Outside New York’s Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, where Morgan Wallen was playing the first show of his 54-date Dangerous Tour, there were no protesters, no calls for cancelation, no noticeable sign of The Controversy that had surrounded the country singer since he was filmed using a racial slur last year.
Likewise, there were no Confederate flags being flown, no visible MAGA hats, no inflammatory signs — just a somewhat predictable sea of white faces, cowboy hats, and plaid shirts, plenty with their sleeves cut off. More than a few of the haircuts resembled Wallen’s lightly coifed mullet.
It was as if the uproar caused by his use of the n-word had all but faded.
As Wallen, seated at a piano alone onstage, plunked away at the intro of his soon-to-be No. 1 single “Sand in My Boots” to start the show, 13,237 fans cheered loudly enough to make the PA pop. Taking out his earpieces, the 28-year-old flashed a broad grin, stood up, and walked to the lip of the stage to shake hands with the front row. It was a hero’s welcome.
“We were supposed to start the tour last week in Indiana, but the good Lord had other plans,” Wallen said a short time later, referring to the fact that the opening three dates of the tour were postponed due to winter weather. That bit of divine intervention was about as close as he got to acknowledging the many changes of plan wrought first by the Covid-19 pandemic and then his subsequent pseudo-exile from the industry.
While Wallen didn’t talk about the scandal that came to represent country music’s race problem, fans that spoke with Rolling Stone at the show weren’t afraid to offer their wide-ranging thoughts. “I don’t think he’s paid his dues [for what happened],” said one man named Brian, who came in from Connecticut to see the show but, like a number of people interviewed for this story, preferred not to share his last name. (“There’s a certain narrative out there that people don’t necessarily want to be affiliated with,” his friend, Harry, said by way of explanation.)
Brian pointed to Wallen’s financial donations to Black activist groups like the Black Music Action Coalition. “I think he tried to gloss it over and make it go away,” he said.
Others weren’t as concerned. “It doesn’t matter. We love him,” said Molly Divine, of Long Island. One of her friends, Erin Harkins, echoed the sentiment: “I love this man. I think he deserves the world.” Like most others who were interviewed, neither one had seen Wallen in concert before. Mia, another Long Islander who came with her own group of friends, was one who had, having seen him perform in upstate New York in 2019. “I feel like he did the time he needed to grow as a person and reflect, so for me it doesn’t change anything,” she said.
Another fan, Tyler Griffith, felt that while Wallen made a “mistake,” he, like podcast host Joe Rogan, has been misrepresented as a racist. “You gotta judge someone based on their character. I haven’t heard of Morgan Wallen, you know, knocking down an old lady getting groceries,” Griffith said. “He might have said something stupid, but that’s on him… I think he knows it was stupid, and that he shouldn’t have said it.”
“He [owned] up to what he did, and that’s all he could do,” added Michelle Grigorovich, who accompanied Griffith to the show. But George Politis, a New York City native who attended with a couple of friends, worried that taking responsibility for one’s actions was no longer considered good enough. “Now you make a mistake and people want to get rid of you. And it’s not fair,” he said. Politis referenced the backlash faced recently by celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and Nick Cannon to illustrate his point. “They’ve all said things they shouldn’t have; it’s a mistake,” he added. “We don’t agree with any of it. None of us should use the word.”
What most people preferred to focus on was Wallen’s music. “He brings a little bit of a new element to the country scene,” Politis said. “It’s not the traditional stuff. It’s got a good vibe. But he also has some good home roots, where he sticks closely to what he’s grown up with.”
Wallen’s particular brand of eclecticism extends to his recent collaboration with rapper Lil Durk on “Broadway Girls” — itself a lightning rod after Wallen joined Durk to perform the song onstage at MLK Freedom Fest in Nashville last month. “Broadway Girls” was played over the PA immediately before Wallen hit the stage and had a large section of the crowd up and dancing. “With Lil Durk being African-American, he did back him up and say, ‘Hey, he’s my homeboy, he’s my friend,’” said Jeff, another fan who came to the gig from Long Island.
As Harry from Connecticut stressed, the success that Wallen has enjoyed — despite last year’s radio ban and exclusion from country award ceremonies — speaks for itself. Dangerous: The Double Album was a historic hit, spending 10 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and ending 2021 as the year’s top-selling release. “I think there’s something to be said for separating the art from the artist,” Harry argued.
Still, that’s easier said than done. When Wallen slung his acoustic guitar over his shoulder prior to “Silverado for Sale,” it sported a leather strap emblazoned with the word “Dangerous.” What may have started as a marketing catchphrase has come to feel like a badge of honor. Certainly there were those at Madison Square Garden who took pride in his perseverance. “I like his music,” said Robert Junkermeyer, of New Jersey, “but I also love how he bounced back.”
Separating the artist from his art is one thing; separating him from his fanbase is another altogether. As early as the first song, chants of “U-S-A” filled the arena (with at least one fan quick to take credit for starting it on Twitter). Even more forceful was a wave of “Let’s go Brandon” refrains, a euphemism for “Fuck Joe Biden.” The two occasionally were pitted against each other, with “Brandon” winning out each time. (A meager attempt to counter with “Let’s go Morgan” didn’t catch fire.) If politics aren’t supposed to be the issue for Wallen or his followers, they linger not too far from view.
Wallen, however, had the last word. After tearing through a 23-song, hour-and-40-minute set that included a cameo by opener Hardy and a duet with Ernest on their collab “Flower Shop” (which they performed at the Grand Ole Opry in January), he prowled every corner of the stage, pumping his chest and pointing triumphantly into the crowd. “We ain’t going nowhere,” Wallen declared, returning to the end of the catwalk, “and neither are you.”