Morgan Wallen: A Timeline of the Country Star’s Sky Highs and Gutter Lows
Like him or not, Morgan Wallen is one of the biggest music artists in the world at the moment, in any genre. The country singer’s relatively young career has been a roller-coaster ride, to say the least, from the genuinely inspired to the boneheaded, and, in one case, shameful. Here’s a closer look at the major times the Sneedville, Tennessee, native has made waves with his music, his actions, or his words.
There’s an alternate-timeline scenario in which Wallen’s musical dreams are realized a little too late to make much of an impact, or maybe never even realized at all. As a baseball player at Gibbs High School near Knoxville, he dreamt of playing at higher levels and — according to his coach, anyway — had the talent to make that possible. But a torn UCL effectively killed his big-time baseball prospects for good. “I was supposed to play in college, got hurt,” he told Nashville Lifestyles in 2021. “I was devastated because I’d put so much time and effort into baseball. So, I started writing songs and playing guitar.” We all know what happened from there.
The Voice Giveth
Free to focus on his music, Wallen tried out for The Voice. The swoop-haired singer’s blind audition was not with a country song, but with Howie Day’s “Collide.” He started out on Usher’s team, then Adam Levine’s after a steal, singing songs by Avicii and One Direction. The week he sang his first country song, Florida Georgia Line’s “Stay,” he was eliminated from the competition.
After an initial indie release, Wallen signed with the indie label Big Loud and started recording. His debut single for the label, “The Way I Talk,” which he didn’t have a hand in writing, was a charming examination of rural speech patterns that “got some words you never heard/’less you come from down yonder.” But it was his alignment with then-bro kings Florida Georgia Line on the summer-barbecue-ready “Up Down” that put him on the track to superstardom with his first country-radio Number One. Even so, during this time, his live sets included a medley that mashed together hits by Linkin Park, Bon Jovi, Fall Out Boy, and Kings of Leon.
Some time between the spring and summer of 2018, Wallen’s look went from auxiliary member of an alt-rock band to lumberjack-erotica cover model with the addition of a Joe Diffie-style mullet and the subtraction of sleeves from his array of flannel shirts. This is when his imperial era really began, in particular with “Whiskey Glasses,” a song that was written by Ben Burgess and Kevin Kadish. It was a potent combination of catchy and clever, with its rousing “line ‘em up” bridge that was easy for a crowd to remember and yell back at Wallen. There were also more than a few funny lines about drinking one’s way through a breakup — “Poor me, pour me another drink,” for example. It’s symbolic in a way, since alcohol has played a role in some of what would happen to Wallen over the next couple of years.
Immediately after “Whiskey Glasses” took its over-the-limit bow at Number One, Wallen had a double dose of radio saturation with “Chasin’ You” and “Heartless.” “Chasin’ You,” Wallen’s final single from If I Know Me, was released in late July 2019 and was a slower burn in terms of chart success. Two weeks after its release, “Heartless,” a moody trap-country collaboration with producer and trend-spotter Diplo, promptly blew up on streaming sites. Everything was falling in place for a big next era, though there was a darker side to Wallen’s emerging stardom.
The Law and Kid Rock’s Bar
In May 2020, which as you may recall was very early in the pandemic, Wallen was arrested for public intoxication and disorderly conduct after being kicked out of Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk Rock N’ Roll Steakhouse in downtown Nashville. Which brings up a couple of questions. One, were these Broadway places not observing any kind of pandemic safety rules? And two, what the hell kind of nonsense does someone have to be doing to get kicked out of Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk Rock N’ Roll Steakhouse? The answer to the first is clearly no, and the second, according to The Tennessean, was for “kicking glass items.” He’d have walked away from it with a clean record, if only he didn’t reportedly try to fight people in the street outside and officers intervened.
Saturday Night Loss
Wallen’s next musical era was ramping up later in 2020. The new singles “More Than My Hometown” and “7 Summers” had an unmistakably sensitive bent even when the music was more muscular. The songs were immediately popular and helped land him an artist’s dream gig, as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live on Oct. 10, 2020. Three days before his scheduled appearance he was swiftly booted from the gig when photos of the singer partying in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, after a Crimson Tide football game began circulating. The images showed him kissing multiple women and playing guitar for an unmasked crowd, still very much in pandemic times. SNL was only just getting back to in-person shows with rigorous testing, and they weren’t having it. But Wallen ended up back on the show a few weeks later and even got to joke about the experience in a sketch with host Jason Bateman.
Wallen’s double-length second album, Dangerous, was released on Jan. 8, 2021, a 30-track monster that included “More Than My Hometown,” “7 Summers,” a new version of “Heartless,” and a cover of Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up.” A mere three weeks after it came out, Wallen was captured on camera saying the n-word to a group of friends as he arrived back home after a night out. The fallout was swift — country radio dropped him and country institutions uninvited him from their awards shows. He apologized, saying “I promise to do better,” and mostly kept a low profile, making a little time to go golfing with Eric Church while things were quiet. The radio ban lasted about six months before the Dangerous track “Sand in My Boots” was in heavy rotation.
The GMA Interview
In July 2021, Wallen sat down for an interview with Michael Strahan on Good Morning America. While he attempted to openly address the controversy, he came off as unprepared. “I was around some of my friends, and we just … we say dumb stuff together,” he told Strahan when asked why he used the word. “And it was — in our minds, it’s playful. I don’t know, that sounds ignorant, but that’s really where it came from. And it’s wrong.” But his answer that was most misguided came when he was asked if country music had a race problem. “It would seem that way, yeah,” Wallen answered, six months after the slur video caused a firestorm. “I haven’t really sat and thought about that.”
In what feels like the Streisand effect to end all Streisand effects, the slur and Wallen’s temporary ban from various country music platforms helped turn Dangerous into a sensation. It was popular out of the gate, but streaming numbers surged in the weeks after the incident, giving the album multiple weeks at Number One across all genres, and even dragging If I Know Me into the Top 10. Dangerous finished 2021 as the year’s top-performing album, and then later set a record for most consecutive weeks in the Top 10 by a single artist. Awards shows slowly started letting Wallen come back and perform, and the nominations began rolling in. Getting “canceled,” as some on the right suggested was happening with the response, may have been the best thing that could’ve happened to his career.
To his credit, Wallen was mostly on good behavior in the stretch that followed his becoming a superstar. Granted, he didn’t actively try to call out the white supremacists who’d glommed onto him in the wake of the racist slur, but he wasn’t out creating more chaos. There was one little incident in a Broadway bar that got reported as him dumping a drink on someone, but that seems to be up for dispute. In the meantime, he began rolling out singles from a new album. “You Proof” was the first of the bunch and another country Number One — his eighth overall. The new album is called One Thing at a Time, and it packs a borderline-insane 36 tracks under one title. It was released March 3 and broke a record held by Drake when all 36 of its tracks entered the Billboard Hot 100 at once. It’s been sitting at Number One among all genres ever since, and even robbed Metallica of their 32-year streak of debuting at Number One on the Billboard 200 albums chart.
The Voice Taketh Away
Wallen’s One Night at a Time Tour is undoubtedly one of the hottest tickets of the year, but it got off to a slightly rocky start in mid-April. At the KFC YUM! Center in Kentucky, Wallen took a hard tumble off the stage after getting lost in the fog. He recovered quickly, seemingly without any grievous injury. More concerning, his second of two shows at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Mississippi, was canceled minutes before he was set to go onstage. The official explanation was voice issues, but fans were unhappy about sitting through opening acts in the stadium only to be denied the main attraction.
More Nixed Shows
Wallen said he was placed on “doctor-ordered vocal rest” and postponed three more concerts in Michigan, Illinois, and Nebraska. But some fans weren’t buying it, and rumors that excessive partying had compromised Wallen’s voice swirled, spurred by a video of a security guard at the Mississippi show who claimed the singer was “too drunk.” The security firm issued a statement saying the employee “made false claims as it related to last night’s Morgan Wallen concert,” which Big Loud amplified. “Thank you Best Crowd Management for correcting your employee, who made up an entire story that was nowhere close to true. Every detail was false,” said the label’s CEO, Seth England. Wallen’s One Night at a Time Tour is scheduled to resume May 4 with three shows in Florida.
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