The Crossroads Facing Country Music after Morgan Wallen’s Use of a Racist SlurRoundup
tags: racism, popular culture, country music
Amanda Marie Martinez is a doctoral candidate in the history department at UCLA, where she is completing a dissertation on race and the country music industry between the 1970s and 1990s.
Until Feb. 2, Morgan Wallen was country music’s biggest rising star. That was until he got caught on camera hurling a racial slur in a drunken display following a night out in Nashville. In a moment of racial reckoning, country radio stations quickly dropped the singer from playlists, the Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards declared him ineligible and Wallen’s record label suspended his contract indefinitely.
While a handful of peers including Mickey Guyton, Cam and Maren Morris rebuked the singer, others quickly called for Wallen’s redemption. And, in an ugly show of defiance from Wallen’s fans, his sales have soared since the incident, while artists who have spoken up against racism have faced social media backlash.
This incident and its aftermath, however ugly, actually point to the possibility of the famously White genre embracing a more inclusive version of country music. This possibility is driven by a multiracial coalition (and Black women in particular) of artists, writers and fans outside the confines of Nashville’s Music Row, who have organized to reclaim a genre people of color have always loved and move the music away from a business model where they have never been welcomed.
The country genre was created as a marketing category in the 1920s, when record executives capitalized on the potential to record and sell music from the American South. But while Black and White Southerners often played and enjoyed similar music, thanks to Jim Crow segregation the executives created two music categories, one White and one Black: “hillbilly” and “old-time” music — now collectively referred to as country music — and “race music.”
Executives envisioned the “hillbilly” genre as a product for rural, White Southerners. Reflecting classism for decades following its inception (and to a certain extent into the present), country was routinely ridiculed as backward and lowbrow. For instance in 1926 a front page Variety article described listeners as “illiterate and ignorant, with the intelligence of morons.”
After World War II, however, country music, along with its core White audience, benefited from the social mobility of the period, and the genre became more mainstream. The centralization of the country music business in Nashville in the 1940s and 1950s heavily aided the genre’s respectability campaign. No force was more influential in this process than the Country Music Association (CMA), which was created in 1958 as a trade organization “for the purpose of fostering, publicizing and promoting the growth of and interest in country music.”
In the context of the 1950s, this meant homing in on a White, adult and heavily suburban audience — the primary beneficiaries of post-World War II affluence — that would appeal to radio advertisers.
The industry’s resulting business strategy routinely ignored evidence of non-White artists and fans and instead branded its music as the sound of racial backlash politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the period’s most well-known songs capitalized on feelings of White anxiety, which the industry pushed even when artists resisted such branding. After Merle Haggard released his No. 1 hit “Okie from Muskogee” in 1969, the singer hoped to follow with “Irma Jackson,” a song about interracial love. Recognizing the money to be made on the heels of “Okie,” however, Haggard’s producer, Ken Nelson, instead insisted he release the jingoistic anthem “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which also became a number one hit.
The industry worked to keep country White despite evidence that Black artists could be commercially successful within the genre.
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