Country singer Ernest made his Grand Ole Opry debut in Nashville over the weekend, but the milestone occasion has been overshadowed by the surprise appearance of Morgan Wallen.
In February 2021, Wallen was temporarily suspended from his label Big Loud Records, disqualified from major award shows, dropped from country music radio stations and removed from streaming platform playlists after footage emerged of him using a racial slur. He later apologised and stepped away from the spotlight, asking fans not to defend him for the time being and promising to take ownership of the consequences of his actions.
Despite the initial backlash, Wallen was reinstated by his record label after a four-month suspension, with his songs returning to the airways. His Dangerous: The Double Album also proved to be the most popular album of 2021, according to Billboard data, after music sales skyrocketed in wake of the scandal. In 2021, he also collaborated with Lil Durk and HARDY, and announced a massive tour for 2022, beginning in February, (selling out 48 of his 54 dates at time of publication).
Wallen joined Ernest on the Opry stage on January 8 to perform their collaboration Flower Shops, which follows on from Ernest co-writing Wallen’s 2020 hit, More Than My Hometown.
Ernest told Taste Of Country, “I’m excited for [Flower Shops] to be out in the world and even more excited to have one of my best friends, Morgan, hop on it and sing it with me. I am a big believer in country music remaining honest, regardless of sonics. And this is as honest as it can get.”
The Grand Ole Opry tweeted a photo of Wallen’s unannounced appearance alongside Ernest, sparking a variety of responses from artists and fans on social media.
“Surprise!” the Opry tweeted from its official account, along with a photo of the pair.
Nashville singer-songwriters Jason Isbell and Joy Oladokun were among those who commented on social media after Saturday’s Grand Ole Opry performance.
Isbell, who previously pledged to donate all of the proceeds from Wallen’s cover of his song Cover Me Up to the NAACP, tweeted, “Last night @opry you had a choice- either upset one guy and his ‘team,’ or break the hearts of a legion of aspiring Black country artists. You chose wrong and I’m real sad for a lot of my friends today. Not surprised though. Just sad.”
“Morgan Wallen’s thoughtless redemption tour is the nail in the coffin of me realizing these systems, and this town is really not for us,” Oladokun wrote. “Imma keep making my lil music in my attic, y’all can listen if you want. I don’t know that I’ll do this work forever.”
The performance also drew scorn from The Black Opry, which calls itself the “home for Black artists and Black fans of country, blues, folk and Americana music.”
In an open letter to Opry bosses Gina Keltner and Dan Rogers that was shared by Black Opry founder Holly G, Wallen’s return to the Opry stage was questioned.
She wrote, “I am extremely confused by the welcoming of Morgan Wallen to the Opry stage last night. You were very clear about the fact that some people do not deserve a spot on that stage, which lets me know that each guest is intentional and thought through. That being the case, how was this deemed okay?”
Many pointed out that the Opry itself had tweeted, “Racism is real. It is unacceptable. And it has no place at the Grand Ole Opry,” in June of 2020 at the height of that year’s rejuvenated Civil Rights moment and national protests against police violence following the death of George Floyd.
Pope also voiced her support for the Black Opry, announcing she’ll donate all her Cameo proceeds from this week to the organisation, stating “an amazing place that supports the way to often overlooked talent.”
But other artists were willing to give the Opry and Wallen the benefit of the doubt.
The openly gay country songwriter Waylon Payne tweeted in part, “Maybe @opry felt it was time to show a little grace and forgiveness? Just a thought. As a gay man I have never been made to feel uncomfortable or unworthy to be on that stage. That’s the truth … Maybe we can all quit screaming at each other and try to just make things better?”
RaeLynn told Spillover host Alex Clark earlier this month, “I think that Morgan … is a really good person deep down, and he made a mistake. I knew that when his music started going to the next level, I knew that was going to be what they said.”
T.J. Osborne from Brothers Osborne said of Wallen in June 2021, “I think as a society, we tend to rally behind people who are getting negative feedback, Morgan being the latest example. But if you look at R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, when those documentaries were running, their streaming numbers exploded too. We rally behind people who are being shunned, even if they’re being shunned for good reason, over people who seem like they’re being loved and accepted.”
Neither Wallen nor the Opry have commented on the backlash from the singer’s appearance.
The timing of Wallen’s Opry appearance came the same weekend as Mickey Guyton tweeted about a racist commenter. Guyton has previously spoken about the racism she has faced in the spotlight and shared a new message in her hopes people will “continue the fight for equality and love and acceptance.”
While, Yola noted, “These fools honestly believe black people weren’t at the genesis of all American music, still in 2022!? They’re gonna get a fright when this movie I’m in comes out. Sorry boo we’re everywhere! #SorryNotSorry i am sorry, however, that you have to deal with this foolishness!”
In series Face To Face, which premiered on Tuesday, January 4, Guyton told host Becky G, “We’re used to being unseen. We’re used to the micro aggressions, we’re used to the constant battles of trying to just be who you are. And finally, the veil has been lifted, and we’re like, ‘Oh my god, how did we survive for so long?’ And that’s the point, we were just surviving. But now we’re thriving.”
In 2021, Guyton released her debut full-length album Remember Her Name, with songs directly addressing experiences of sexism and racism. She was the first black woman to ever be nominated in a country category at the Grammys, and further made history as the first black female country artist to perform her own song at the CMA Awards, where she co-hosted alongside Keith Urban.
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