Morgan Wallen Is Primed To Become Country’s Biggest Crossover Star In Years

John Shearer

Morgan Wallen Is Primed To Become Country’s Biggest Crossover Star In Years

John Shearer

The first big album of 2021 is really more like gigantic. Dangerous: The Double Album comes from Morgan Wallen, the mullet-rocking East Tennessee troublemaker who looks like country’s next legit crossover star. Walmart is historically a good place to pick up all your favorite country albums, but at 30 tracks spanning an hour and 37 minutes, Dangerous should be stocked at Sam’s Club. It’s longer than some movies, and judging from Wallen’s rapidly rising profile both inside and outside country music circles, this one looks likely to be a blockbuster. It merits that kind of attention, too. Self-destructive partying put Wallen on a lot more people’s radar, but his music ought to hold their attention.

Wallen is a preacher’s son from Sneedville, a Tennessee town with a population of about 1,400. “I got a red neck, yes I do,” he proclaims on “Somethin’ Country” — not to be confused with other Dangerous tracks like “Country A$$ Shit” and “Rednecks, Red Letters, Red Dirt.” Wallen wears a mullet because he saw an old photo of his dad’s hair like that and figured it could work for him too. It has. The hairdo and cutoff flannel T-shirts have become a distinctive visual signature; he looks like he signed to Curb Records in 1993, and so do the thousands of fans who’ve opted to mimic his fashion sense.

But if Wallen’s look is old-fashioned, his sound is thoroughly, sometimes maddeningly current. His songs present a now-standard blend of country, Southern rock, and M.O.R. arena rock with occasional tinge of hip-hop — check that trap beat on “Wasted On You,” one of an abundance of Dangerous songs on which alcohol and romantic foibles intersect. He sings these songs with a surplus of roguish charisma. In a whiskey-scorched drawl a few weight classes below Chris Stapleton but no less punchy, Wallen tends to hammer home familiar Nashville talking points about down-home living: the trucks, the fishing, the pretty girls, the tight-knit communities, the cheap beer, the homemade liquor.

Wallen has been known to partake of those benefits liberally. Last May, just after his 27th birthday, he was arrested for public intoxication outside Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk Rock N’ Roll Steakhouse in Nashville, an incident that inspired the new album’s title track. Two months later, his ex-fiancée gave birth to their first child. A couple months after that, he attended a University of Alabama football game in Tuscaloosa and spent the rest of the night drinking and making out with students on campus, nary a mask in sight. This was a flagrant violation of Saturday Night Live‘s COVID-19 protocols, and it temporarily cost him his gig as the show’s musical guest. SNL ultimately welcomed him back two months later and made light of the ordeal in a sketch in which the future Wallen (played by host Jason Bateman) travels back in time to warn him of the impending imbroglio, only to join in on the partying.

So Wallen is content to sing about the usual tropes and live up to good ol’ boy stereotypes, but he’s not exactly a full-blown traditionalist. His ceiling for superstardom feels higher, his instinct savvier. Consider: Acts like Wallen’s former tourmate and fellow breakout star Luke Combs tend to familiarize fans with new songs by working them into live sets for months before recording them, but thanks to the pandemic that’s not an option right now. Instead, Wallen became one of the genre’s first artists to take a page from Lil Nas X and promote his unreleased music via TikTok, which led to “7 Summers” debuting in the Billboard top 10 last August, a rarity for a country track. The song’s a beaut — a languid, nostalgic reverie that drifts by with the easygoing grace of a passing current. “Back then you used to love the river and sippin’ on a sixer with me,” Wallen sings bittersweetly. “Does it ever make you sad to know that was seven summers ago?”

On “Still Goin Down” — as in, with casual defiance, “It’s still goin’ down out in the country” — Wallen calls himself and his people “a little more podunk than pop.” But he has proven willing to adapt when it suits him, and he’s adept at reaching an audience beyond the country music bubble. “Heartless,” his contribution to Diplo’s country album, was by far the project’s biggest hit. It says a lot that SNL, nobody’s idea of a country music haven, was so eager to have him on the show. Wallen’s profile should only continue to expand now that he’s acquired some promo support from Republic Records, the Universal imprint whose roster includes most of today’s biggest pop stars — Taylor Swift, Drake, Post Malone, the Weeknd, and Ariana Grande among them — and he’s done it without directly catering to pop audiences.

This is a scope of celebrity promised but rarely delivered by TV singing contests like The Voice, where Wallen got his first major spotlight in 2014. “It really helped me figure out what I wanted to be, and more importantly what I didn’t want to be,” he recently told GQ. Within a couple years he worked his way up from tiny Panacea Records to Big Loud, the label that launched Florida Georgia Line, and began slowly but steadily blowing up. Debut single “The Way I Talk” was a strictly minor success, but the following year Wallen topped the country radio airplay chart and cracked the Hot 100 by teaming with Florida Georgia Line on “Up Down,” a slow-motion romp about the virtues of parking-lot parties and such. He soon became a mainstay on both charts via hits like “Whiskey Glasses” and “Chasin’ You,” and he kept on scoring hits after moving beyond his 2018 debut album If I Know Me. He was in perfect position to release an album and tour his heart out in 2020 had a pandemic not been raging. Instead, between all the wild living and occasional TV appearances, Wallen kept writing. And writing. And writing.

Wallen could have called the resulting project a triple album if he wanted to, but however you categorize it, loading up your sophomore release with a 30-song tracklist is a flex. That kind of bloat also sets up Wallen, one of country music’s few streaming success stories, for gargantuan first-week numbers when Dangerous inevitably debuts at #1 next week. He’s learned a few things from his peers at Republic Records. Now, would this album benefit from some trimming? Absolutely. About two thirds of the way through, it becomes an endurance test, particularly with all the thematic repetition. He could lop off half of these songs and have a bonafide classic of commercial-friendly country on his hands. Instead, like Wallen’s mullet, Dangerous just keeps on flowing, for better or worse.

The good news is that in Wallen’s hands, so many swings equates to an impressive number of hits. Wallen works squarely within the boundaries of mainstream Nashville, collaborating with the usual assortment of pro songwriters to manufacture the kind of arch, loosely punny tableaus that have ruled the airwaves for years. The restrictiveness of the form is rightly bemoaned, but writing within it can be a rewarding puzzle. It may not be as hard as genuine innovation, but it takes skill to rearrange the same old ingredients into something with personality and emotional power. On Dangerous, Wallen pulls it off often. He’s good enough at injecting his music with smirking swagger or deep pathos that a cover of Jason Isbell’s powerhouse ballad “Cover Me Up” doesn’t feel terribly out of place here. And any album that can put together a four-song stretch like “Cover Me Up” into “7 Summers” into “More Than My Hometown” into “Still Goin Down” is doing something right.

As per the demands of the genre, Wallen’s best songs are short stories that give you just enough details to let your imagination — or your personal experience — fill in the rest of the plot. One fine example is “More Than My Hometown,” the album’s lead single. “Girl, our mamas are best friends and so are we,” he begins. “The whole town’s rooting for us like the home team.” When the chorus hits, he explains that he loves this girl more than, among other things, “a California sunset,” “a beer when you ain’t twenty-one yet,” “the feeling when the bass hits the hook,” and “when the guy gets the girl at the end of the book.” Then comes the kicker: “But, baby, this might be the last time I get to lay you down/ ‘Cause I can’t love you more than my hometown.” It’s the best kind of boilerplate.

Album opener “Sand In My Boots,” a story about a headspun flirtation on the waterfront, is even better. The music is a wistful mirage befitting the subject matter, the kind of twangy power ballad that could have dominated the airwaves any time the past two or three decades. “She left her flip-flops by my Red Wings on the beach,” we’re told. Plans to shoot tequila are altered when she inquires, “Don’t cowboys drink whiskey?” (Wallen’s chuckle half a beat after this lyric is one of many stellar line-readings on the album.) They toy with the idea of driving to East Tennessee to the stars, but Wallen ends up heartbroken and alone in his truck, speeding down backroads toward home: “All I brought back with me was some sand in my boots.”

He could do this all day, and by the time Dangerous is over, it feels like he has. The album is a massive leap from his debut. It’s also exhausting, just begging to be pared down to a playlist of your favorites. But if the tracklist feels excessive, it also doesn’t have a lot of weak spots, and it sets Wallen up with more than enough material to play two-night stands at arenas around the world whenever live music returns in full force. Assuming he can keep his personal life from unraveling, the guy seems capable of becoming Garth Brooks for a new generation. Yeah, the album may be long, but just wait until you see Morgan Wallen’s career.

CHART WATCH

We’re well into the usual post-Christmas chart lull. 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood” is #1 on the Hot 100 for an eighth nonconsecutive week, followed by Ariana Grande’s “Positions” and the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights.” Justin Bieber and Chance The Rapper’s “Holy” is back up to #4, while Chris Brown and Young Thug’s “Go Crazy” reaches a new #5 peak.

Bieber has a second track in the top 10 as “Anyone” debuts at #6, becoming his 22nd top-10 hit. Dua Lipa and DaBaby’s “Levitating” is up to a new #7 peak, followed by Drake and Lil Durk’s “Laugh Now, Cry Later” at #8. AJR have their first career top-10 hit as “Bang!” climbs to #9, and Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” rounds out the top 10.

Things are extremely slow on the Billboard 200 albums chart. No new debuts are logged this week, and Taylor Swift’s evermore climbs back to #1 for a third week. The rest of the top 10: Lil Durk, Pop Smoke, Ariana Grande, Playboi Carti, Megan Thee Stallion, Luke Combs, Bad Bunny, Juice WRLD, and Lil Baby.

POP FIVE

Olivia Rodrigo – “Driver’s License”
We’ve officially reached the point when Disney Channel stars pivoting to music careers are ripping off Phoebe Bridgers. This song, by the star of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, is projected to debut at #1 next week. Wild times.

Zayn – “Vibez”
Zayn was lost in adult contemporary world for a minute there, but this has me intriguing to hear the rest of his album.

Mod Sun – “Flames” (Feat. Avril Lavigne)
Avril had me there for a sec, but then Mod Sun came swinging in and rendered this unlistenable.

Zara Larsson – “Talk About Love” (Feat. Young Thug)
I get that Young Thug has made significant headway at Top 40 radio, but nobody needed this.

Florida Georgia Line – “New Truck”
The Elon Musk namedrop sent me.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Justin Bieber refuted a New York Post story that he’s studying to be a minister, and said that Hillsong is not his church. [Twitter]
  • Eminem apologized to Rihanna for rapping on an old leaked verse that he sided with Chris Brown, and says he doesn’t even remember recording it. [People]
  • Miley Cyrus teased a cover of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” featuring Elton John, Chad Smith, and Yo-Yo Ma. [Capital FM]
  • Drake reportedly filmed a music video in the Bahamas with Meek Mill and Lil Baby. [Page Six]
  • Here’s the Weeknd’s Pepsi Super Bowl halftime commercial. [YouTube]
  • Saweetie will make her acting debut on Grown-ish later this month. [EW]
  • Saweetie and Doja Cat released a video for “Best Friend.” [YouTube]
  • And perhaps relatedly, fans are speculating that Doja Cat is teasing a project called Planet Her featuring Saweetie, Ariana Grande, Young Thug, SZA, the Weekend, A$AP Ferg, French Montana, and Megan Thee Stallion. [Twitter]
  • Luke Combs discussed his anxiety and OCD on Dan Rather’s Big Interview. [YouTube]
  • BTS covered X Ambassadors in an Indonesian Coca-Cola commercial. [Twitter]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

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