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Maren Morris, Jason Aldean and the very rare country music public feud

In a genre that does its best to avoid bombshells, Aldean’s PR team’s dumping him after 17 years was shocking news. And it shows that Nashville’s ‘one happy family’ image is getting tougher to uphold.

Country musician Jason Aldean and his wife, social media influencer Brittany Aldean, have been in a public battle with Maren Morris over Brittany's comments about transgender kids on Instagram. (Jason Kempin/Getty Images; Sanford Myers/AP)

Over the past decade, country musician Jason Aldean has been no stranger to controversy. He endured a very public cheating scandal while married to his first wife, fought against allegations of racism after wearing a blackface Halloween costume, and most recently has drawn criticism for dressing his toddlers in T-shirts that read “Hidin’ from Biden.” The GreenRoom, a Nashville-based publicity firm, helped him navigate all these incidents while maintaining his status as one of the genre’s top stars — until last week when, to the shock of many in the industry, the company dropped one of its biggest clients.

“Music has always been and remains The GreenRoom’s core focus, so we had to make the difficult decision after 17 years to step away from representing Jason,” Tyne Parrish, co-owner of GreenRoom PR, whose clients include multiple top country acts, told Billboard on Sept. 1. “We aren’t the best people for the gig anymore, but will always be big fans of his music — he is one of the greatest live entertainers in country music.”

Though Parrish did not specify why the firm was parting ways with Aldean, the statement came shortly after Aldean’s wife, social media influencer Brittany Aldean, made national headlines when she wrote: “I’d really like to thank my parents for not changing my gender when I went through my tomboy phase. I love this girly life,” as the caption to an Instagram video where she displayed a full face of makeup to her 2.3 million followers. Jason Aldean commented with the cry-laughing emoji: “Lmao!! Im glad they didn’t too, cause you and I wouldn’t have worked out.”

When others criticized Brittany’s post as transphobic — notably country star Maren Morris, who also dubbed Brittany, a vocal Donald Trump supporter, as “Insurrection Barbie” — she both doubled down and said her words were taken out of context as she announced that she was launching a line of Barbie-themed shirts that read “Don’t Tread On Our Kids,” referencing the Gadsden flag that has become a favorite symbol for many right-wing groups. The episode soon became prime culture war fodder, with Brittany appearing on Fox News, Tucker Carlson referring to Morris as a “lunatic,” and Morris embracing the situation by selling shirts that said “Lunatic Country Music Person” with proceeds going to groups that support transgender people.

Amid the public feuding, the news about GreenRoom qualified as a bombshell in a genre that works diligently to avoid bombshells. It wasn’t just that the company dropped Aldean, one of modern country’s most successful acts who just sold his recorded music catalogue for a reported $100 million. The most surprising fact was that they announced the news at all — this rarely happens, industry experts say; PR firms drop clients all the time without a word — and included language that it was their decision.

Multiple country music professionals spoke to The Washington Post under the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly, and all said they, along with people in their professional and personal circles, were genuinely surprised. (Parrish declined to comment for this article.)

“I was shocked that a company would do that,” said one staffer. “Clearly, they have to work a lot for Jason … and from a financial standpoint, at the end of the day, we’re here to make money. But I was also like, ‘Oh s---, yes. Finally, somebody’s taking a stand.’ ”

The fact that the GreenRoom’s steadfastly neutral statement was interpreted as taking a stand against Brittany’s comments — a move that earned them much applause from the industry along with backlash from Aldean’s fans — showed how rare it is for the political and social divide in Nashville to spill into public view. While these divides have quietly existed for decades, they deepen by the day — and it’s turning into an increasingly fraught issue in country music, which desperately tries to avoid lightning-rod topics so as to not alienate its traditional conservative listeners while trying to cater to a newer, more liberal fan base.

Cassadee Pope, a “Voice” winner and Nashville singer, was one of the first to publicly criticize Aldean, and the back-and-forth continued as others jumped in and battle lines started to emerge. Kassi Ashton, Joy Oladokun, Lindsay Ell and Ryan Hurd (Morris’s husband) slammed Brittany’s comments and urged inclusivity in country music, and singers such as RaeLynn, Whitney Duncan and Chuck Wicks (whose wife, Kasi Rosa Wicks, is Jason’s sister and sold the shirts alongside Brittany) commented approvingly on Brittany’s posts.

“This has all gotten to a boiling point. Those two women especially have been very outspoken of their beliefs, so in that sense it wasn’t surprising,” another staffer said, referencing Brittany’s frequent posts about her love of Trump and Fox News, almost always co-signed by her husband. Morris has become one of the most outspoken country singers on the subject of the lack of diversity in the majority-White genre. “But a lot of times, it’s not actually communicated the way this back-and-forth was,” the staffer added.

Country music’s public-facing image is that of one big, happy family. The majority of the billion-dollar industry operates within a few square miles in Nashville. This leads to close relationships, but also creates tension in these polarized times. Those who work in the industry generally have a good idea — through gossip, group chats, conversations overheard backstage at concerts and social media interactions — who falls where on the political spectrum.

“I think there’s a lot of whispered conversations where you learn where [country singers] stand on certain issues — stances that have been made behind closed doors that haven’t been made publicly,” one staffer said. “So the fans and public don’t have any idea.”

But even if someone has views or behavior that one might find heinous, they would likely be compelled to stay quiet, both for business reasons and awkward personal ones — a few cited that the Southern way is to sweep unpleasant topics under the rug. But in a town that small, lives will inevitably overlap.

Morris (whose publicist did not return multiple requests for comment; neither did a label representative for Aldean nor an email address on Brittany’s brand website) discussed this dynamic last year at the annual Country Radio Seminar, revealing she saw pushback for calling out country star Morgan Wallen on social media after he was caught on video saying the n-word. Some people seemed more upset by the disregard of the genre’s guiding principles of, as Morris put it, “we’re different, we’re country, we protect our own, we don’t go after people in public.”

For some, the instinct to stay quiet has grown more difficult. Chris Gelbuda, a Nashville songwriter who runs the popular Instagram page Music City Memes, likes to keep the account lighthearted for his 46,000 followers, many of whom work in the industry. But he was taken aback by what he called Brittany’s “mean-spirited” words about transgender children. “I had a lot of friends that were hurt by it, and I was hurt by it,” he said. “It makes my blood boil.”

So he published a critical post, sparking a deluge of DMs and rare fights in the comments. He estimates that supportive responses were “100 to 1,” though he lost about 1 percent of his followers. (Singer Fancy Hagood left celebratory emoji and publishing executive Rakiyah Marshall wrote “LOUDER!"; Naomi Cooke, former lead singer of the trio Runaway June, announced her plan to #unfollow.) Gelbuda said if anything, he views the lost followers as “spring cleaning.” In his post, he wrote that he wasn’t holding his breath that others in the industry would speak up. Later, he compared it to the situation with Wallen, who after a brief suspension from his label and award shows is more popular than ever.

“A lot of people that were definitely appalled by what Morgan did definitely kept quiet about it for fear of pissing people off, because everybody knows everybody here,” Gelbuda said, noting that he includes himself in that category because he has close friends who work with Wallen. “So I’m not perfect either. … But every time one of these things happens here, it’s generally like, ‘Let’s lay low until it blows over and get back to selling records.’”

Another part of the equation that can be overlooked, particularly when casual observers assume all country music is conservative, is that Nashville’s Davidson County is predominantly Democratic. “It’s a little blue oasis in the middle of Tennessee,” said one longtime manager, who estimated that 65 percent of country music executives lean liberal. Yet even if they’re often at odds with the views of their artists — this manager advised at least one of their singers to say nothing about the Aldean/Morris situation — they generally keep that quiet.

“There might be a high-level executive and an artist’s manager who are really against something … and they might have internal conversations that they are outraged and don’t agree,” one staffer explained, “but don’t necessarily speak out because that could affect the business aspect.”

For those who don’t follow country music, the fact that Brittany’s comments got so much attention might seem surprising — after all, she’s not the one who’s a famous singer. But in a genre that prides itself on authenticity, family is in an inextricable part of an artist’s brand, and the wives of Nashville stars have become their own cottage industry as influencers.

The millions of followers of the Nashville wives also call more attention to the political divides in the industry, thanks to the subtle but often telling Instagram activity. There was little overlap between the artists who supported certain posts. Sara Evans and Summer Pardi (wife of Jon Pardi) clicked like on Brittany’s original video, and Cole Swindell, Lauren Alaina, Chris Janson, Michael Ray, Parmalee and Taylor Young (wife of Brett Young) liked her posts about the “Don’t Tread On Our Kids” shirts. RaeLynn, a former “Voice” contestant, posted her own “Insurrection Montana Barbie” video.

Meanwhile, on Morris’s post about her “Lunatic” shirts, she saw likes from singers including Tenille Townes, Kalie Shorr, Lucie Silvas, CMT executive Leslie Fram and host Cody Alan, as well as songwriter Lori McKenna and Hayley Hubbard (wife of Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard). Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town left a series of clapping-hand emoji to express support.

Multiple industry executives agree that one reason the incident exploded in the media is that these issues are so rarely discussed out loud in country music. They are also wary of country’s reputation outside of Nashville, from observers who see these headlines and think they confirm all the worst stereotypes about country music.

“If country music wants to be considered an equitable and humanity-filled genre, we have to start walking the walk and talking the talk,” one staffer said. “We can’t just want to be whoever we want to be but make sure our numbers hit.”

“We were on the shortlist for a Real Housewives franchise for a long time,” the staffer added. “We’re still on that list, but keep getting bumped — and this is probably why.”

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