In September, the CMAs confirmed that Morgan Wallen — one of country music’s most popular stars who had his music temporarily pulled from the radio and was dropped by his talent agency in February after he was captured on video yelling the n-word to his friend — was still allowed to be nominated. Executives decided while they would block him from the individual artist categories and ban him from attending, they didn’t want to penalize his co-writers and producers. Therefore, his album, songs and music videos were still eligible for prizes.
As a result, Wallen’s “Dangerous: The Double Album” is nominated for album of the year, alongside Eric Church’s “Heart,” Chris Stapleton’s “Starting Over,” Carly Pearce’s “29” and Brothers Osborne’s “Skeletons.” It’s the first time since TMZ posted the video of his racial slur that Wallen is up for a country music award; both the Academy of Country Music Awards and CMT Music Awards deemed Wallen ineligible earlier this year.
This is a CMAs first, and leaves voters with the question: What will they do? Vote for “Dangerous,” which spent 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart? Purposefully avoid it, given that a win for Wallen will inevitably hijack coverage of the show? Make a point to vote for Wallen as a silent protest because they support him?
We decided to ask some of them. The CMA is made up of around 7,300 people who work in the country music industry, including radio programmers, managers, label staffers, artists, members of the media and more. We reached out to more than a dozen voters who work in the industry to get a snapshot of what they were thinking. Anonymity was granted so they could reveal their secret ballots.
Are they voting for Wallen?
Of all the people we contacted, none of whom have professional ties to any nominees, only one person told us they are voting for Wallen in the category.
“He’s got an album full of hits,” said a radio staffer who voted for “Dangerous,” adding that Wallen’s singles, before they were temporarily taken off the airwaves, performed very well on the radio. (His current single from the record, “Sand in My Boots,” is at No. 16 and climbing.)
The staffer said they believed the trophy should be about music, not the artist. “He did some stupid things that he regrets, but I don’t think he should be banned for life. I voted on the merits and music, not his personal life, not his beliefs.”
When asked about Wallen, voters were likely to fall into two camps: Those who would be disappointed if he won because they feel he doesn’t deserve it and it would cast country music in an unflattering light; and those who think he is being unfairly punished and railed against him being “canceled.”
“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that the CMAs has banned him from the show — I am up to here with cancel culture. I’m all done,” another radio employee said. Even though they plan to vote for Church, they said, “Anything I can possibly do to support Morgan Wallen, I will do it at every circumstance.”
Another who voted for Stapleton weighed in similarly: “Being Christian, I always think, why judge others … and why not give somebody another chance? What he did was awful, but you should always look in the person’s heart and give them another chance to redeem themselves.”
Not every radio staffer felt the same way. “What I’m hearing from other people — programmers, other radio talent who probably lean on the more conservative side — is ‘hate the sin, not the sinner.’ Which I don’t agree with, because when you’re a public figure, you have to hold yourself to a higher standard than that,” said the staffer, who voted for Church. “Having not done what he did, I think he would have outright won. But because he did what he did, he deserves the scrutiny he’s getting, and I don’t think he’s deserving of any award until he redeems himself. … He waited a few months for [the controversy] to die down, and then it was business as usual. And I don’t think that’s acceptable.”
A manager who voted for Church agreed, saying, “I’m not sure he needs to be rewarded this year after demonstrating what he did earlier this year.”
“I don’t think he needs to be penalized the rest of his life,” the manager added. “But there’s a learning curve that needs to happen before he’s fully embraced.”
Multiple voters, including one music publisher who voted for Stapleton, were glad that Wallen’s album was at least eligible so that his collaborators had a shot at the honor. “All those people not getting recognition for creative work didn’t seem fair,” the publisher said.
No one quite knew how to predict Wallen’s chances at winning, but felt he had a decent shot. Despite the condemnation from the industry, he has a lot of supporters in Nashville, and he has been warmly welcomed back onstage at concerts by some of the genre’s biggest stars, including Church and Luke Bryan. But others are worried about what it would say about the genre if he walked away with one of the night’s biggest prizes, voted on by the country music industry itself.
“When it comes to awards, they need to be a good representative of country music all around if they’re going to be deserving of that trophy,” said one radio employee and Stapleton voter. “Had he had a different response in how he apologized and went forward after the incident, I think I might have felt differently.”
“I hope he doesn’t win just because of the statement that will say about country music,” said one member of the country music media who voted for Church. “The headlines will be, ‘Morgan Wallen is heralded as album of the year, further proof that country music is racist.’ It would generate bad publicity that the format doesn’t need, and just add fuel to the fire for those who have doubled down on their support of Morgan since the incident.”
So who is going to win?
According to our small sample, plenty voted for Stapleton’s “Starting Over” (his stellar vocals and the album’s instrumentation will be a tough combination to beat). But Church seems the most likely to be victorious. Nearly every voter contacted for this story mentioned how impressed they were with Church’s triple album, “Heart & Soul,” which he wrote and recorded in just a month while holed up in North Carolina with his band. Voters also liked the unusual rollout process: Church released “Heart” first, followed by “Soul” a week later, and he sent "&” exclusively to his fan club.
One media member summed up multiple views by explaining, “I’m not sure if ‘Heart’ is my favorite Eric Church album, but the whole creation process behind it and the lore that went into it and the whole thing that got built up around it and how they did it — it was unique.”
What about the other nominees?
Pearce’s “29,” her deeply personal record about getting married and divorced in the same year, was critically acclaimed, but given it was an EP rather than a full album, some voters held off. One media member who did vote for Pearce said, “I like Carly and I like pretty much everything about that record,” and noted they “would love to see more women win awards there.”
A manager who voted for the Brothers Osborne’s “Skeletons” said they appreciate that the duo is “making really innovative and progressive country music.” But they also said that Brothers Osborne’s story, with TJ Osborne coming out this year and becoming the first openly gay male artist on a major Nashville label, stood in contrast to Wallen. Coincidentally, Osborne’s announcement and the release of Wallen’s TMZ video happened one day apart in February.
“When I saw Morgan’s name on there, it make me look twice at Brothers Osborne, because that’s who I love representing the genre,” the manager said. “I remember there were conversations in Nashville, like, ‘Thank God we had TJ Osborne to counteract how the rest of the world saw country music.’ ”