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Morgan Wallen's Music Continues To Succeed Despite Racial Slur Controversy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

How can a musician still have the No. 1 album in the country after major commercial radio pulled his songs from the air and after his record label suspended him indefinitely?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

MORGAN WALLEN: To no consequences.

SHAPIRO: That was country singer Morgan Wallen joking on "Saturday Night Live" back in December. Last week, a video emerged of him drunkenly using a racial slur. The censure from the country music industry has been swift, but Morgan Wallen's sales and streaming numbers have gone up. "Dangerous: The Double Album" remains at the top of the Billboard 200. Author and journalist Andrea Williams joins us from Nashville.

Welcome.

ANDREA WILLIAMS: Hi. How are you?

SHAPIRO: All right. So apart from being the biggest-selling artist in country music right now, who is Morgan Wallen?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. Morgan Wallen is really the face of country music, honestly. Yeah, he's had this record that has done phenomenal, crazy numbers. So he's certainly the biggest act coming out of Nashville right now. But he's also the face of country music because he fully represents everything that is wrong with this genre, with this industry, all the things that really have been wrong with it since the 1920s, since those early Bristol sessions, when we have that initial creation of the racial divide amongst Southern music.

SHAPIRO: And even as he, in your words, represents what's wrong with country music, his Billboard numbers keep rising. I mean, he's at the top of the charts. What's going on here?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. So we've seen definitely this quick response, but it's all been on the corporate side, right? And corporately, I think in country music, people are understanding that as we come out of 2020, as we come away from the black boxes and the hashtags, that we need to get serious about making change. But that's going to take a longer time to impact the actual culture around this music.

The fans - they don't really care about that, right? They just know that this is their favorite guy, that he, in their eyes, is being unfairly punished for what they call a mistake, something that just rolled off of his tongue because he was drunk. Oh, he was only saying it to friends. So they're not understanding or not caring to understand, really, the deeper implications of this and this moment that country music has now to take this horrible action from him and make it mean so much more. It can actually grow from this. The fans just are upset that their favorite guy is being canceled. And I'm using air quotes because he can't really be canceled. He's way too big. And so, yeah, we're seeing that now.

SHAPIRO: Now, as you said, this is a larger issue in country music. Tell us how Morgan Wallen's situation fits into the broader struggle within the country music world.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. So country music has always been really, really white. And as we've seen other genres of music that maybe started out really, really Black - how they've diversified over time, country music has just doubled down on its whiteness. Again, if we go back to the commercialization of Southern music initially, there is white hillbilly music, and there is Black race records, even though really, they're doing the same kind of music. So as we proceed through time, as we land in 2021, no one here has really done the work to upend it. At the same time, they've erected these barriers that continue to refuse non-white people from coming in, really, in numbers that can be significant.

And so Morgan Wallen really represents this kind of - you know, this laissez-faire, you know, approach that people have to race relations in this country - in country music, I should say. In this town, in this industry, it is, this is how we do things. This is how it's always been. We get to make the rules, and we get to enforce the rules. And, you know, I'm not here to speak on whether Morgan Wallen is racist or not. But it means a lot that even with the biggest-selling album in the country, he still feels comfortable enough to say that.

SHAPIRO: We have to leave it there, I'm afraid. Andrea Williams is a journalist and author based in Nashville.

Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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