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The Quiet Redemption of Morgan Wallen

Morgan Wallen performs during the Can't Say I Ain't Country Tour at Cellairis Amphitheatre at Lakewood on Saturday, August 31, 2019, in Atlanta. (Photo by Katie Darby/Invision/AP)

Coming into the month of February, Morgan Wallen was at the top of his game in country music. He had just released a new album called Dangerous: The Double Album and it rocketed to the top of the Billboard Country charts.

Three weeks later, Wallen’s career is in tatters and nearly all of the world of country music has literally cancelled him from existence.

What happened?

On Feb. 2, a video went viral showing an extremely drunk Wallen returning to his home and being loud, obnoxious, and disruptive.

As Morgan appears to stumble toward his house, he tells someone to watch over a guy in his group. He says … “take care of this “p****-ass mother******” — and then goes on to say, “take care of this p****-ass n*****” … before finally heading in.

The video release resulted in Wallen’s label dropping him, and every major country music station around the country removing his songs from their playlists.

I grew up with country music and ‘California rock’ (i.e. The Eagles) as my childhood and teenage soundtrack. I’ve become something of a student of country music along the way. I suppose I should state right now that I never was a big Morgan Wallen fan. He is part of what’s been derisively called the “Bro Country” movement. I like some of the Bro Country artists, but I wouldn’t have bought a ticket to see Morgan Wallen perform live (if we ever have live music again).

Country music is a true American creation. The roots of the sound are a musical melting pot of our country’s people: blues, folk music, Cajun and Appalachian sounds, and the sounds of the cowboys who helped settle the West. There is also an underlying current of country music representing poor, white, underclass, and forgotten parts of the nation.

A perfect example of the country music culture is superstar Dolly Parton. She is one of the genre’s most successful and influential writers and performers and nearly all of her songs are inspired by her extremely poor upbringing in the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. These were families who rarely had enough food on their table, or enough money to do much more than exist.

Ground zero for country music has always been in the South; the “Bakersfield (Calif.) Sound” of Merle Haggard is a topic for another day. Country music became more and more mainstream following the end of World War II. But for poor whites, especially in the South, country has always been very personal and a ‘family tradition’ (hat tip to Hank Williams, Jr.).

Country music also had strong ties to the most devout American Christian communities in rural and mountain areas. Country music’s themes of love, heartache, trials and tribulations, and redemption resonated with the Bible Belt and beyond.  One can then chuckle a bit when realizing country music led directly to the birth of rock and roll. Those same devout Christians who listened to fiddlin’ and pickin’ every week on the radio had fits when a certain boy from Tupelo, Miss., became famous on TV.

There’s always been a sense from Blue American Coastals, who listen to rap music laced with profane and misogynistic lyrics, that country music fans are all racists and bigots. It is true that over the years country music artists and fans embraced Confederate iconography at concerts, and references to ‘Dixie’ were a common part of country music lyrics. As a country fan (and a gay one at that) since the late 1970s, I can attest that country artists and the fans have evolved on social issues along with the rest of the nation’s culture — and in some cases leading the way. My most cherished friends are in the country music fan base.

In the year 2021, the ‘Dixie Chicks’ are now just ‘The Chicks’ and Lady Antebellum now want to be known as ‘Lady A.’ The pressure of today’s cancel culture was too much for those two groups to be identified with any the Confederate references. I’d argue their actions were more than a bit absurd, but again, that’s probably a topic for another day.

My point is this: the world of country music is as diverse and human as any other part of the American culture. Many of its most famous and iconic stars had rocky childhoods, troubled marriages, multiple run-ins with the law, and struggled with drugs and alcohol. But the most essential part of country music is, despite its evolution into a multi-billion-dollar industry, is that it still has a family feel. The artists lift up newcomers to the industry, promote each other’s music like no other genre, and stand by each other through divorces, cheatings, and DUI arrests.

Which brings me back to Morgan Wallen. In my 50-plus years on this Earth, I’ve never seen an artist so completely cancelled by his industry and peers. He dropped the worst word that can be uttered today on video and admitted he has an alcohol problem; in this case it’s true, he’s not using it as a ‘rehab excuse.’ And even if Wallen was comfortable using that word in his childhood and teen years — he’s an adult and should have grown out of that behavior long ago.

But what happened to America’s history of redemption? There are countless celebrities of all stripes in our nation’s past who committed much worse infractions than Wallen, including serious crimes, that have been forgiven. For example, rising country star Michael Ray was arrested for DUI less than three years ago. Ray’s current single is on constant rotation on country music radio.

Is the potential of killing someone with your car while you’re drunk now a less serious infraction than uttering a racial slur? That seems like a debate we should be having, in my view.

I’d like to focus on redemption, though. Michael Ray apologized, was excused, and never faced any serious career repercussions. Wallen, in theory, may never write a song or play his music in front of an audience again thanks to the industry erasing him from existence. For example, the Academy of Country Music has prohibited Wallen from performing or being any part of its upcoming awards ceremony.

Yet something funny is happening with Wallen’s career. The marketplace seems to be forgiving him for his transgressions. Wallen’s fans are using the only power they have in this debate: their money. His new album has been at the top of the country music charts since the news broke on Feb. 2, and his fans seem in no mood to stop supporting his music.

Morgan Wallen’s catalog has garnered $8.005 million in revenue from U.S. sales and streams in 2021 as estimated by Billboard based on blended average wholesale pricing and piece and streaming counts reported by MRC Data.

The numbers are staggering. Morgan leads all artists in 2021 in on-demand streaming and overall album consumption units so far this year. Even more remarkable is that more than a quarter of that tally, $2,028 million, was generated during the nine full days after the Feb. 2 emergence of a video of Wallen using the n-word.

When consumers have had the choice, they have voted to support Wallen. In on-demand streams, his music almost held its own with steady play throughout the two nine-day periods. Overall, his stream count in the nine days before Feb. 3 totaled 224.17 million plays; in the nine days since Feb. 3, streams totaled 223.6 million — just a 0.3% decline.

While major on-demand streaming services like Spotify and Apple have removed Wallen from their editorially curated playlists, the slight decline likely means subscribers actively seeking out his music to play are offsetting his playlist banishment.

Within on-demand streams, audio streams fell 1.8%, but Wallen’s video on-demand streams shot up by nearly 21% to 19 million plays from 17 million in the earlier period. In the six-week period ending Feb. 11, Wallen’s catalog has garnered 1.035 billion on-demand streams, more than any other artist this year. The late Juice WRLD is No. 2 with 738 million on-demand streams. Wallen is also the U.S. industry leader in the U.S. in album consumption units with nearly 985,000 in activity generated by his catalog so far this year, while Taylor Swift is No. 2 with 684,000 units, as of Feb. 11.

The fan-driven redemption of Morgan Wallen doesn’t seem to be ebbing. What I can’t stop thinking about is how the ‘world of country music’ handles this unexpected development. It was easier to cancel him, and move on to the next big thing — which has always been more of a Hollywood tactic than a Nashville one.

But how can music labels, radio stations, and the money people in Nashville ignore what’s happening? What if Morgan Wallen is the highest grossing country artist in 2021? Will he be permitted to get his career back? Will he be allowed to perform in front of his devoted and money-spending fans? Will he be forced to attend months of Critical Race Theory deprogramming?

Or will he be permanently erased from existence, like a Joseph Stalin enemy?

This is definitely a story to watch that may impact the larger ‘cancel culture’ atmosphere in America right now. Perhaps we aren’t a country of redemption any longer, but I doubt we are a nation that ignores success.