But that was nothing compared to the crush of coverage he received nearly five months later when he was dropped as the “Saturday Night Live” musical guest for violating the show’s coronavirus protocols with a night of maskless partying at the University of Alabama. After the latter incident, which led to an Instagram video apology where he admitted “I have some growing up to do,” Wallen realized something: Deep down, he might still feel like that small-town kid from East Tennessee who could go out and raise hell with his buddies and no one would pay much attention. But those days were over.
“I didn’t really know until then the extent of how much people cared about what I was doing,” Wallen, 27, said in a recent interview. “That whole thing let me know that, okay, we’ve entered into a new territory here.”
New territory may be an understatement. Seven years after he took his first airplane ride to Los Angeles to audition for NBC’s “The Voice,” Wallen’s career is thriving: He’s had a streak of No. 1 hits and the most-played song on country radio for two consecutive years; won new artist of the year at the 2020 Country Music Association Awards; and his sophomore record, “Dangerous: The Double Album,” just debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart and sold a very impressive 265,000 equivalent album units in its first week (74,000 album sales plus streaming equivalents, according to Billboard.) He’s set to be one of the hottest concert tickets once touring resumes, and his record label has big plans to make him a global star.
He’s also poised to be the future of the genre as he continuously shatters streaming records for country music and goes viral on apps like TikTok, maintaining the fierce loyalty of his largely Gen Z and millennial fan base. It’s a possibility that thrills his many fans as much as it upsets those who haven’t recovered from the Florida Georgia Line effect, in which the duo’s game-changing debut in the early 2010s (mixing in rock, pop and rap with country) influenced a generation of singers to blend genres. But Wallen’s undeniable popularity, along with critical acclaim for hits such as “Whiskey Glasses” and his “next-level” vocals, as his producer put it, is a combination that is impossible to dismiss.
Singer-songwriter Michael Hardy (known as the artist Hardy), one of Wallen’s closest friends and collaborators, calls Wallen an “anomaly.” He theorizes that the reasons he has received backlash are the same reasons that fans flock to him: His audience is “starving” to see a singer who goes out and makes mistakes and gets in trouble, because it makes him seem less like a celebrity and more like one of them.
“He is very raw as a human being . . . himself as a person and himself as an artist. There is no difference. Morgan is Morgan,” Hardy said. “There just hasn’t been somebody like him in a long time in country music — aside from his music, just the type of person he is. And I think that people are eating that up.”
It’s true that country music’s male superstars of today look quite different than in decades past — this is not the age of outlaws and rebels. When Nashville’s current hitmakers sing about getting blackout drunk and the pride of just scraping by, their messages are often undercut by Instagram accounts that project an image of family-friendly domestic bliss with their wives and young children, along with the trappings of obvious wealth.
Wallen, while no doubt enjoying the perks of stardom, still appears to be a regular dude with his cutoff shirts, mullet and rebellious yet laid-back attitude. When asked on social media what they enjoy about Wallen, fans raved about his relatability: “I love how much he just seems like a normal guy.” “He’s so down to earth.” “It’s always cool to see celebrities live their life like average people!” “He doesn’t act like he’s Morgan Wallen the popular country singer . . . he acts like Morgan Wallen.”
“I think they can tell that I kind of just do as I please when it comes to music and when it comes to my life, and that I didn’t get thrown up here by a record label that said, ‘Act this way and say this and wear this and do that,’ ” Wallen said. “They know when they hear from me, it’s really coming from me, and I think that means a lot.”
Yet as Wallen’s chill vibe ingratiates him with the younger crowd, he couldn’t reach this level without the skills to back it up — and it all started with his voice, appropriately, on “The Voice.” In February 2014, he introduced himself to millions of viewers as a 20-year-old landscaper from Knoxville, Tenn., where an injury his senior year prevented him from playing college baseball. However, he always enjoyed singing, so he figured he may as well give it a shot. Clad in a sensible cardigan, tie and neatly combed hair, he belted out Howie Day’s “Collide,” and judges Shakira and Usher were impressed: “It’s as manly as it gets,” Shakira said, complimenting his “raspy” tone; Usher went with “very unique.”
Wallen ultimately chose Usher as his mentor, saying the famed R&B artist reminded him of his baseball coach. Although Wallen didn’t last long on the show, he networked enough to eventually get a meeting at Big Loud Records, a Nashville label co-founded by Seth England, the manager who helped launch Florida Georgia Line. When Wallen auditioned for England and producer Joey Moi in 2016, Moi said the reaction was: “Holy crap, is this really happening right now?”
“It was a world-class voice. Just to hear somebody come and sing that confidently at such a young age with such a rich tone, it was amazing,” said Moi, the Nickelback-turned-country producer who produced both of Wallen’s albums. “He has something you can’t really train a singer to do: He has the ability to emote a lyric properly. . . . He can always just lock right in on the emotion of the song and deliver it perfectly.”
Wallen ticked off the boxes on his way to country stardom: He released a debut single that established his small-town bona fides (“The Way I Talk,” a love letter to his Tennessee accent); chopped his hair into a mullet; cemented himself as a rising star with a big party song (“Up Down,” a collaboration with FGL); topped the charts with hits that also impressed critics (heartbreak anthem “Whiskey Glasses,” along with “Chasin’ You” and “More Than My Hometown”); became in-demand for Nashville’s top songwriters; and landed opening slots on all the right major tours.
“When I heard Morgan’s first single I was drawn to it immediately,” said country superstar Luke Bryan. Wallen is scheduled to open for Bryan on his summer 2021 tour (postponed from last year), and previously toured with him in 2018. “Watching him grow on all aspects of his artistry has been amazing to watch. He has one of the best voices I’ve heard in a while. And when you partner that with his level of songwriting, it brings a fresh new sound that people gravitate towards.”
Wallen’s streaming numbers also caught industry attention, as country is typically far behind other genres. The frenzy culminated last summer with the release of streaming behemoth “7 Summers,” a track about a long-lost ex that Wallen didn’t even initially plan to include on his album. But after he released a demo on Instagram, fans co-opted it as a TikTok meme (“I didn’t even know what TikTok was at first,” Wallen said, though he quickly grew to appreciate it) and the song broke records on Spotify and Apple Music.
In a way, the reaction was similar to another situation that broadened his appeal. In 2019, Wallen sang Americana star Jason Isbell’s devastating “Cover Me Up” in concert, and some Isbell purists were angry that he covered the intensely personal ballad. “It was a little bit unexpected for a lot of people I’m sure,” Wallen acknowledged. “I go from ‘Up Down’ to ‘Whiskey Glasses,’ songs like that, to ‘Cover Me Up.’ ”
When the anger died down (especially once Isbell gave the cover his blessing), it introduced Wallen to a new audience — and proved he could handle deep material. His version of “Cover Me Up,” which appears on “Dangerous,” is frequently requested by fans.
“They just really gravitate to these deeper topics,” said Moi, who added that Wallen is “one of the first artists we’ve had who has been able to do that in a mainstream way.”
A double album is unusual for a newer singer — “Dangerous” contains 30 songs, with 15 tracks on each side — but Wallen had the material, the demand and, thanks to quarantine, the time. While he belts out plenty of party songs, several cut deeper: One of the standout tracks, “Livin’ the Dream,” immediately sparked a reaction of, “Um, is Morgan okay?”
On the album, co-written with Hardy, Ben Burgess and Jacob Durrett, Wallen gets introspective about life in the spotlight: “Between alcohol and women and Adderall and adrenaline, I don’t ever get no rest, sign my life away to be the life of the party,” he sings. “Y’all, it ain’t as good as it seems — this livin’ the dream is killin’ me.”
Even the lyrics imply it’s easy to eye-roll at a famous person who complains about fame, but Wallen says the inspiration came from a genuine place. After playing a long stretch of shows, he was feeling exhausted, hung over and uneasy about his new role in the spotlight. Hardy, feeling similarly at the time, said the song “just sort of fell out” of them, and they didn’t hold back with candid lyrics.
“It can be a little weird coming from nothing and then people that don’t know you think you’re everything,” Wallen said. “There’s a lot of different things that come along with [fame] that you have to adjust to . . . and with some of the things that’s went on since we wrote the song, it’s become even more honest, more to me than it did even when we wrote it.”
He wrote the song about 18 months before the SNL incident in October, when he was uninvited after viral videos on TikTok showed him partying maskless with students at the University of Alabama after a football game, taking shots in a bar and kissing multiple women. As he made headlines worldwide for violating the comedy sketch show’s covid protocols, some on social media ripped into him for exhibiting such behavior not only during the pandemic, but as a new father; his ex-girlfriend gave birth to their baby only a few months prior.
Wallen filmed an apology video, and it was clear his fans were undeterred by the controversy. In December, Wallen was invited back to SNL, where he not only performed “7 Summers” and “Still Goin’ Down” from his new album, but also appeared in a sketch in which he played himself during that fateful night in Alabama. “To no consequences!” Wallen yelled, raising his beer, before guest host Jason Bateman and cast member Bowen Yang appeared as future ghosts of Wallen and warned him about his actions.
Appearing in a comedy sketch that jokes about a pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 people was a tough line to walk. But Wallen said he thought the writers handled it well and was glad when they pitched him the idea. “A lot of the people who watch SNL, that was their only experience with me,” he said. “So I wanted them to see a more human aspect of me, and not just that I’m some idiot doing things that they don’t agree with.”
By “don’t agree with,” he clarified, he means he knows he wasn’t wearing a mask at the time, but added he was following the rules he was given: “I wasn’t doing anything illegal . . . where I was at, they weren’t required. So I didn’t feel like I was doing anything malicious because it’s not like I was the only guy in there with no mask,” he said. “I didn’t mean any harm, and I think SNL knew that and everyone else knew that, too.”
Around the same time, Wallen also saw some backlash when he was one of multiple country singers who posted photos of the celebrations outside the White House when Joe Biden won the presidential election. “Time to start booking shows,” Wallen wrote on his Instagram stories, adding, “The hypocrisy is unreal.” Wallen says now he wasn’t making a political statement, but was frustrated in general over lockdowns, which have brought concert tours to a halt. “I don’t know that I was completely educated in making all of those statements,” he said.
It’s still challenging for Wallen to balance being his candid self with the realization that more people than ever are watching, and what he says will matter. He frequently thinks about his small-town upbringing, a theme that makes up the second half of “Dangerous.”
“A lot of people get too caught up in trying to be Hollywood . . . like that’s the epitome of success or something. That’s just not how I view it,” he said. “Just hard work and treating people good is something to hang your hat on. I don’t want those values to get lost.”
Plus, these ideas are certain to resonate with his fan base. Many of his listeners are from the kinds of places where he grew up, and when Wallen sings about how “beer don’t taste half as good in the city” (“Beer Don’t”); “my soul’s a little dirty ’cause my boots are too clean” (“Rednecks, Red Letters, Red Dirt”); and “once you love a cowboy you’ll never be the same” (“Neon Eyes”), they get it.
“I can remember when we made records, and your goal and the mind-set was to create some kind of idol,” said Moi, his producer. “Now, the audience isn’t into that as much anymore and they’re more into the authentic side. And Morgan is just naturally that . . . he is who he is and they just love it.”