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Morgan Wallen’s abrupt return is a reminder of what has — and hasn’t — changed in country music

Morgan Wallen performs at the 2020 CMA Awards in Nashville. (Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for CMA)

In February, if you said the name “Morgan Wallen” to someone in the country music industry, you would typically be met with an awkward pause and immediate discomfort. Wallen, one of the format’s highest-profile stars, had just been caught on video via TMZ saying the n-word, which led to his music being dropped from radio stations, a temporary suspension from his label and his dismissal from his talent agency. A few country singers publicly condemned Wallen, but given the genre’s tendency to avoid controversial topics, there was mostly a wall of silence from Nashville’s music stars.

However, when Wallen posted an Instagram video on May 22 performing a new song (one of his few posts since his involuntary hiatus), there were no signs anything was ever amiss. Country stars including Thomas Rhett, Jason Aldean, Jimmie Allen, Chris Lane and more “liked” the video, while a slew of others left comments. “Thanks for letting me and [songwriter Nicolle Galyon] write this special song with you. Sounds great,” Miranda Lambert wrote. “Damn, dude. Pretty awesome,” Old Dominion added. Dustin Lynch, Cole Swindell and other Nashville singers posted enthusiastic takes, while Colbie Caillat left a heart-eyes emoji.

Wallen started setting the stage for his comeback approximately two months after he posted an apology video and went off the grid. In mid-April, he reemerged with a letter on social media explaining that he would take a break from touring this summer to continue working on himself, but he promised “my story is far from over.” Photos started cropping up on Instagram: Wallen playing golf, working out, and going fishing with country superstar Eric Church. In late May, Wallen performed a surprise set at Kid Rock’s Nashville bar, the same spot where he was arrested for public intoxication and disorderly conduct last year. “This is my first time singing in public in a long time,” he told the audience, who went wild.

Radio stations are adding his music in rotation again. His record label, Big Loud, added him back to its website. He wasn’t allowed to attend the Billboard Music Awards last month, but he still won three trophies. A group of his fans, who maintain that he was unfairly “canceled” for his behavior, recently bought billboards to protest his absence from the CMT Music Awards, which air Wednesday night.

Wallen, whose publicist did not return a request for comment, was far too successful to ever disappear. But without any real public reflection on the past several months, his return to the spotlight is a jarring reminder that for all the introspection this last year about the lack of diversity in country music, some in the industry would be fine to go back to business as usual. This was an outcome many feared, even though it initially seemed like the incident could serve as a wake-up call for a genre that generally resists change.

Last week, Nashville Music Equality — an organization formed last summer amid the national Black Lives Matter protests and racial reckoning — held a panel that looked back at its first year in existence. Wallen was never mentioned by name, but it wasn’t necessary. His casual use of a slur was a painful example of what happens in an environment that has sidelined people of color since it was commercialized, when “race records” from Black artists were separated from “country and western” albums. He was a microcosm of the much larger problem in the overwhelmingly White world of country music.

Mickey Guyton, who made history this winter by becoming the first solo Black woman to receive a Grammy nomination in a country category, has spent much of the last year trying to explain what it’s like being one of the few major-label Black artists in the format. She has seen support, but also a torrent of racist abuse on social media.

Experiencing this daily trauma has not only been emotionally draining, she said during the panel, but led her to question whether she’s doing the right thing by encouraging “beautiful, talented Black and Brown women” who love country music to attempt a Nashville career. She emphasized that if anyone wants to see change, they cannot let their guard down.

“I need this to be said: We cannot get comfortable, nothing is comfortable right now,” Guyton said. “There’s so many great people out there that truly are doing the work, I have witnessed that. But there are so many more people that literally don’t care.”

That feeling hung over the event: Multiple panelists were candid about how there was a disheartening absence of actual change since June 2020, and even a sense of indifference among certain Nashville executives.

Almost exactly one year ago, the group’s first event was a Zoom discussion about what it was like to be African American in the Nashville music industry. Participants reported that afterward, their White colleagues were genuinely shocked by what they heard: They couldn’t believe what their Black co-workers and friends had to go through on a daily basis, from hearing racist comments at work to experiencing fear when they saw Confederate flags at country concerts.

“I couldn’t even keep up with my emails and texts after, the outpouring of support … One thing that surprised me was that no one was aware of what our experience was like,” said Candice Watkins, vice president of marketing at Big Loud. “Awareness at the end of the day is cool, but if you’re not activated on it, for me, that’s the tough part. We need more activation.”

Watkins said one positive outcome from last year’s event was that Damon Whiteside, the chief executive of the Academy of Country Music, heard several panelists say they were often the only Black people at their companies, but were rarely asked for input. So before the ACM Awards last year, he invited Guyton, Watkins and others to a meeting: “He literally asked our thoughts, like, ‘Hey, we want to adjust what’s happening, but we can’t do that without having proper representation at the table.’ ”

Guyton agreed that the ACMs were encouraging, even though the organization had a diversity task force before it became a “social issue” in 2020. Guyton co-hosted this year’s show, which had a record four Black artists nominated, and was heartened by seeing Black staffers behind the scenes as well. CMT enlisted Kane Brown, who is multiracial, to co-host the CMT Awards Wednesday for the second consecutive year; the show will also honor Linda Martell, a pioneering Black country artist from the 1960s.

Others remarked on steps forward, such as country stars including Maren Morris speaking up about White privilege and trying to hold the industry accountable, or companies making an effort to hire from a more diverse array of candidates. Shannon Sanders, executive director of performing rights organization BMI’s Nashville creative team, noted Middle Tennessee State University’s new “bridges” program that helps connect students of color to country-music industry jobs. Still, there was trepidation that the commitment to such changes would fade over time.

“A lot of positions that you’re seeing being created are about diversity, equity and inclusion positions. And so how real is that?” Sanders asked. “Is this just a vanity HR gig, something they’ll keep around for a while until they see the budget get tight and have to eliminate some positions? … That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Charlene Bryant, the founder of Riveter Management, was glad to see award shows being more inclusive and similarly hopes these changes will stay.

“That’s one of my biggest concerns is that it was a trend last year because of everything, the social injustice that was happening last year — and so everyone wanted to be on the right side of the trend,” Bryant said. “But it’s not a trend. This is life.”

There’s also the next generation of artists to think about ― while newcomers such as Willie Jones and Reyna Roberts are making a splash on the country scene, it’s imperative that labels and publishers push for a range of voices on their rosters. Guyton said she likely never would have moved to Nashville without seeing country singer Rissi Palmer. “When you can show the world that we’re here, it gives other people incentive,” she said.

But right now, Wallen is getting the majority of national coverage about the genre and confirming the worst stereotypes about country music. So far, Wallen has not shared what he has learned after the video of him using a racist slur went viral. His February apology video noted he accepted invitations to have “very real and honest” conversations with Black organizations and leaders, and his April letter mentioned making amends for “some mistakes.”

It also appears Nashville celebrity Kid Rock has been helping Wallen connect with people of color in the entertainment industry. Entrepreneur JJ Jones recently tagged Wallen in a photo and said that Kid Rock asked him to talk to Wallen, who appeared “truly remorseful” and “chose to accept responsibility and take accountability for his actions.”

But being associated with Kid Rock may not be the best choice for Wallen if he’s trying to rehabilitate his image. This week, TMZ published another video: It showed Kid Rock using a homophobic slur.

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Everyone wants Garth Brooks on their side. He just wants everyone to get along.