In one of the swiftest downfalls for a country star in modern history, Morgan Wallen was suspended indefinitely by his record label and removed from hundreds of radio stations across the country Wednesday after he was captured on camera using a racial slur.
Cumulus Media and iHeartMedia, the country’s top two radio conglomerates, pulled his music effective immediately, as did several other companies such as SiriusXM (which owns the streaming service Pandora). CMT stopped playing his music on all television and digital platforms; the Country Music Association took similar action. Cumulus was the first chain to react to the incident, sending a message to its program directors shortly after TMZ posted a video Tuesday night that showed Wallen loudly returning home with friends this past weekend. A neighbor, apparently annoyed by the racket, started filming the scene and caught Wallen using the racial slur.
Wallen released an apology Tuesday to TMZ: “I’m embarrassed and sorry. I used an unacceptable and inappropriate racial slur that I wish I could take back. There are no excuses to use this type of language, ever. I want to sincerely apologize for using the word. I promise to do better.”
Big Loud, his independent label in Nashville, said Wednesday in a statement that they made the decision to suspend him “in the wake of recent events.” It added that Republic Records, the Universal Music Group-owned major label partner who also promotes Wallen, “fully supports Big Loud’s decision and agrees such behavior will not be tolerated.”
The fallout is a shockingly abrupt pivot for the industry, which has turned Wallen, 27, into one of Nashville’s most profitable hitmakers over the last several years. He has had an enormous amount of media attention, including a profile in The Washington Post. His latest album has been No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart for the last three weeks. He’s had sold-out tours, a string of hit radio singles and has shattered streaming records for country music. (Variety reported that Apple Music took him off its homepage, and Spotify removed him from its top country songs playlist.)
His removal from radio, known as the defining way to become a star in country music, is especially unprecedented: The last time a top-selling country act was pulled from the platform this quickly across the board was in 2003, when the Chicks (then known as the Dixie Chicks) were punished for criticizing President George W. Bush.
More notably, the immediate consequences for Wallen’s racist language is a startling reaction from a genre that largely likes to sweep problems under the rug, tries to suppress talk of anything political or controversial and generally plays by the idea that silence is best. Typically, the playbook for White male stars who do anything offensive is: release an apology, maybe lay low for a few days and then resume their journey to country music stardom. In an overwhelmingly White genre that has systematically excluded women and people of color while making many excuses for its male stars, it’s been an effective strategy.
Wallen was already a beneficiary of this system multiple times. Last May, he was arrested at Kid Rock’s bar in downtown Nashville for disorderly conduct; after a brief apology, he posted a smirking photo of him standing next to Kid Rock with the caption “Fresh out.” In October, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” disinvited Wallen as a musical guest after viral TikTok videos showed him partying maskless with college students at the University of Alabama several days before he was set to appear on the show, in violation of its coronavirus protocols. After another apology where Wallen admitted he had “some growing up to do,” he made a triumphant return to “SNL” in December, where he was rewarded with a sketch that poked fun at him violating pandemic safety measures.
In any other time, it’s possible that Wallen’s aforementioned statement to TMZ, plus a few weeks in timeout, would have been enough. But this is different. While it’s telling that his label is suspending him “indefinitely,” leaving room for him to return at any time, the instant condemnation from the industry is forceful enough that some in Nashville are skeptical how Wallen can come back from this.
“It kind of feels like a day of reckoning,” one Nashville insider said, as many were shocked by the speed of the repercussions. Some in the industry felt he was lucky to have escaped real backlash for his previous reckless behavior, and that it was only a matter of time before he crossed a line and his supporters ran out of excuses.
Wallen’s racist language comes at a time when country music is struggling with its own complicity in erasing the contributions of Black artists, and how to move forward when some people of color have said they are afraid to go to country concerts because of the Confederate flags that show up in any given crowd. When some social media users said Wallen did not represent all of country music, several artists quickly stepped in on social media to dispute that claim.
“When I read comments saying ‘this is not who we are’ I laugh because this is exactly who country music is. I’ve witnessed it for 10 gd years,” Mickey Guyton, one of the few artists of color signed to a major label in Nashville, wrote on Twitter. “You guys should just read some of the vile comments hurled at me on a daily basis. It’s a cold hard truth to face but it is the truth.”
Rissi Palmer, the singer-songwriter who hosts Apple Music’s “Color Me Country,” which focuses on the Black, Indigenous and Latinx history of country music, wrote, “Will y’all call me when the ‘this isn’t us’ talk stops and the ‘this is a systematic issue that we need to deeply examine, completely deconstruct, and rectify’ conversation begins?”
“It actually IS representative of our town because this isn’t his first ‘scuffle’ and he just demolished a huge streaming record last month regardless. We all know it wasn’t his first time using that word. We keep them rich and protected at all costs with no recourse,” Maren Morris tweeted, later concurring with Kelsea Ballerini that if a female artist behaved the way Wallen did and consistently got into trouble, “we’d be dropped, endorsements lost, social pariahs to music row.”
While there was a notable silence from Wallen’s peers and other stars in the genre, several other artists including Cassadee Pope, Kelleigh Bannen and Jason Isbell denounced him. Bobby Bones, the iHeartMedia syndicated radio host whose audience reaches millions a week, slammed Wallen for his actions, though emphasized that he still likes Wallen as a person and doesn’t want to see him “canceled.”
“I’m not an advocate of playing Morgan’s music for now. I am an advocate of Morgan going away for a while. But I’m also an advocate of him learning and coming back and being able to help others,” Bones said. “The only way you become not an idiot is learning why you were an idiot.”