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A racist slur, a groundbreaking coming out and country music’s future hanging in the balance

FILE - Morgan Wallen arrives at the CMT Music Awards in Nashville, Tenn. on June 5, 2019. Wallen has apologized after a video surfaced showed him shouting a racial slur. The video, which was first published by TMZ, showed him outside a home in Nashville, Tennessee yelling profanities. (AP Photo/Sanford Myers, File)

You won’t find the full story of what happened in country music last week in the video posted to TMZ, which showed Morgan Wallen, one of the genre’s biggest stars, yelling the n-word outside his home. You won’t find it in the carefully crafted corporate statements from radio companies and his record label and talent agency, who dropped his music, indefinitely suspended his recording contract and removed him from their rosters.

You can find it, however, in the comments on an Instagram post from a Nashville music executive describing Wallen as someone who is “maybe a little ignorant” and “lost his fight with alcohol” but “doesn’t deserve this.” Country stars who didn’t say anything publicly condemning his slur “liked” the post and filled the comment section with hearts.

You can also find it in the iTunes and Billboard charts, where sales of Wallen’s music have soared as fans cry “cancel culture” and insist they will support him. You can find it in the reactions from Black country singers, who are deeply pained but unsurprised by Wallen’s actions and the quick calls for forgiveness, as artists of color have been marginalized from the format for decades.

“The system is set up for White boys like him to succeed, and to have a platform the size and reach that he enjoys,” said singer-songwriter Adia Victoria. “I think of so many talented Black artists I know here in Nashville, who aren’t able to get their foot in the door or aren’t able to make a viable career, solely because the market is not there for them.”

You have to go beyond the headlines, because even though country music prides itself on straightforward storytelling, the industry has long urged silence when it comes to anything controversial. Artists are cautioned early in their careers that if they don’t want to alienate fans, they should stay quiet about hot-button issues. Most of them abide by this rule, as do the town’s executives.

On Wednesday night, Wallen spoke at length for the first time about the incident, releasing a five-minute apology video to YouTube. He said the TMZ video was taken when he was “on hour 72 of 72 of a bender,” and that he had been sober for nine days and counting as he’s spent time apologizing to people he let down. “This week I heard firsthand some personal stories from Black people that honestly shook me, and I know what I’m going through this week doesn’t compare to some of the trials I heard about from them,” he said. He also asked his fans to refrain from defending him as he works to learn from his mistakes.

Behind closed doors this week, discussions about Wallen have dominated Zoom meetings, calls and group chats as managers and publicists had urgent conversations with their singers. Industry staffers, songwriters and artists, most of whom declined to speak publicly, described a “monumental day” as they watched the Wallen story unfold.

“To see it all happen, the reason it happened, I think it was a shock wave in Nashville,” said Leslie Fram, CMT’s senior vice president of music strategy.

There was surprise at the quick consequences for the singer - who has consistently escaped repercussions for misbehavior - and particularly the immediate removal of his music from radio. (Some saw the news Tuesday and assumed it would be shrugged off.) There was also sadness over how the incident confirms stereotypes about country music being uneducated and intolerant. Embarrassment about how this reflects on the format and the persistent lack of diversity. Fear over what other stories might be lurking out there. And, of course, skepticism over whether anything will actually change in a genre that resists it at every turn.

Local radio stations are already feeling pressure to add Wallen back into the rotation after complaints from listeners, and his record label’s “indefinite suspension” remains vague.

“I just wish I believed that all actions being taken are intended to be punitive, instead of saving the involved parties from getting yelled at themselves,” one insider said.

Then another side of the country music industry revealed itself Wednesday, even as Wallen headlines engulfed news coverage, when a second major story broke: T.J. Osborne, of the Grammy-nominated duo Brothers Osborne, came out as gay in a Time magazine profile. He’s now the only openly gay singer signed to a major country label.

John Osborne, left, and T.J. Osborne of Brothers Osborne perform at the To Nashville, With Love Benefit Concert at Marathon Music Works on Monday, March 9, 2020, in Nashville, TN. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

Loving comments poured forth from country stars, and the supportive industry reaction was an encouraging sign to those who say that country music is more liberal than it gets credit for, and employs many people eager for the format to evolve - even if it has a long way to go as the industry processes the past week and what it means for the future.

“I just really hope that with those two stories on that day, we look back in 20 years ... and say it’s the day that Nashville at least began to look at itself in a way that’s honest and true,” said songwriter Bonnie J. Baker. She loves the genre but said she has grown increasingly disturbed by the town’s unwillingness to acknowledge its flaws, suppressing anyone who doesn’t fit into the White, heteronormative mold. She’s married to a woman, and although she has never felt the need to hide, she has always quietly accepted that it is best not to speak up or rock the boat.

“It’s the ‘not wanting to rock the boat’ that is the cancer that we have, and I can’t live this way,” Baker said. “We have to start having more courage.”

Shortly after Osborne’s Time profile published, country acts such as Miranda Lambert, Dan + Shay, Dierks Bentley and Little Big Town celebrated the announcement. “I want to get to the height of my career being completely who I am,” Osborne told the magazine. “I mean, I am who I am, but I’ve kept a part of me muted, and it’s been stifling.”

The profile, which included supportive words from his brother and music partner, John Osborne, as well as his close friend Kacey Musgraves, moved many in the industry who saw the Wallen headlines and were relieved they could focus on a piece of good news instead. While Osborne’s personal life wasn’t a secret in Nashville circles, they were thrilled that he finally felt like he could speak about it openly, even with country music’s tendency to cater to its conservative fans.

“I’ve had friends that have lost record deals because people found out they were gay,” said singer-songwriter Cheley Tackett. “So to see T.J. be embraced and everyone applaud that, it’s revelatory.”

Popular CMT radio host Cody Alan came out several years ago and frequently hears from fans who say, “I’m gay and it feels like there’s no one like me in country music.” That has broken his heart, he said, and he always wondered whether a contemporary country singer would ever feel comfortable sharing his or her own story.

“To see that day happen (last) Wednesday, for me personally, was just a beautiful yet jaw-dropping sort of moment, and one that I think I’d waited for a long, long time,” Alan said.

He said there was a sharp sense of disappointment that Wallen overshadowed Osborne’s historic moment in the spotlight, but at the same time, he was relieved to be able to amplify a story centered on a positive journey - and he thinks “it really is reflective of who country music is and what it’s becoming.”

A publicist for the Brothers Osborne did not return a request for comment, but the duo’s Twitter account posted a statement the day the Time profile published: “Words can’t describe the immense amount of love we feel today,” they wrote. “This world, as imperfect as it may be, is beautiful at its core and our collective open minds/hearts are what make anything possible.”

The reaction to Osborne from fellow country stars was markedly different from the response to Wallen - which was one of near-silence, aside from a few acts such as Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini and Mickey Guyton. Though not particularly surprising - country singers are advised not to criticize one another on social media - it cast doubt over a common question being raised now: Will the events of last week, which saw an unusually forceful reaction from radio and other parts of the industry, force country music to finally address its deep racial issues?

It’s questionable: As soon as Wallen’s music disappeared from radio playlists last week - an abrupt turnaround, as he was one of the most-played country artists - fans started rallying around “cancel culture,” a popular conservative catchphrase that also glosses over actual issues. Some bought his music in protest. Rolling Stone reported his digital album sales rose 1,220 percent last week.

But even those who condemned Wallen have said they don’t think he should lose his career. They feel the right move is for him to take a step back and spend time educating himself about the origins of racist language and, consequently, his harmful behavior.

At a previously scheduled Zoom conference held by Nashville Music Equality this week, speakers stressed that although Wallen may have gotten the headlines, his actions spoke to a much bigger problem: the creation of an environment that led him to casually toss off the slur in the first place. Ultimately, Wallen is just a snapshot of the racial issues in the genre, and it’s unclear whether this lightning-rod moment can have any effect unless people - specifically, White people in the industry who tend to avoid these topics - do the work to learn from it.

Sheryl Guinn, president of the Nashville chapter of the NAACP, said during the panel that she received backlash after she invited Wallen to have a conversation, as some thought she was offering forgiveness to someone who had not yet shown real remorse beyond a brief apology statement sent to TMZ.

“I do understand why some people’s positions were, ‘No, we don’t need to talk to him about anything, he has every resource imaginable to him at his fingertips,’” she said. “I also understand that if we are not having the conversation, the people who are doing the wrong are still making justifications for doing the wrong ... and there are some people who honestly don’t know what the wrong is.”

(In his recent apology video, Wallen said he “accepted some invitations from some amazing Black organizations, some executives and leaders, to engage in some very real and honest conversations,” and that their “kindness really inspired me to dig deeper on how to do something about this.”)

The idea of “boys will be boys” has excused similar behavior by male country stars for years. Wallen had evaded scrutiny and consequences before when his actions spilled out into the public, including an arrest at Kid Rock’s bar and being disinvited from (and then reinvited to) “Saturday Night Live” for violating pandemic safety measures.

“The question now is: Is there now a liability attached to someone like a Morgan Wallen?” Victoria said. “Someone who keeps screwing up, someone who keeps failing upward in spite of his behavior? I think the question here isn’t ‘Will it change minds?’ It’s ‘Will he be held accountable?’ "

Once again, it is an Instagram post that may be the most telling. Rakiyah Marshall, who runs a publishing and artist development company at Back Blocks Music and is in a relationship with Seth England, Wallen’s record label co-founder, posted an Instagram photo last Friday that showed her hugging Wallen. Marshall, one of a small number of Black country music executives in Nashville, described the singer as “a little ignorant, for sure makes a lot of mistakes, may need a little extra love & care, has lost his fight with alcohol, but by no means is a racist,” adding he “has a lot to learn about his missteps and it’s going to take a while. He is not perfect nor does he get a pass for his reckless behavior. But he does not deserve this and I’ll stand by that.”

England co-signed the post in a comment, as did country stars such as Lauren Alaina and Jimmie Allen, who posted heart emoji, while singers including Lambert and Dustin Lynch “liked” it. A similar post from Wallen’s sister also earned support. But both posts led to critical comments, considering that Wallen barely had time to absorb any of the consequences.

That’s because there’s also a sense of inevitability for a Wallen comeback down the road. One insider dryly predicted that the standing ovation he eventually receives will make the ovation Carrie Underwood got for returning to the spotlight after a facial injury “seem like a golf clap.”

“Everyone is so concerned this is permanent, but that’s not really how it works here,” Tackett said. “If he understands why what happened was such a bad thing, and if he shows some work on himself, then Nashville will very much forgive him. Because that’s how this town is.”

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