Jason Isbell, Yola and the Black Opry Denounce Morgan Wallen’s Return to the Grand Ole Opry Stage
Artists and members of the Black country music community are voicing their disappointment in the Grand Ole Opry after Morgan Wallen, just shy of a year after his racist slur scandal, made an unannounced stop on the legendary stage as part of up-and-comer Ernest's debut.
The performance in question happened on Saturday (Jan. 8), with Wallen and Ernest performing their newly-released duet, "Flower Shops."
Jason Isbell was among those who spoke up. "Last night [Grand Ole Opry] you had a choice — either upset one guy and his 'team,' or break the hearts of a legion of Black country artists," Isbell tweeted.
"You chose wrong and I'm real sad for a lot of my friends today," he continues. "Not surprised though. Just sad."
Singer-songwriter Joy Oladokun, who had a breakout year in 2021 with her major-label studio debut, In Defense of My Own Happiness, also weighed in. "Morgan Wallen's thoughtless redemption tour is the nail in the coffin of me realizing these systems, and this town, is really not for us," she writes. "Imma keep making my lil music in my attic, y'all can listen if you want. I don't know that I'll do this work forever."
Rissi Palmer, an artist who played the Grand Ole Opry for the first time in 13 years last March, also denounced the Opry's choice to welcome Wallen back through a series of tweets. Her radio show, Color Me Country, spotlights the stories of Black, Indigenous and Latinx country performers.
Others who voiced their dissent for Wallen's inclusion include Adia Victoria, Brandi Carlile, Chely Wright, Allison Russell, Yola and more artists.
At the forefront of the pushback against the Grand Ole Opry was the Black Opry and its creator, Holly G (Editor's note: Holly G is a contributor to Taste of Country and The Boot). The Black Opry — a collective of Black country music artists and fans — published a letter to the Grand Ole Opry in a tweet, saying, "We may not get the answers we want, but we will be heard."
The letter references a meeting that took place between the Grand Ole Opry and the Black Opry prior to Wallen's Saturday night appearance and indicates that the Opry had expressed interest in creating a safer and more diverse stage.
Given that, "I am extremely confused by the welcoming of Morgan Wallen to the stage ... You were very clear about the fact that some people do not deserve a spot on that stage, which lets me know that each guest is intentional and thought through," writes Holly G. "That being the case, how was this deemed okay?"
She also notes that Wallen's return to the Opry came just one day after the Opry held its 55th anniversary celebration of Charley Pride's 1967 debut on the stage. Pride was the first Black singer to perform on the hallowed stage, and the second Black musician to do so (the first being harmonica player DeFord Bailey, who played at the Opry between 1927 and 1941). Pride is one of only two Black Grand Ole Opry members, the other being Darius Rucker, who was inducted in 2012.
Cassadee Pope subsequently voiced her support for the Black Opry, announcing that she'll donate all her Cameo proceeds from this week to the organization.
Saturday night was Wallen's first time playing the Opry since video footage emerged of him yelling a racist slur in February 2021. In the wake of that incident, he was removed from many country radio playlists, disqualified from major awards shows and had his record contract put on "indefinite hiatus" by his label. The singer pulled out of the spotlight at that time, asking the fans rushing to his defense to stand down and saying he'd accept the consequences of his actions.
Wallen's mainstream country peers have spoken out both for and against the star in the aftermath of his scandal. In March, Jason Aldean said that he hoped the singer would return "sooner rather than later," while Eric Church said that Wallen's actions were "indefensible," but that he hoped the younger star would work on himself and eventually return to the spotlight. Jimmie Allen emphasized the power of forgiveness, while Mickey Guyton spoke to how the incident revealed the institutionalized racism running deep within the genre as a whole.
In recent days, Guyton — whose songs, including "Black Like Me" and "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?," speak to her experience with racism in the music industry and as a Black woman in general — has continued to field racist comments across social media. Earlier this month, the singer shared a tweet she'd received that reads, in part, "We don't want your kind in country music! All you people talk about is your god damn race and skin color!"
"Started off 2022 with a good ole batch of racism," Guyton notes in sharing the message she received. "I show you this so you guys continue the fight for equality and love and acceptance."
Many of those to speak out against Wallen's weekend Opry appearance expressed frustration at the wave of support for Wallen from his fervent fanbase, as well as a negative social media uproar in response to their own comments. Still, many also offered hope that the group of people advocating for "equality and love and acceptance" in the music industry is growing.
"I'm trying to respond to everyone asking if I am ok and y'all I have never been better," Holly G tweeted on Jan. 10. "I never would've dreamed I'd have this many people on my side. Let's burn it down."
"One thing that makes me chuckle is that decision makers in country music are counting on Black artists being polite, dignified and scarce," adds singer-songwriter Lizzie No. "But whoops there's a lot of us now! And we all have Twitter!"