In mid-August, Nashville’s Big Loud Records issued an email through PlayMPE, the digital promotion platform that supplies radio and media tastemakers with new singles. “For Immediate Airplay,” read the subject line. The artist and song for which airplay was requested: Morgan Wallen’s “Sand in My Boots.”
So far, country radio has indicated that it’s happy to fill the request. Despite banning Wallen in February after the singer was recorded on video using a racial slur, the nation’s largest radio conglomerates including Cumulus, iHeartMedia, and Audacy have added “Sand in My Boots” to their rotations. The song is now inside the Top 30 and climbing quickly.
In the latest Billboard Country Airplay chart for the week ending October 3rd, “Sand in My Boots” — written by Michael Hardy, Josh Osborne, and Ashley Gorley — sits at Number 23 with an audience of 8.3 million. On the rival Mediabase country chart, it’s at Number 26. That includes multiple reporting stations from iHeartMedia, Cumulus, and Audacy. The song’s Top 30 status also means it’s being heard nationally on syndicated survey shows like Country Countdown USA and American Country Countdown, hosted by Brooks & Dunn’s Kix Brooks. In short, “Sand in My Boots” is about to be everywhere.
In the days after Wallen’s use of the racial slur, the fallout was widespread. Particularly fascinating was the way that country radio — still Nashville’s primary vehicle for star-building — decisively jettisoned Wallen’s music. Cumulus, iHeartMedia, and Audacy (then known as Entercom) all announced that his songs would be removed from rotation. It was the most extensive move by radio since the Chicks’ radio ban in 2003 following singer Natalie Maines’ criticism of President George W. Bush over the Iraq War.
New to the Top 30…
🎼 "All I brought back with me was some sand in my boots" 🎵https://t.co/qJ00y1pClv
— ACC with Kix Brooks (@AMCOUNTRYCNTWN) September 15, 2021
The period from early February to August 20th, roughly 29 weeks, isn’t a long time to have a gap between songs on the radio. Country singles routinely take 30 weeks or more to arrive at or near the top of the airplay charts if they’re on a steady ascent. This week’s Billboard Number One, the Jameson Rodgers and Luke Combs collaboration “Cold Beer Calling My Name,” has taken 43 weeks to reach the top, while the Number Two song, Lee Brice’s “Memory I Don’t Mess With,” has been on the chart for 48 weeks. Wallen’s ban has kept him off the airwaves for approximately the length of one single’s promotional cycle.
It was likely even less time, as stations had actually begun adding some of Wallen’s hits like “Whiskey Glasses” and “7 Summers” back to playlists over the summer. Country Radio Broadcasters president R.J. Curtis happened to hear several of those stations while on a cross-country road trip. “His music added a spark, and it set those stations apart — for me,” Curtis says. “His album is fantastic and as an artist, he adds a lot to this format. He’s rough around the edges and has some serious work to do as a human being, but I have to admit, [I] love that album.”
The release of “Sand in My Boots” is the latest move in a comeback effort by the disgraced star. His label Big Loud, which had “suspended” Wallen after the slur incident, is actively promoting the single and has the singer’s image back on its website. In July, he sat for a Good Morning America interview with Michael Strahan in which he pledged $500,000 to Black-led groups, and made a “surprise” appearance shortly after at a Luke Bryan concert in Nashville, doing shots onstage with Bryan, Jason Aldean and Tyler Hubbard. In late summer, he organized a fund-raiser concert for victims of the Tennessee floods.
All the while, Dangerous: The Double Album, which spent 10 weeks at Number One on Rolling Stone’s all-genre albums chart, continued to add to its tally as one of the year’s best-selling records. The Country Music Association disqualified Wallen from competing in individual awards like Entertainer of the Year at this year’s awards show but left room for him to be recognized in collaborative categories. In September, Dangerous earned a nomination for Album of the Year. The CMA confirmed to Rolling Stone that Wallen isn’t invited to appear at the November 10th awards, but his inclusion as a nominee in one of the most visible categories is a sure sign that some people in the industry are already moving on. Wallen is also venturing back to the road: In October and November he’ll headline a handful of shows in Auburn and Mobile, Alabama; Rome, Georgia; and Bristol, Tennessee — all but one are already sold out.
“Radio has recognized that its core country fans either have a short memory on Wallen’s hiccup, or probably never considered it a cancellable offense to begin with,” Curtis says. “This is not to say that I believe his actions should be minimized or normalized. With radio being challenged by every other music discovery platform, programmers apparently decided they cannot be a bystander.”
Rolling Stone asked in February if the industry’s ostracizing of Wallen — a star it helped build — would be permanent. The answer now seems clear.