back, and that “my life’s been all over the place this year” but rallying for a good cause made for a point of certainty.
During a break between sets, though, comedians John Crist and Theo Von had a field day acknowledging the elephant that hasn’t entirely left the room, cracking jokes about Wallen’s fall from grace earlier in the year — noting that “‘Cover Me Up’ (a Jason Isbell song that Wallen recorded on his latest album) is also the name of Morgan Wallen’s 2021 PR campaign” and that, among the benefit’s sponsors, “I’ll tell you who is not a sponsor. TMZ is not a sponsor. Ring Video Doorbell is not a sponsor.” (They also marveled at Wallen last year reportedly getting kicked out of Kid Rock’s downtown venue, “the only bar that has a felony section.”)
The chatter between performers was otherwise on the lighter side, save for a moment when Wallen said “I love this country so fucking much” and spoke about his support for the troops in light of the Afghanistan crisis, though most of his remarks were drowned out by chants of “USA! USA!”
Although this marked Wallen’s officially billed return to live performance, he has appeared out as a surprise guest a few times in recent months, including a July appearance at a Luke Bryan arena show in Nashville at which he was greeted by an extended ovation.
News was good for Wallen the morning after the benefit. The country community awoke Thursday to the news that his “Dangerous: The Double Album” had been nominated for album of the year in CMA Awards voting — not surprising in the context of a record that has commercially dominated a year as much as any country album ever has, but hardly a given in a voting frame where limits had publicly been placed on his eligibility. Wallen had been placed in an unprecedented position by a Country Music Association board vote that, in extending his time-out from the mainstream of the industry, decided he’d be ineligible for solo categories like entertainer of the year or male vocalist, but would be allowed to compete in divisions where the award would be shared with producing/writing/mixing collaborators.
Wallen is unlikely to be afforded a spot on the November telecast, given his banishment from some of the CMA categories. But “Dangerous” stands a real possibility of scoring a win at the CMAs, between the phenomenon of its popularity before and after the scandal, Wallen’s and his label’s many friends in the business and, perhaps not incidentally, the fact that, as the climactic sing-along for “My Hometown” provided a reminder of Thursday night, the album benefits from the solid-state craftsmanship an awards body might usually reward. If it does pull out a win two months hence, the dying embers of debate over Wallen’s industry status might yet be fanned back into flames.