The big music story right now is the caught-on-tape racism of Douche Country artist Morgan Wallen. Wow, some country bro being racist, so shocking… But what actually is shocking is that the Nashville country establishment, arguably the single most conservative institution in these United States, has actually acted on it.
Cumulus Media and iHeartMedia, the country’s top two radio conglomerates, pulled his music immediately, as did several other companies such as SiriusXM (which owns the streaming service Pandora). CMT stopped playing his music on all television and digital platforms; the Country Music Association took similar action. The Academy of Country Music said he will not be eligible for its upcoming awards show. Cumulus was the first chain to react to the incident, sending a message to its program directors shortly after TMZ posted a video Tuesday night that showed Wallen loudly returning home with friends this past weekend. A neighbor, apparently annoyed by the racket, started filming the scene and caught Wallen using the racial slur.
Wallen released an apology Tuesday to TMZ: “I’m embarrassed and sorry. I used an unacceptable and inappropriate racial slur that I wish I could take back. There are no excuses to use this type of language, ever. I want to sincerely apologize for using the word. I promise to do better.”
Big Loud, his independent label in Nashville, said Wednesday in a statement that they made the decision to suspend him “in the wake of recent events.” It added that Republic Records, the Universal Music Group-owned major label partner who also promotes Wallen, “fully supports Big Loud’s decision and agrees such behavior will not be tolerated.”
The fallout is a shockingly abrupt pivot for the industry, which has turned Wallen, 27, into one of Nashville’s most profitable hitmakers over the past several years. He has had an enormous amount of media attention, including a profile in The Washington Post. His latest album has been No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart for the past three weeks. He’s had sold-out tours and a string of hit radio singles, and he shattered streaming records for country music. (Variety reported that Apple Music took him off its homepage and Spotify removed him from its top country songs playlist.)
His removal from radio, known as the defining way to become a star in country music, is especially unprecedented: The last time a top-selling country act was pulled from the platform this quickly across the board was in 2003, when the Chicks were punished for criticizing President George W. Bush.
Of course, sales of Wallen’s albums are up 339% since his racism was exposed. White America in a nutshell. Must be that cancel culture I keep hearing about.
Evidently, there is going to be a mini-series on The Sex Pistols. I cannot say I am confident.
The songwriter Jim Weatherly is the biggest loss to music recently. He wrote “Midnight Train to Georgia,” among other hits. There was also the loss of the pop artist Sophie, which mostly amazed me because I had never even heard of her and yet so many people said she was so influential. Were I someone who never listened to contemporary music, I would expect this. But here we are. Anne Feeney also died. Not really my thing, but for those who are deeply committed to lefty folk music, she was a big deal. I prefer the politics more than the music.
I’ll say this for The Weeknd performing at the Super Bowl–it can’t be worse than most of them, especially that horrendous performance by The Who.
Lindy Ortega, Liberty
If you like a country album inspired by Tarantino and Spaghetti Westerns, focusing on a western revenge story that is also sung by a sweet-voiced Canadian who said to hell with trying to become a big star and moved to Calgary to remake her life and career, this is definitely the album for you. Fun.
Chris Stapleton, Starting Over
Stapleton is the great singer of modern country music. He sounds like Gregg Allman, with a voice that carries for miles. His 2015 album Traveller was a sensation, rocketing him to the point of doing arena shows. That’s amazing for a guy who avoids the douche country of Nashville radio and sings in a big blues voice. It was a great album and well-deserved, but also surprising. Lots of people deserve that fame and don’t get it. He followed that up with the smaller but enjoyed From a Room albums in 2017, which included a lot of his older songs from the days when he was selling songs to others. But it had been a long time since he released a big album of new material.
Starting Over is a welcome album, albeit not a great one. His voice is really carrying most of the material because I’d argue the songwriting isn’t quite as strong here. The subjects are familiar, but the subjects were familiar on Traveller and more earthshaking at the same time. Still, the voice is the voice. His cover of Guy Clark’s “Old Friends” might be the album’s highlight, though he somehow writes a song dedicated to his now deceased dog that isn’t ridiculously maudlin or sentimental (see Red Foley’s “Old Shep” for how this can go very wrong). This is a solid entry into the Stapleton catalog and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Sad13, Haunted Painting
Sadie Dupuis has a side project from Speedy Ortiz called Sad13. Given that it sounds a lot like Speedy Ortiz, this feels to me an almost intentional way for an indie rock goddess to make even less money than she does on Speedy Ortiz albums. I wasn’t even aware of this project until a few months ago and I really like Dupuis. Well, that’s her choice. As for Haunted Painting, the second Sad13 album, it’s another album of incredibly smart indie pop about sexism, the patriarchy, aging into your 30s, and other similar topic that combine politics with introspection. Very solid work. She deserves more album sales.
H.C. McEntire, Eno Axis
I loved McEntire’s work with Mount Moriah, what I think is one of the best unsung bands of the 2010s. This is her second solo album. Like the first, it’s a solid and pleasant listen that doesn’t quite reach Mount Moriah levels. But this is solid southern pastoral country-folk music and there is nothing wrong with that.
Ibibio Sound Machine, Doko Mien
Ibibio Sound Machine is such a great band. Frontwoman Eno Williams brings the charisma as this band combines Afropop and highlife with modern electronic beats and pop music to great effect. This is just high energy, fun music.
James Talley, Tryin’ Like the Devil
Every now and again, I run into some artist of the 1970s who I had never even heard of before and who blows my mind. A few months ago, that happened with Tracy Nelson. And now, James Talley. An inheritor of the Woody Guthrie tradition of left-populist songwriting working in the realm of the country-folk scenes that were so great in the 70s, this 1976 album is a masterpiece of the genre. It turns out that I did know of his songs. I just thought the great “Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again?” was written by Hazel Dickens, who did an outstanding version of it. I’d say Talley at his best was better at channeling the next generation of Guthrie-esque writing than Pete Seeger or Ramblin’ Jack Elliott ever did. The other person who might come up when thinking about Talley is Merle Haggard, though Talley’s politics are a lot more coherent than Hag’s ever were, one could easily see the writer of “California Cottonfields” in conversation with Talley.
Cat Power, Wanderer
The long and varied career of Chan Marshall led in 2018 to her first album since 2012’s outstanding Sun. This is a perfectly good album, one that sorts of splits the difference between the near-joy of Sun and the deeply depressed early albums such as You Are Free. It’s not as good as either of those, but a solid contribution to her catalogue nonetheless. Highlights include her dueting with Lana del Rey on “Woman,” (a weird combination but one that works) and her cover of Rhianna’s “Stay,” an unexpected song that completely reworks it and shows its depth across styles.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music and art and none things politics or disease.