Morgan Wallen stepped on country music's most historic and storied stage over the weekend, a sign that many interpreted as the Grand Ole Opry giving the troubled star its blessing and a path to reconciliation after he used a racial slur on camera.
While the country star's return to the public eye seemed inevitable, a tweet from the Opry about Wallen surprising fans at its regular Saturday broadcast show led to heavy criticism of the mostly white institution and its history as a gatekeeper.
Performers ranging from Yola, Allison Russell, Rissi Palmer, Noelle Scaggs of Fitz and the Tantrums, Joy Oladokun, Chely Wright, as well as Grammy winners Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell, weighed in on how the Opry's decision could have troubling consequences for artists of color in country music.
"Morgan Wallen's thoughtless redemption tour is the nail in the coffin of me realizing these systems and this town is not really for us," wrote Oladokun on Sunday.
Wallen was caught on camera last year using a racial slur and while some organizations banned him temporarily, he has returned to the airwaves and remained the most popular artist of 2021 across all genres. He resumed touring arenas last year and has been releasing new music, including collaborations with rapper Lil Durk, who is Black, and country artist ERNEST. Wallen made an unannounced appearance on the Opry, which has been broadcasting for nearly 100 years, to sing with ERNEST.
This time the criticism centered more on the silent signaling by the Opry than Wallen himself.
"It's the idea of a young Black artist walking into that venue and wondering if anybody is on their side," wrote Isbell. "What a lot of us consider to be a grand ole honor can be terrifying for some."
For many Black artists, the promises for change and racial equity inside country music's institutions continue to ring empty.
In 2021, writer Holly G started a blog called the Black Opry to create a home for Black artists and fans. It has since grown in less than a year to a fully-fledged community and performances at venues around the country. Enthusiasm for what she created has grown so much that venues have been reaching out to book shows.
She met with the Opry's talent director with a proposal to host a show next month for Black History Month in conjunction with the Black Opry. She said the Opry's rep stressed that they were carefully selecting who appeared on their stage.
Following Wallen's appearance, Holly G wrote a letter asking for an explanation of how the Opry felt that Wallen met their standards.
"They have figured out they can invite a few Black performers to the stage and give them debuts and that will quiet or calm people down for a little bit," she told The Associated Press on Monday. "But if you look at the structural set up for the institution, nothing has changed. They have two Black members over the entire history of the institution."
A publicist for the Opry did not return a request for comment from the AP, and Holly G said she also had not received a response to her letter as of Tuesday morning.
Soon after the video of Wallen was published on TMZ, the country singer apologized and told fans not to defend his racist language. But his fans have galvanized their support for him, boosting his streaming numbers when radio stations were pulling him off playlists. Wallen himself acknowledged a lack of awareness when asked on "Good Morning America" in July of last year about whether country music had a problem with race. "It would seem that way, yeah. I haven't really sat and thought about that," he replied.
A publicist for Wallen did not return a request for comment from the AP.
Charles Hughes, a professor at Rhodes College in Memphis and author of "Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South," said playing the Opry — one of the most important institutions in the genre's history — legitimizes artists.
Hughes said Wallen's path, via the Opry and other stages he is performing on, appears like the "wayward white artist" being welcomed back into the family.
"The narrative of reconciliation is a really powerful one… and reconciliation without any reckoning, real reckoning, can actually end up worse," said Hughes. "'Cause if you don't address the problem, you just sort of act like it didn't happen."
Musician Adia Victoria noted that minstrels wearing blackface performed comedy acts on the Opry for years. The Opry's very first performer for the first show in 1927, harmonica player DeFord Bailey, was fired and he left the music business. Only Charley Pride, who died in 2020, and Darius Rucker have been officially invited to be regular members. The Opry's management team selects artists to be members based on career success, like sales and industry recognition, and their commitment to their audience. Wallen is not a member, but was a guest performer.
The timing of Wallen's Opry appearance came the same weekend as Grammy-nominated country star Mickey Guyton tweeted about a racist commenter, while a white country star RaeLynn said in an interview with a conservative podcaster that the genre was not racist because she had never experienced racism herself. Guyton is Black.
The confluence of all these incidents in a few short days has been exhausting for artists from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, said Holly G. That's why she sees a need to create new spaces and organizations apart from the genre's long-standing institutions that haven't made everyone feel welcome.
"We'll create our own audiences and our own stages and our own traditions," she said. "It doesn't feel very worth fighting to share space with people who unequivocally do not want you there."
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.