On Tuesday, the “news” came out that Morgan Wallen would be playing his first live show since the controversy over his being caught saying the N-word on camera caused him to go into apologetic seclusion. There was just one problem: the so-called comeback show, at a country music festival in Kansas in late June, was actually announced last September, not this week, and sources say it’s highly unlikely he’ll fulfill the gig, as a guy with much bigger fish to fry right now than fulfilling a contractual obligation in Topeka. But the possibly fake news ignited a minor firestorm on social media anyway, laying out just what kind of resistance Wallen will likely face whenever he does try to trade his MIA status for another turn at being a legitimate superstar VIP.
But for his considerable fan base, and anyone who’s had to write a headline for a chart story in the last couple months, Wallen has remained as visible — or at least audible — as ever. That old Dan Hicks song title may apply: “How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?” No one outside his innermost circle seems to have the slightest idea what he’s been doing in the seven weeks since he retreated from view; it could be rehab, could be meeting with the Black singers and thought leaders who volunteered to consult him, or could just be thumb-twiddling. But one thing is sure: In absentia, he’s been consistently racking up sales and streaming numbers that would be the envy of any superstar who’s been battling for attention on a daily basis.
Wallen reached a milestone this week, as “Dangerous: The Double Album” easily reached No. 1 for the tenth consecutive week. It became only the third time in the 65-year history of the Billboard album chart that an album stood at the top for its first 10 weeks out of the box; the last time was when Whitney Houston’s second album, “Whitney,” accomplished it in 1987. His album will almost certainly experience the first interruption of its reign next week, when Justin Bieber’s new album is heavily favored to finally claim the No. 1 spot from Wallen. Yet “Dangerous” could easily slide back into the top spot the week after that… and the week after that… given the way it’s plateaued, with only modest slippage in its consumption figures. It’s really unprecedented in pop history: an ongoing blockbuster whose unstoppability stands in ironic contrast to how its creator, still living, has been forced to ghost the party.
The album’s massive success with rank-and-file fans makes the questions of Wallen’s inevitable return into the more suspicious quarters of the music industry and media even more a matter of suspense. When will the star decide he’s ready to come back into public view — assuming it’s not really in Topeka, Kansas in late June? And when he’s ready, will the radio and TV people who made it immediately clear in early February that he needed an extended time-out be ready, too, or is that too tough a twain to make meet?
Few in the country music business who were contacted for this article were willing to go on the record. Most mum of all is Wallen’s label, Big Loud, whose heads and reps have been silent ever since “suspending” him in the immediate wake of the TMZ-acquired video going online — a nebulous declaration that hasn’t been clarified since. In Nashville, a city whose “family” reputation belies a penchant for family gossip, people in the biz marvel at how tightly the company, which has Wallen as its only true star, has been able to clamp down on any word of what Wallen is up to or what kind of timetable might be laid out for a comeback.
But there’s no shortage of quietly held opinions on what Wallen ought to not do, which is return without a really good redemption story and enough time passed to make it feel credible. In the brief period Tuesday when the thought that he was booking festival dates for early summer was being taken seriously, there was widespread sentiment that resuming business as usual for the summer would be a terrible move; in other words, consider that a trial balloon not really of his own making.
The first place Wallen might be expected to be welcomed back, fans withstanding, would be country radio, which was on the verge of embracing him as a true flagship artist when everything hit the fan. There’s been anecdotal evidence of Wallen devotees angrily demanding he be returned to the airwaves, and of some stations being fine with restoring his music. But these are mostly just anecdotes, not evidence of a dam that’s about to break. Radio, perhaps surprisingly, seems to be just fine with keeping Wallen on extended pause — even if that does commit the mortal sin of sending his fans to Spotify to hear him.
“I don’t know that they’ve missed him at radio,” says one insider in the radio industry, flatly. “I don’t think that anybody’s seen data suggesting they are losing listeners by not playing him.” Although this player says there haven’t been complete ratings cycles since he was removed from the airwaves seven weeks ago to conform that there hasn’t been any seepage, “I don’t think they’re seeing it be a ratings problem or an advertiser problem. That’s why the stations with bigger owners have been able to not (reinstate his music).”
Many programmers are hopeful that Wallen will do the right thing when he comes back, while not being able to proscribe what that right thing would be. Even if some programmers and DJs in red-state America may take less of a moral high ground and agree with fans that he should be let out of the penalty box, or even that he’s a victim of “cancel culture,” there’s still a feeling that he gave them a black eye.
“I think most stations are waiting to see more from Morgan before they change their course of action,” says Brian Mansfield, managing editor of Country Insider, a daily trade for the industry. “One thing that I have heard from programmers is their displeasure at having to essentially be placed in a position where they were doing Morgan’s work for him. Programmers, whatever they feel about the situation, weren’t particularly happy to be having to deal with this. So I think there will be continue to be some cautiousness, and Morgan will have to rebuild some trust with country radio as they wait to see him follow up on that apology video and show that he is actually doing the work before they fully bring him back. … If that turns out to be the case, then his return potentially could be sooner rather than later. But it really is up to him what his next moves are.”
So far, his return to the country airwaves has amounted to a relative trickle. And with one exception, it’s been entirely on stations that are independent or part of a tiny chain. The big forces in country radio — iHeartMedia, Cumulus, Cox, Entercom and a handful of others — have held firm to a surprisingly uniform degree in still shutting Wallen out, seven weeks later.
On Mediabase, there were only 20 reporting country stations that are giving Wallen’s music double-digit spins as of last week, up just a little from 16 stations the week before. Only one station affiliated with one of the major chains, Tulsa’s KWEN, a Cox outlet, is among them. Double-digit spins are nothing to write home about, anyway; Mansfield says that amounts to recurrent status for recent oldies, not the major play that would be afforded to a hit record.
The number of stations playing Wallen grows when you throw in those that are only monitored by Mediabase, as opposed to reporting their airplay to be part of the national chart. Including those less favored stations, the number grows to a still insignificant 35.
Perhaps all the chains would have considered it an easy decision regardless to pull Wallen’s music the night of Feb. 2 or the following morning, as the N-word video made national news. But it didn’t hurt that the star was essentially between singles, having just reached No. 1 with “More Than My Hometown” and “7 Summers” rising up the airplay chart to No. 15 when disaster struck. So, even with his instant banning from almost all radio, he was able to escape having anything on his permanent record quite akin to the Dixie Chicks’ “Travelin’ Soldier,” which was at No. 1 when the band got in hot water with the format’s conservative constituents, resulting in what songwriter Bruce Robison sadly described as “the fastest descending single in the history of the chart.”
What about those stations that made news by playing Wallen music not just gingerly but aggressively in the wake of the scandal? Mansfield says there have only been a handful of those, and he calls it “stunting,” designed to draw attention for a weaker performing station in a market where multiple country outlets compete. A station in Wallen’s hometown, Knoxville, Tenn., WMYL, made news by bragging that 35,000 listeners participated in a Facebook poll and 92% wanted the star back on the air. Leaving aside how few out of 35,000 web respondents are likely to be locals, the fact that the station is only the fourth-biggest country outlet in its market would suggest not a lot to lose by trumpeting itself as Wallen’s sole true defender in Tennessee.
Still, says Mansfield, “I do think you will see that when the stations owned by the big groups come back on, I suspect they will come back on about as quickly as they exited.” What month or even season of the year that will be, though, is anyone’s guess.
The anti-“cancel culture” mob seems to have quieted, too, even as the hunger for Wallen’s music remains real. “Some stations did get angry fans,” Mansfield says. “My experience is that you can only stay that upset for so long. That’s really hard to maintain. And it’s not like they don’t have options for listening to his music.”
The question remaining for many is what kind of narrative Wallen will have to tell when he resurfaces. Will it be a rehab story? Or more a tale of white-knuckling it through a racial sensitivity reckoning that really only tangentially has to do with substance abuse?
“if he’s in rehab, and I don’t know if he is or not, then I would think would be at least a 30-day process,” says a curious industry observer. “So he would only now be beginning to get to the point where he can show something other than that apology video” (which Wallen uploaded to social media Feb. 11). “Thirty days seems like forever in radio, but a 30-day program is just the beginning if it involves a recovery program.”
Why is Wallen’s album doing so phenomenally, with no radio support or public appearances? It’s not just the anti-“cancellation” protest vote, though that seemed to be a factor when Wallen was first taken off all the radio chains, barred by CMT, banned from contention for the Academy of Country Music Awards, pushed off the landing pages of the major DSMs, and dropped as a client by WME, to name just a few of the immediate setbacks he faced in early February.
Two big factors are worth mentioning. One is a near-total lack of new albums from major pop artists as they wait out the pandemic cycle to see when it might be safe to tie a fresh release to a bone fide tour. With more fresh competition, Wallen probably wouldn’t have the consecutive weeks on top to come close to Houston’s 1987 run — but he still would be winning a lot of them anyway. (Consider that, on the latest album chart, a new album by Nick Jonas, a very high-profile artist who just hosted and was musical guest on “Saturday Night Live,” entered at No. 23.)
The more significant reason doesn’t have to do with ideology or lack of competition — it’s that country fans really, really like the album. (So did a good number of critics, at publications from the New York Times to Pitchfork, prior to his downfall.) But Mansfield also points out that there’s literally just a lot more to love.
“What I really haven’t seen anybody talk about as one of the reasons this album is having such a long run at No. 1 is the number of tracks,” he says. “When you’ve got 33 songs [the original 30 on “Dangerous” plus three subsequent bonus tracks], you can get theoretically get to those streaming numbers three times as fast as you might get to it with an 11-track album.”
Other artists are taking a similar flood-the-zone approach that helps rack up big on-demand song-stream numbers. Hip-hop artists have been at the forefront at putting out standard editions of albums with an inordinate number of tracks, only to follow up a week later with deluxe editions that can almost double the fun. Country artists seem to be catching on, if not to the degree Wallen has found strength in volume. Luke Bryan is issuing a deluxe edition that adds six tracks to the tally. Thomas Rhett has announced he is about to put out “Side A,” with 11 tracks, to be soon followed by a “Side B” that will presumably double the count. Eric Church is about to put out three separate albums in the course of two weeks, with a cumulative total of 24 songs. Some might say there needs to be a sports-like asterisk next to any records set by a collection like “Dangerous”: It’s an album on steroids.
Can something as big-in-every-way as “Dangerous” be ignored for awards consideration? It will be when the ACMs roll around in April, as the show announced early on in the controversy that he was being disqualified for nominations. Next up in the cycle will be the CMT Awards, unless that show gets knocked out of June again because of pandemic conditions — and given that network’s strong stand on Wallen at the outset, and maybe more importantly its pro-inclusivity initiatives to celebrate women and people of color, it’s unlikely it would be one of the first to step out in support of welcoming Wallen back and risk alienating those marginalized constituencies in doing so.
The real test of whether Wallen is able to win back the industry’s trust may be whether the Country Music Association decides to follow the lead of the ACMs or leave his eligibility alone. The CMAs don’t air until November, but any decisions along those lines won’t wait nearly that long; with a first ballot that traditionally goes out in early July, the CMA may have to make a decision about how to handle his case by June. That could put pressure on the star to make some sort of declaration of where he is and what he’s learned by the mid-year point — unless he decides that preemptively removing himself from a whole year’s worth of awards consideration is the smartest move, even if he has been enjoying one of the most successful albums in country music history.
The risk, both for Wallen and the industry he represents, is how to return to the limelight in an enlightened way that speaks to the issue of racism in country music without coming off as phony, patronizing or, most dangerously, all about him. It’s going to be one thing to win back country radio programmers — who’ve already proven themselves surprisingly capable of holding a line — and another to win back a mess media primed to see any contrition as forced.
Or to win back Nashville, as a city and industry, which won’t soon get over the shiner Wallen gave it at a time when at least bare strides were being made toward addressing a history of institutional racism. It might take 10 Mickey Guytons cracking the top 10 to make up for that.
If it turns out upon his return that he has done an extensive stint in rehab as well as being counseled by Black leaders, that could create its own potential problems for his image and his concerts. The majority of the 33 “Dangerous” songs have alcohol consumption either as subtext or just plain text. Were Morgan “72-Hour Bender” Wallen to become the first major country star to embrace sobriety as a tenet or even mission — one of the few steps radical enough that, if convincing, might help win him the favor of the mass media — he’d have to scrub a big part of his set list to not seem a hypocrite. Casting aside substance abuse as an excuse is probably where Wallen’s biggest risks and rewards lie, if he were able to find what Black benefactors he can to join hands with him as he declares that, yes, it was him speaking when he used racist language that night, not the alcohol talking.
At least he’s of the same accord as country radio, the media and his many detractors on one thing: that it’s best that he stay away for now. But how easy will it be for someone as accustomed to flattery as a country star to really embrace the long, slow path of enlightenment when the biggest album of 2021 is there, just waiting to be celebrated? Listening to the industry voices urging him to take a very long time off, and then looking at those impervious, monumental sales and streaming figures, it might take a will of steel not to conclude that it’s the customer who’s always right.