Holler Country Music
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The Unstoppable Rise of Morgan Wallen

By Natalie Weiner

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Morgan Wallen reaches briefly out of the frame of the Zoom meeting we’re on. He looks as clean-cut as a guy who bears a signature mullet can, sporting an uncharacteristically long-sleeved green shirt as he amiably takes on a days-long remote press junket from within the white shiplapped walls of some Nashville office. When his hand re-enters the frame, it’s holding what is unmistakably a green juice; he takes a sip, and carefully replaces it out of sight.

There are 30 songs on Dangerous, the double-album Wallen released on January 8 (32 if you include the Target-exclusive bonus edition); within them, there are 13 separate mentions of whiskey, 10 of beer, four of tequila, two each of moonshine and wine and one of gas station coffee. Green juice doesn’t make an appearance.

“Don't get me wrong,” Wallen says, flashing the boyish grin that's charmed so many of his fans. “This is not my regimen everyday, OK?”

He’s a viral TikTok sensation and country radio monolith, East Tennessee preacher’s son who sings with a hearty, inescapable twang. He’s also The Voice alum who deftly weaves rhythmic talk-singing patter more often found in hip-hop and R&B into his songs — even the ones that say "beer don’t buzz with that hip-hop cuz / but it damn sure does with a little Nitty Gritty." He’s a self-proclaimed “good ol’ boy,” and a “rockstar” with stadium-sized, international ambitions. He’ll take Green juice in a Music City office (likely fetched by an eager assistant) and whiskey on a back road.

The people who know Wallen best, of course, believe that the 27-year-old singer/songwriter is well-suited to sit at the center of all these contradictions — that his preternatural gifts as a vocalist allow him to transcend them on what so far appears to be a fast track to a new kind of country stardom; one that reaches beyond country radio without explicitly playing to its pop counterparts. Wallen’s ‘Whiskey Glasses’ was the biggest country song of 2019 according to Billboard, ‘Chasin’ You’ being the fourth biggest in 2020 — yes, the whiskey puns come fast and strong with this one — yet his greatest success seems to still be ahead of him, if he can stay upright on all the tightropes he’s walking while avoiding the kinds of legal and PR troubles that have so far punctuated his career.

Morgan Wallen

Morgan Wallen

“Due to the power of his voice, he's naturally able to walk that line between the radio country and the alt country — it's totally a sweet spot for him, and it doesn't feel contrived at all,” says super-producer Joey Moi, the co-founder of Wallen’s label Big Loud (Florida Georgia Line, Jake Owen) who has been behind the boards for all his hits so far. “His voice is going to make any song a Morgan Wallen song.”

Wallen's voice is remarkable, combining a crooner's range and a light rasp for an easy evocativeness, recalling country music of a much earlier vintage. It's certainly sexy, which doesn't hurt; as Shakira put it during a baby-faced Wallen's audition for The Voice back in 2014, “It’s as manly as it gets” — a comment frequently cited by his fans. But the roughness in his voice mostly adds a warmth and intimacy that country listeners have been longing for, if the similarly explosive careers of Luke Combs and Chris Stapleton (who is featured on Dangerous’ ‘Only Thing That’s Gone’) are any indication. Its immediately circled as capital-A Authentic. “Country music is turning into a singing man’s sport for sure,” says ERNEST, a.k.a. Ernest Keith Smith - Wallen’s labelmate, friend and co-writer on a number of Dangerous’ tracks. “Morgan’s voice can be so pretty and so gritty at the same time.”

Wallen sang in church and took piano and violin lessons while growing up in Eastern Tennessee, but baseball was his passion. He was a pitcher, on track to play in college, when he tore his UCL in the middle of his senior season - an injury that would have required Tommy John surgery (replacing a ligament in the elbow) for him to continue playing. “I was devastated,” he says now. “I sat around and kind of sulked for a little while, and then I decided I was going to learn to play the guitar. I started writing songs just to kind of get my feelings out.”

Despite growing up essentially in the geographic heart of country music, Wallen hadn’t ever really even listened to it until his late teens — much less considered a career within the genre. He liked classic rock, gospel and hip-hop (‘Touchdown’ by T.I. and Eminem was his walk-up song). “I lived country music more than I listened to it, if that makes sense,” he says, offering up some of the same redneck-by-the-grace-of-God mythos that runs through his music.

Eric Church’s ‘Love Your Love The Most’ — a pretty standard country list ode to trucks, college football games and beer — was his gateway into the genre that he has dominated for the past two years. “I just listened to the way he wrote and how honest and how real it sounded,” Wallen says. “It struck a chord with me that no music had really before. I started digging a little deeper into country, and realized how much it spoke to things that I believed in.”

He was messing with music and working as a landscaper in Knoxville when his mom signed him up for The Voice; there, Usher told him, “You have the potential to be any type of artist that you’d like to be.” But Wallen was already starting to lean towards country — ironically, he was eliminated while singing Florida Georgia Line’s ‘Stay’, his only country performance on the show.

It was Moi, that song’s producer and the engineer of much of FGL’s success, who actually wound up giving Wallen his most important break. He hadn’t seen the young singer on The Voice, but when Wallen snagged a meeting at the Big Loud studios, Moi was wowed — specifically, by another country cover; Eric Church’s ‘Talledega’.

“He sang it note for note,” Moi recalls. “I don't think he practiced it or anything, it was just how good he is — it was perfect. He had absolutely no idea how good he was compared to all of his future peers.”

Wallen was brought into the Big Loud fold, and his first Country Airplay No. 1, the raucous, fun ‘Up Down’ came alongside a feature from FGL, the label’s franchise act. “It was a riffy type of song, and there weren’t a whole lot of riffs going on in country music at the time, I don't think,” Wallen says, fairly assessing how brash and fun the song sounded against the proliferation of so-called boyfriend country — sugary sweet, pop-oriented love songs — on radio when he released the single in late 2017. ‘You see ‘Up Down’, and you're like ‘This can't be very good,’” he adds. “But the writing was very clever and genuine-feeling — just a good time.”

The track gave his 2018 debut album If I Know Me some momentum, if only the kind of slow burn, single-by-single momentum manufactured so carefully by country radio’s well-oiled machine. But as that album simmered, Wallen continued to experiment. ‘Heartless’, his country-trap collaboration with Diplo, reached no. 10 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and no. 22 on its Mainstream Top 40 tally (a new, “countrified” — per the press release, at least — version appears on Dangerous). Somehow more controversial, though, was Wallen’s take on Jason Isbell’s ‘Cover Me Up’, a beautiful ballad Isbell wrote for his wife, fellow artist Amanda Shires, and released on his 2013 album Southeastern.

“That song just really spoke to me,” Wallen says. While he hadn’t previously heard of the former Drive-By Truckers guitarist, he began playing the song to warm up before shows, sticking to the stripped-down, emotionally raw arrangement that Isbell created in his original version. Wallen taped his version for Taste of Country, the video going on to amass 12 million views and counting (the top comment: “If a song could get someone pregnant, I would be having triplets.”). He ultimately released his rendition as a one-off single in 2019 — a one-off single that entered the Hot 100 in late 2020 almost exclusively from streaming, becoming only Isbell’s second composition to reach that chart. “Jason is in a completely different lane than I am, obviously,” Wallen says. “I just wanted that song to be heard, and I felt like the only way for me to help with that was to do my own version.”

Isbell’s fans would begin to grumble on social media, seemingly frustrated that suddenly there was a tie between one of Music Row’s rising stars and one of the alt-country scene’s most critically-acclaimed singers and songwriters. “I figured it would be worse than it was to be honest,” says Wallen. “I realize I'm in a different lane, I realize how that group of fans — the music snobs or whatever they're called — I know how they are. You can't please them unless you're already in their circle.” Isbell, for his part, has consistently reassured his fans that he is fine with the cover, which also appears on Dangerous. “I was a bit surprised that some of my audience didn’t recognize this as a positive development for me,” he said via direct message. “Whatever you think about Mr. Wallen, let it be known that he has good taste.”

Besides ‘Cover Me Up’, though, the hefty album is mostly made up of songs either penned by Wallen and his cohort of Big Loud collaborators and aspiring artists including ERNEST, HARDY (a.k.a. Michael Hardy) and Niko Moon, or familiar Nashville hitmakers like Ashley Gorley, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne and Rhett Akins. Thomas Rhett and Wallen’s hero, Eric Church, also contributed songs - a credit to how Wallen has somehow carved out a lane distinct from both Rhett’s and Church’s, in spite of the fact that they’re arguably at opposite ends of the radio country spectrum.

I'm not a politician, I don't really ever speak too much on this. I want [female singers] to be included, but I'm not sure exactly how else I can do it besides taking them on the road with me or maybe giving them a feature on a song”.

This record’s casual, often clichéd depictions of women (more than one, perhaps unsurprisingly, is wearing cutoffs) extends behind the scenes: there are no women writers credited on Dangerous, in spite of its length. “I really don’t know — I'm not a politician, I don't really ever speak too much on this,” Wallen says when asked about how the still overwhelmingly white and male Nashville music industry might better encourage women, and people of color more broadly. “I've always brought a female singer to open my show, every single one that I've done so far. I want them to be included. I would like to be able to help, but I'm not sure exactly how else I can do it besides taking them on the road with me or maybe giving them a feature on a song.”

When it’s pointed out that women and people of color are always compelled to have an answer to that question, he conceded, “That's a good point, I'm sure they get asked about it all the time and I don't know if they have the answers or not either.”

There’s a chance that Wallen will be compelled to answer that kind of question more frequently if his 2020 trajectory continues. As his final If I Know Me single, ‘Chasin’ You’, rose the charts during the early days of the pandemic, Wallen was already onto the next thing, floating clips of his in-progress tracks on TikTok. ‘7 Summers’, a beachy, mellow song about long-lost love, exploded on the platform, compelling Big Loud to plot an official release.

“A beautifully written song, but it wasn't your conventional radio country-sounding song,” says Moi. “It provided all of the consumption and streaming numbers and Shazam numbers, though.” The track didn’t just debut atop the Hot Country Songs chart, it hit no. 6 on Billboard’s Hot 100, making Wallen only the second solo male country act to debut in that chart’s top 10 (the first was a far more intentional crossover act: Garth Brooks’ Chris Gaines).

Holler Country Music

Morgan Wallen

Via social media and streaming platforms, Wallen has been able to circumvent the notorious gatekeepers of country radio — although he certainly didn’t need to, given the success he’d found through that platform. Perhaps more interesting is the way TikTok is allowing Wallen — and many other country artists — to reach a younger audience that may not listen to country radio without specifically targeting pop radio crossover (the way plenty of country acts have done since time immemorial).

"For the consumption he’s doing, and incredible music he’s making, I certainly think this rollout needs to look like Garth Brooks in Target and Wal-Mart, and Drake on the streaming apps," Big Loud CEO Seth England told Billboard. "And it seems kinda funny to say that. But I think that country music has that unique ability to do both".

The size of Dangerous, at least, bears more than a passing resemblance to the immense releases favored by hip-hop acts in recent years, as they try to grapple with the question of how to find songs that will hit on streaming by throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. If the result has some degree of aesthetic homogeneity, it’s still far less than most up-and-coming country stars — Dangerous is most successful, though, when at its stylistic extremes: the snarling country rock of ‘Beer Don’t’, the Margaritaville-ready ‘7 Summers’, the reverbed-out cosmic country of ‘Outlaw’. Wallen still has musical interests outside of country: according to ERNEST, they mostly listen to Memphis rap when they’re driving around together, and Wallen himself likes the War on Drugs, Tame Impala and Local Natives (to him, he says, they feel like “beach music”).


Its warm, ever-so-slightly rough around the edges sound is the closest thing Dangerous has to a throughline — what Moi calls “wooden” production. “Having everything stay on that organic-feeling side of the format was important to us,” says Moi. “When we're choosing the lane we're gonna go down, I'll describe it that way: ‘wooden’ or ‘hands’ [that is, sounds like it was made by people’s hands], or is it more beat-oriented?” That “wooden” sound ties together the romantic charmers, the heartfelt ballads and the foot-stomping odes to rural life.

“His fan base is consuming all of his music — it's not like it's just singles driven, his fans love all of the songs that come out,” says Moi — a fact that accounts for how autoplay may have just brought ‘Cover Me Up’ onto the Hot 100, for example. “We’re able to show his complete diversity of what he's able to sell.”

As strategic as some aspects of the making of Morgan Wallen have been, there are songs on Dangerous that hint at the vulnerability beneath that radio-friendly bravado. Wallen says he wrote the title track, a song about the consequences of spinning out due to heartbreak, to himself and only changed it to a love song to make it more relatable. “I wrote it right after I got into some trouble,” Wallen says, alluding to his arrest in May 2020 for public intoxication and disorderly conduct outside of Kid Rock’s Nashville bar (yes, in the middle of the pandemic). “I don’t want to go downtown, doing what we used to,” he sings in that song’s chorus.

I didn't get upset about people giving me grief, I understand that this has all been really hard on everyone, and we've all kind of handled it in our own ways”.

But not long after, Wallen found himself in another scrape. Having been invited to perform on Saturday Night Live following the breakout success of ‘7 Summers’, Wallen spent the weekend prior to his trip to 30 Rock making out with co-eds at a very un-socially-distanced party at the University of Alabama — it was all captured on camera, resulting in videos that were widely circulated on, you guessed it, TikTok.

“I think people are on edge anyway, too,” he says of the incident. “I didn't get upset about people giving me grief, I understand that this has all been really hard on everyone, and we've all kind of handled it in our own ways.” Asked about whether he’s taken mask-wearing more seriously since, he stammers a bit unconvincingly. “I do take it more serious now,” he says. “I'm gonna try to do my part so we can get back out there and get on the road. I've definitely kept it a lot more low key since then.” Wallen made it to SNL successfully with his second chance; in between, though, he elected to comment on Instagram about the celebrations following Joe Biden’s election, saying, “The hypocrisy is unreal” — and suggesting, by extension, that pandemic prevention is politically motivated.

Again, this is the sort of line Wallen is going to have to figure out how he wants to walk if he wants the kind of massive stardom he seems poised for. It’s an adjustment that he’s been compelled to deal with rather suddenly, one that he himself admits he has not handled all that gracefully.

“I've grown a lot during it, maybe because of it — I don't know exactly,” he says of the pandemic. Becoming exponentially more famous during this time, Wallen says, has been odd. It’s the subject of another one of his more personal new songs, ‘Livin’ The Dream’, within which he sings about the perils of celebrity. “It's hard for me to gauge what's going on — I can look at a number, I can look at my followers, I can look at these records, but the way I usually gauge my success is by getting out and playing shows. During this time, I've just had to realize that we're on a whole different level than we were before — people actually care about what I'm doing now.”

Plenty of country artists have attained the kind of huge careers Wallen seems to be gunning for, without really ever having to answer for inconsiderate behavior or less-than-inclusive politics, or at least without having their answers make any difference. But he's in uncharted territory; going from singing about ‘The Way I Talk’ to bearing a painful Southern accent from Pete Davidson on national TV, from following the country radio formula to reinventing how a ‘good ol’ boy’ might get his music heard by a whole audience that might not listen to radio at all, country or otherwise. He’s mastered the musical portion of his in-progress crossover, if Dangerous’ record-setting streaming numbers are any indication — now he just has to get a handle on the rest of it.

“I tend to learn things the hard way,” Wallen concludes. “Learning things the hard way while a bunch of people are watching you is not always the most fun thing.”

But if Wallen can get past this learning curve, keeping his bad boy image 2D instead of making it a lifestyle, the world of popular music as a whole — as it is now being shaped by rapidly shifting social media trends — seems likely to be as cracked open for him as the ice cold ones he’s always singing about.

Morgan Wallen's new sophomore double-album Dangerous is out now via Big Loud. Watch 'Silverado For Sale' from Wallen's Dangerous Live Sessions below.

Photography courtesy of Big Loud / EMI.