Morgan Wallen’s Grand Ole Opry Appearance Draws Criticism From Jason Isbell, Allison Russell, Joy Oladokun
Morgan Wallen had the biggest country album of 2021 by far. He also had the genre’s biggest scandal in recent memory after being caught on video yelling a racial slur. The country music establishment has spent the past year struggling to reconcile those two realities, which has led to radio bans, sales and streaming surges, various polarizing apologies and gestures from Wallen, and weird scenarios like Wallen being barred from attending awards shows where his music is heavily nominated. The tension surrounding him has not let up.
Saturday night was the debut Grand Ole Opry performance by Ernest, a young pop-country singer-songwriter (and sometimes rapper) who is closely aligned with Wallen. Ernest cowrote Wallen’s hit “More Than My Hometown” and recently released a Wallen duet called “Flower Shops.” Saturday at the Opry, Ernest welcomed Wallen onstage to singer “Flower Shops,” and the Opry retroactively promoted Wallen’s surprise appearance with an enthusiastic tweet.
As Billboard points out, the Opry is drawing criticism from some corners for allowing Wallen on their stage. One of those critics was Jason Isbell, whose song “Cover Me Up” was a big hit for Wallen and who has been one of the most loudly progressive voices in Nashville. (Isbell famously donated his royalties from “Cover Me Up” to the NAACP in the aftermath of Wallen’s scandal.)
“Last night @opry you had a choice- either upset one guy and his ‘team,’ or break the hearts of a legion of aspiring Black country artists,” Isbell wrote on Twitter. “You chose wrong and I’m real sad for a lot of my friends today. Not surprised though. Just sad.” In a separate tweet he continued, “The thing that really upsets me is bigger than one person’s words. It’s the idea of a young Black artist walking into that venue and wondering if ANYBODY is on their side. What a lot of us consider to be a grand ole honor can be terrifying for some. Doesn’t have to be that way.”
Black singer-songwriter Joy Oladokun seemed to confirm Isbell’s premise by tweeting, “Morgan Wallen’s thoughtless redemption tour is the nail in the coffin of me realizing these systems, and this town is really not for us. imma keep making my lil music in my attic, y’all can listen if you want. i don’t know that i’ll do this work forever.”
The Black Opry, a group billing itself as “a home for Black artists and Black fans of country, blues, folk, and Americana music,” shared an open letter to Gina Keltner and Dan Rogers, members of the Opry leadership from Black Opry founder Holly G. The letter noted that on Friday the Opry celebrated the 55th anniversary of the late Black country legend Charley Pride’s first Opry appearance. “It felt like a slap in the face to see you all celebrate Charley Pride, only to pull this stunt 24 hours later,” reads one passage from the letter. “You should know that our community is extremely disappointed, though many are not surprised. A stage that was once a dream destination for many Black artists has now cemented itself as one of the many Nashville stages on which we know we are not respected.”
In response to the Black Opry’s letter, Black singer-songwriter Alison Russell — whose Outside Child topped our list of the best country albums of 2021 — tweeted, “So grateful for you and your advocacy,Holly.I feel heartbroken. I was so proud to debut @opry last May & overjoyed that @amythystkiah & @TheValerieJune also debuted in 2021 — it felt like a long overdue shift toward greater inclusivity-beyond tokenism…this is such a backslide.”