Country singer Ernest made his Grand Ole Opry debut on Saturday night, but that milestone occasion is being overshadowed by the appearance of his surprise guest. Morgan Wallen, who faced an industry rebuke after being filmed using a racial slur 11 months ago, joined his Big Loud Records labelmate on the Opry stage to perform their new duet “Flower Shops.”
“Surprise!” the Opry tweeted from its official account on Saturday, along with a photo of the pair.
— Grand Ole Opry (@opry) January 9, 2022
The appearance and chipper tweet set off several rounds of online backlash, with commenters calling out the Opry for its decision to allow Wallen back on its historic stage at this point in time.
“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,” Jason Isbell tweeted. “You chose wrong and I’m real sad for a lot of my friends today.”
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. You chose wrong and I’m real sad for a lot of my friends today. Not surprised though. Just sad.
— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) January 9, 2022
Nashville singer-songwriter Joy Oladokun also voiced her anger over the Opry appearance and questioned her future in Music City.
“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.” Oladokun later reaffirmed her commitment to staying in Nashville, but said, “I’m gonna speak up when things make me sad or angry as long as it’s my job to.”
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.
— Joy Oladokun (@joyoladokun) January 9, 2022
The artist collective the Black Opry — which aims to promote and celebrate the music of Black performers in country and roots music — commented about a previous meeting it had with the Grand Ole Opry and shared an open letter that was sent by founder Holly G to Opry executives Dan Rogers and Gina Keltner.
“I am extremely confused by the welcoming of Morgan Wallen to the Opry stage last night,” Holly G wrote. “You were very clear about the fact that some people do not deserve a spot on that stage, which lets me know that each guest is intentional and thought through. That being the case, how was this deemed okay? 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 the interest of transparency I would like you all to know that this letter was shared with the Opry this morning, via email. We may not get the answers we want, but we will be heard. https://t.co/nZY9lTYHtp
— The Black Opry (@BlackOpry) January 9, 2022
Many also pointed out that the Opry itself had tweeted, “Racism is real. It is unacceptable. And it has no place at the Grand Ole Opry,” in June of 2020 at the height of national protests against police violence following the death of George Floyd. The long-running radio program also welcomed several performers of color to make debuts in 2021, including Allison Russell and Brittney Spencer. A rep for the Grand Ole Opry did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.
Singer and Apple Music Country host Rissi Palmer responded to the outcry with advice to “watch and move,” hinting at the need to build new platforms. “Systems only work when we continue to participate in them,” she said. “The moment we stop and divest, they lose their power. I can’t say this enough: let’s stop running into a burning building. Let’s create platforms and systems that celebrate and welcome us.”
But other artists were willing to give the Opry the benefit of the doubt. The openly gay country songwriter Waylon Payne tweeted in part, “Maybe @opry felt it was time to show a little grace and forgiveness? Just a thought. As a gay man I have never been made to feel uncomfortable or unworthy to be on that stage. That’s the truth… Maybe we can all quit screaming at each other and try to just make things better?”
Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album was released in the days following his scandal and the resulting fallout from radio and the industry. It went on to spend multiple weeks at Number One and ended 2021 as the highest-selling album. On Feb. 3, he’ll launch a massive, sold-out tour of the United States with multiple nights in New York, Atlanta, and Nashville.