These days, when you’re Morgan Wallen, things tend to go your way. Albums set records before they’re even released. Your throwback, semi-scuzzy Southern style – mullet and cutoff flannel tee – is instantly adopted by your fans. Even national controversy ends with a laugh and a wink. Take for example, how last fall the 27-year-old country star was uninvited from Saturday Night Live after getting caught on camera violating the show’s COVID-19 protocols — partying on a college campus sans mask, sucking face with multiple women. Wallen, as he told radio personality Bobby Bones, unplugged for two weeks, using the time to contemplate his new fame and the type of example he wants to set for his young son. By early-December, he was welcomed back to SNL by Lorne Michaels. Wallen even appeared in a sketch with host Jason Bateman roasting his own fuck-up. His breezy new song, “7 Summers,” caught fire on TikTok, a rarity in the country genre. The singer’s anticipated new double album, Dangerous, is due on January 8, and is already breaking presale records. “It’s such a weird time,” admits Wallen, “Life flies at you fast, but at the same time there’s moments it explodes.”
He’s in the midst of an explosion right now: in a few short years, the East Tennessee-bred musician has gone from mowing lawns for a living to being widely heralded as country music’s new stud. He’s got the vocal chops to back up the hype: like fellow country superstar-of-the-moment Luke Combs, who brought him out on tour, or Chris Stapleton, whom he duets with on Dangerous, Wallen is that rare country artist with the range to pull off arena rock, easy-vibes Americana, and traditional country ballads. Speaking via Zoom from Nashville, Wallen insists that despite notching four consecutive Number One singles, he forever remains the same small-town-reared, self-described redneck, who hasn’t forgotten his roots in the roughly 1400-population town of Sneedville where generations of Wallens lived before him. It’s beautiful,with the Clinch river running through it and mountains all on sides. “But there really only was a Hardees, a Subway and a Pizza Plus,” he says. “That’s about it.”
Suffice to say, his new life looks a bit different: Wallen is now rubbing shoulders with some of music’s biggest names, including Diplo, who enlisted the country singer for the triple-platinum “Heartless,” easily the biggest hit off the producer’s wacky but kind of genius 2020 country album, Diplo Presents Thomas Wesley, Chapter 1: Snake Oil. Diplo remembers meeting Wallen backstage on the LA stop of Combs’ tour. “I remember him saying, ‘I was never a country singer, I’m just a redneck,’” Diplo says of Wallen. “But he happens to have a killer voice.”
The son of a preacher, Wallen was raised on gospel –“Old Rugged Cross, “Amazing Grace”—but by five was already so enamored with bluegrass music he took up violin. Nowadays, Wallen cites everything from Nickelback to Lil Wayne as influences. “I don’t like all of everything but there’s certain things I like from every genre,” he says.
By his late teens he’d started writing songs he liked barely enough to show his family and friends. In short order, his mom told him he just had to audition for “The Voice,” and even though he’d never performed outside church, Wallen landed a spot on the show. Despite misgivings, he sang largely pop music – “people in LA seemed larger than life at the time so I did what they told me,” he recalls. Ironically, when Wallen finally got to choose his own music – naturally, a country song – he was promptly sent packing.