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Making Sense of Morgan Wallen’s Success

It’s the morning of Feb. 3, and TMZ has a new video out. It shows a drunken country star shouting a racial slur to his friend coming home after a night out. Meet Morgan Wallen.

It may not be a surprise, but this isn’t the first public controversy in which Wallen has found himself. He was dropped from “Saturday Night Live,” the biggest pop-culture moment of his career, after videos surfaced of him drinking and making out with women at a bar in Tuscaloosa during a pandemic. He was also arrested in Nashville for public intoxication and disorderly conduct in May of last year.

However, Wallen’s seemingly habitual tendency to make public mistakes has not stopped him from making history in the country music world in recent months.

Wallen’s second album Dangerous: The Double Album has spent its first 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart. After the TMZ story broke, Wallen was dropped from country radio, taken off playlists on streaming services, removed from consideration for any ACM awards and had his recording contract indefinitely suspended, according to Taste of Country. This didn’t stop his sophomore album from becoming the only country record to spend its first seven weeks at No. 1 in the over 60-year history of the Billboard 200.

The idea of one of the biggest country albums of this century coming from an artist of Wallen’s reputation seems to leave people with a bad perception of the country music scene. Yet something is still driving many country fans to buy and stream this album at record numbers.

Do I think it is because all country fans are racists that love the fact a white artist used a racial slur? No.

Although I am not a fan of what Wallen brings to the genre, I think that the strong sense of place created through the imagery in the lyrics and the more broadly accessible sound of the music is what has allowed this album to be the success that it is.

The album makes no bones about having a feeling of pride of being from a rural place or small town. One of the biggest songs, “Still Goin’ Down,” is about how Wallen and his friends do things out in the country.

There is no brilliant metaphor or complex rhyme scheme that makes it a great song, or even a good one at that. Yet, saying, “I’m from a small town, a Southern drawl crowd,” is attractive to many people who are from these rural areas.

In the song “More than My Hometown,” Wallen sings about train tracks going through the streets, a $20 sundress, bass fishing and gas station coffee—a clear invocation of images strongly associated with small towns and Southern life.

In the song, he tells the girl he’s singing to that he cannot love her more than the town he grew up in, again signifying a deep connection to place—a feeling many people who grow up in small towns clearly feel.

The simplicity of the lyrics (although I find them boring as hell) not only provide catchy hooks but also parallel the simple nature of the places he sings about.

I won’t give anymore examples. With songs like, “Rednecks, Red Letters, Red Dirt,” and the all-too honest, “Country A$$ Shit,” the point gets a little repetitive. Wallen really wants you to know just how country he is and how much he loves being from the country.

Combine these sorts of lyrics with a more pop-infused production style, using beat drops and 808s on top of subtle guitar riffs, and you create a sound that is appealing to pop music fans. Although I feel that traditional country instruments like the fiddle and steel guitar are where the quality of country music is found, clearly this music can be played in many different settings with sounds that may be more familiar to fans of Drake than Willie Nelson.

Yet Wallen’s image is one that cannot be mistaken for anything other than country, with a deep Southern snarl in his voice and a mullet that Billy Ray Cyrus would be proud of.

It’s no masterpiece, not by any means. Hell, I would call it an absolute mess, but if you were trying to perfectly capture the scene of a jacked-up truck, blaring music from obnoxious subwoofers down a backroad, loaded with 17-year-old kids, this album would be it.

When country fans look back on the 2020s, seeing an album such as this one be the biggest “country” album of the year will hopefully just be added to the list of all the crazy things that have happened over the last year.

However, the Wallen’s rise can be best attributed to the creation of a brand of Southern pride with a delivery that fits with the times. People have been trying to do “country rap” or “country hip-hop” in a way that could pass as country for a long time (most terribly with “Old Town Road”).

The problem with these efforts is that they never seem to focus on the main themes popular country music has always been about. Wallen does exactly that, snap tracks and all.

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Made By Students from the University of Alabama at Birmingham