Wallen has become a singer, a character, and, to the surprise of many Nashville professionals, an online sex symbol.
Photograph by Kristine Potter for The New Yorker
Nearly seven years ago, a shaggy singer with a shy smile introduced himself to America. “My name is Morgan Wallen, I’m twenty years old, I’m from Knoxville, Tennessee, and I’m currently a landscaper,” he said. He was standing on a stage in Los Angeles, competing for a spot on “The Voice,” one of those reality shows in which established stars offer aspiring ones a chance to discover, first hand, just how heartbreaking the music industry can be. He was wearing a tie and a cardigan, with shoulder-length hair and most of a beard, and he explained that his promising baseball career had been ended, during his senior year in high school, by a debilitating injury to his ulnar collateral ligament. “I’m just a normal small-town kid, and I really don’t have a clue how to get into music—other than this,” he said.
Wallen had never been on an airplane until he flew to L.A. for the taping, and he was unsure what kind of singer he wanted to be. He auditioned with a husky version of “Collide,” an earnest ballad from the two-thousands, which impressed Shakira, one of the celebrity judges. “Your voice is unique—it has this raspy tone, gritty sound to it,” she said. “It’s as manly as it gets.” Even so, Wallen was eliminated a month later, and he returned to Tennessee with a slightly higher profile, a few industry connections, and a newfound awareness that he had what many Californians considered a thick Southern accent. “They’d be, like, Where are you from?” he recalls. He began thinking about that question, too.
These days, Wallen is a country-music star. His signature hit, “Whiskey Glasses,” is a perfectly constructed ode to a woman and a drink, lost and found, respectively: “I’m a need some whiskey glasses / ’Cause I don’t wanna see the truth.” According to Billboard, it was the top country-radio song of 2019. The music video depicts a fictionalized version of the makeover that Wallen underwent after “The Voice.” He rips off the sleeves of a plaid flannel shirt and shaves the sides of his long hair, transforming himself into an Everyman rock star: Bruce Springsteen meets Larry the Cable Guy, crowned with a glorious mullet. Through this process, Wallen became not just a singer but a character—and, in a development that seems to have surprised many Nashville professionals, a sex symbol, beloved by an army of fans who appear to be disproportionately female and thirsty. An innocuous photograph of him leaning against a truck recently drew nearly half a million likes on Instagram, and almost ten thousand comments, including a prayerful declaration from a young mother in South Carolina: “Lord have mercy im bout to bust.”
Wallen was alarmed when the live-music industry shut down in March, but 2020 has turned out to be the best year of his career. A new single helped him maintain his radio ubiquity, and his homebound fans made him a TikTok favorite, reacting to snippets of songs and recording their own versions. Some non-country listeners first heard about Wallen in the beginning of October, when “Saturday Night Live” announced that he would be the musical guest on an upcoming episode. Many more of them heard about him a few days later, when the show announced that Wallen’s appearance had been cancelled because of video footage that was circulating, on TikTok (naturally), showing him at an Alabama bar the previous weekend, sharing kisses—and, for all anyone knew, virions—with at least two different women. Wallen acknowledged his mistake in a downbeat but charming two-minute video, apologizing for what he called “short-sighted” behavior and signalling a temporary withdrawal from the spotlight. “It may be a second before you hear from me, for a while,” he said.
He wasn’t gone long. In early December, Wallen made it to “S.N.L.,” performing a couple of songs and starring in a sketch in which he reënacted his fateful trip to that Alabama bar and begged forgiveness, singing, “I thank you in advance / For giving this poor Southern boy a second Yankee chance.” On Twitter, viewers debated his hair, his hygiene, and his general persona. “Go to any Circle K in Indiana and you’ll find yourself a Morgan Wallen,” one user wrote. But it is not clear that Wallen would consider this an insult. On January 8th, he will release “Dangerous: The Double Album” (Big Loud), which takes pains to reassure listeners that he is still a small-town guy, albeit one with a marvellously grainy voice and a knack for singing clever songs that are sometimes wistful, sometimes rowdy, and almost always boozy—in this way, at least, he is a country traditionalist. One of the advantages of his sleeveless-shirt image is that it provides him occasional opportunities to upend listeners’ expectations. “Ain’t it strange the things you keep tucked in your heart,” he murmurs, near the end of one song. And this unexpectedly philosophical flourish helps draw out the double meaning in the next line, which suggests personal growth while also recapitulating the excuse that he must have offered to “Saturday Night Live” executives, not long ago: “I found myself in this bar.”
Wallen grew up in Sneedville, Tennessee, an isolated town in a valley near the Virginia border, where his father was for a time the pastor of the local Southern Baptist church. Wallen took classical-violin lessons as a boy, but by the time his family settled in Knoxville, when he was in high school, he was listening to unpretentious radio-friendly rock bands like Breaking Benjamin and Nickelback. In Wallen’s account, his embrace of country music was less a stylistic choice than a cultural imperative. “It may not have been the biggest influence in my life, as far as musically,” he says. “But once I started writing songs, it just sounded country. And I was, like, well, I guess I’ll sing country music, because this is the life I know.”
After “The Voice,” Wallen moved to Nashville, where he found a like-minded producer: Joey Moi, known for his work with Nickelback, who had reinvented himself as a country hitmaker. Wallen was streamlining his singing style, excising bluesy flourishes to arrive at a mellow but muscular country-rock hybrid. “He had no idea how good he was,” Moi recalls. Wallen’s first album, “If I Know Me,” from 2018, started with a likable lead single, “The Way I Talk,” which stalled at No. 30 on the country-radio chart—an ominous sign for a new singer. But then came a trio of No. 1 country hits, helped by a collaboration with another Moi client, the country duo Florida Georgia Line, and by that haircut, a staple of nineties country fashion that had come to seem stylishly retro. (One of the most famous mullets belonged to Billy Ray Cyrus, whose daughter Miley has lately contributed to their revival.) “If I Know Me” reached No. 1 on the Billboard country-album chart in August, more than two years after it was released. By then, Wallen had a new song heading up the country charts, “More Than My Hometown,” an anthem of civic pride that is also, inevitably, a love story. He underenunciates, using his drawl to make the wordy verses sound casual: “I ain’t the runaway kind, I can’t change that / My heart’s stuck in these streets, like the train tracks / City sky ain’t the same black.” And in the chorus he makes his choice, declaring, over classic-rock guitar, “I guess I’ll see you around / ’Cause I can’t love you more than my hometown.”
Wallen made his first album in a rush, squeezing recording sessions into a ten-day window between gigs. This year, like many people, he found himself with more free time, and that explains why “Dangerous” contains thirty songs. For tradition’s sake, the album is split into two “sides,” the first of which is gentler and better, starting with a lovesick Tennessee boy in a “sunburnt Silverado,” reminiscing about a beachside fling. Near the end comes “More Than My Hometown,” as well as “7 Summers,” which fans first heard in April, when Wallen uploaded part of a demo to Instagram. “7 Summers” uses a pair of major-seventh chords to evoke the breezy sound of Fleetwood Mac and the bittersweet memory of an old flame. “We thought we were cutting this deep cut,” Moi says. But Wallen’s fans grew obsessed, posting and reposting the snippet and begging him to release the final version. When he eventually did, a few months later, they pushed it to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, thereby making reality-television history. “The Voice” recently concluded its nineteenth season, and Wallen is the only contestant ever to score a Top 10 hit.
On the second half of “Dangerous,” Wallen reminds listeners who he is and where he’s from. This is something that mainstream country singers are obliged to do, especially the men, who are expected to inject new life into familiar lines about pickup trucks and women in cutoff jeans. Not all of Wallen’s efforts in this regard are up to his usual standards, especially during a four-song stretch that includes “Somethin’ Country” and “Country A$$ Shit” and “Whatcha Think of Country Now.” (It would not be a surprise to learn that one or more of these compositions began with a songwriter losing a bet.) But more often he establishes his bona fides with a wink, as in “Blame It on Me,” a mock apology to a woman who “goes country” for him, and has a hard time going back. Perhaps it is no coincidence that “Blame It on Me,” with its evocation of cultural authenticity, is actually a musical hybrid: a tidy pop song, partly propelled by a drum machine. Since the twenty-tens, country singers have grown increasingly adept at borrowing from contemporary hip-hop and R. & B., and Wallen sometimes sings with a rapper’s sense of rhythm, even as he defines himself against urban sounds and urban life. “Beer don’t taste half as good in the city,” he sings. “Beer don’t buzz with that hip-hop, cuz / But it damn sure does with a little Nitty Gritty.” Although he is wrong about beer, he is surely right that many of his listeners like to think of him as one of their own—loyal to a country community that harbors, even now, mixed feelings about the cultural dominance of hip-hop.
When Wallen found out that “Saturday Night Live” had rescinded its initial invitation, in October, he was sitting in a hotel room in midtown Manhattan, getting ready for rehearsal. As he processed the news, a member of his management team ordered him a steak dinner from a nearby restaurant, which he ate in his room before flying back to Tennessee. This month, when he returned to New York for his second chance, he sounded excited to be on the show, though he didn’t pretend to be a regular viewer. “I think this is a huge opportunity for me to hopefully give ’em a good first impression,” he said, from a different room in the same Manhattan hotel. This time, he promised not to do anything to violate quarantine protocol. (TMZ cameras spotted him on his way to the set—dressed, counterproductively, in a camouflage sweatshirt.) Although his appearance went smoothly, it also illustrated how wide a gap remains between the media mainstream and the country mainstream. During Wallen’s sketch, he bantered cheerfully with Jason Bateman, the host, and Bowen Yang, a cast member, who played versions of Wallen from the future, sent back in time to stop him from partying away his big chance at stardom; both actors did notably inexact impressions of his accent. But during his final performance Wallen seemed defiant, as if he weren’t sure that he liked being the butt of all these New York jokes. “Call it cliché, but hey, just take it from me / It’s still goin’ down out in the country,” he sneered, using hip-hop slang to convey a sentiment as old as country music itself.
In March, not long after the lockdown began, a woman named Priscilla Block appeared on TikTok, brandishing a glass of wine and singing an updated version of “Whiskey Glasses.” Instead of “I just wanna sip ’til the pain wears off,” Block sang, “I just wanna sip until the quarantine’s done.” Both her voice and her timing were impressive, and her cover was played millions of times. Block was twenty-four, and had been living in Nashville, performing in local bars for tip money. With the bars closed, she dedicated herself to TikTok, often posting multiple videos in a day: she wielded a makeup brush like a microphone, recorded sing-alongs from her car, and posted pleas for Wallen to release more music. (She wants it known that she was a fan even before his makeover, not that she objected to it. “The mullet just made it better, honey,” she says. “I love the mullet.”) Soon Block began sharing snippets of her own work: first a couple of playful songs, “P.M.S.” and “Thick Thighs,” and then, this summer, “Just About Over You,” a well-crafted lament that propelled her out of the TikTok underground and into the country mainstream. She signed a major-label deal in September.
During this year’s lockdown, TikTok has emerged as a new way for country singers to get noticed, much the way TV singing competitions did a couple of decades before. FM radio, not television or social media, still defines the country mainstream, but sometimes it scrambles to keep pace. “7 Summers” was, fittingly, a summer hit on the Hot 100, which includes data from streaming services. But it is only now starting to ascend the country airplay chart. “Dangerous,” with its thirty songs, seems designed to keep radio stations busy well into the post-pandemic era.
The album includes plenty of party songs—so many, in fact, that some of Wallen’s fans may worry about him. (In May, Wallen was arrested, but not prosecuted, for public intoxication and disorderly conduct after an incident at a Nashville bar owned by a local celebrity who turned out to be sympathetic: Kid Rock.) Wallen has said that he wants to change his habits for the sake of his son, who was born in July. And tucked near the end of the album’s first half is his version of “Cover Me Up,” by the celebrated singer-songwriter Jason Isbell. The lyrics tell the story of a man recuperating from a bender, or a lifetime of benders, surrendering to love and, maybe, sobriety; Isbell’s original is quavering and uncertain, as if he were still learning to believe what he sings. Wallen’s interpretation, which has been streamed nearly a hundred million times on Spotify, is brawnier and perhaps more suggestive. “Girl, leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leavin’ this room,” he sings, in a voice that justifies the enthusiasm of both Shakira and a certain mother in South Carolina. Wallen’s record company hasn’t decided whether to make it a single and try to persuade radio stations to play it. Isbell’s songs are not typically heard on country radio—but these days just about anything Wallen sings sounds like a potential country hit.