5 Key Moments in Morgan Wallen’s Rise to Stardom

There are many parallels between the young career of Morgan Wallen and the more established ups and downs of Johnny Cash. The Man in Black was famously banned from the Grand Ole Opry after he had a meltdown onstage, smashing the footlights with a microphone stand. The Opry informed the singer that he was no longer welcome, and Cash went on a bender, ending up in the hospital with a broken nose.

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Drug abuse and public intoxication led to seven arrests for Cash. One still can’t help wondering what other scandals would have arisen if cell phone cameras were present during Cash’s wild days. Wallen has caused self-inflicted harm to his career at several turns, but his albums continue to sell. In some cases, the controversy seems only to fuel the sales. Here are five key moments in Wallen’s rise to stardom, from The Voice to—barely—Saturday Night Live

1. The Voice

Wallen sang the pop song “Collide” by Howie Day for his audition for 2014’s season six of The Voice. The producers pushed him to choose a pop song, but the singer wanted to perform a country song. Wallen was selected by Usher but was eventually stolen by Adam Levine. In episode eight, he defeated Brothers Walker in a head-to-head battle performing the Avicii song “Hey Brother.” In episode 14, Wallen was defeated by Stevie Jo on the One Direction song “Story of My Life.” On episode 17, Wallen performed the Black Stone Cherry song “Stay.”

After being eliminated, he performed Kenny Chesney’s “Summertime” and the Daryl Hall and John Oates song “She’s Gone” with other contestants. During his time in California, Wallen worked with vocal coach Sergio Sanchez of the band Atom Smash. Wallen was introduced to Bill Ray and Paul Trust, who signed the singer to a label deal. Panacea Records soon released a Wallen EP, Stand Alone.  

2. Major Label Record Deal

In 2015, Wallen’s manager, Dirk Hemsath, connected the singer with Big Loud Records’ Seth England. Wallen was given an audition with England’s business partners, who were impressed enough to offer him a new record deal. He was also offered a publishing deal, which led to Wallen’s songs being recorded by other artists. A Thousand Horses released “Preachin’ to the Choir,” Dallas Smith recorded “The Fall,” and Jason Aldean released “You Make It Easy.”

At this time, Wallen adjusted his image. He changed his hairstyle and modeled it after the mullet he’d seen his father sporting in an old photo. His Big Loud Records debut album, If I Know Me, was released in 2018. “Whiskey Glasses” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. His album went to No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. His next three singles were certified at least 4x Platinum by the RIAA. Time magazine chose “7 Summers” as one of the year’s best songs. 

3. 2020 CMA New Artist of the Year

Wallen has been nominated for many awards. The video for “Whiskey Glasses” was nominated for Breakthrough Video of the Year and Wallen was nominated for New Artist of the Year at the 2019 CMT Music Awards. He was nominated for New Artist of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards, as well.

In 2020, he was nominated along with Jimmie Allen, Ingrid Andrews, Gabby Barrett, and Carly Pearce for New Artist of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards. Wallen won. He’s gone on to be nominated multiple times at the American Music Awards, the Billboard Music Awards, the iHeart Radio Awards, and the Country Now Awards. The critical recognition led to opening slots on tours for Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and Luke Combs.

4. Dropped from Saturday Night Live

In October 2020, Wallen was scheduled to be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Several days before the appearance, he was filmed maskless, drinking, and kissing multiple women in public during a time when he was supposed to be social distancing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lorne Michaels announced that Jack White would replace Wallen as musical guest that week. Wallen issued a video apology, and on December 5, 2020, Wallen appeared on the episode hosted by Jason Bateman. During the show, Wallen and Bateman poked fun at the situation in a sketch on the show. Bateman, dressed as Wallen, shows up at the bar as “Wallen from the future” to warn the singer not to stay at the bar. Record sales surged again.

5. Racial Slur and Redemption

On February 2, 2021, a video was released by TMZ from January 31 where Wallen is shown using the N-word. Radio stations temporarily removed Wallen’s tunes. His music was removed from playlists on Apple Music, Spotify, and Pandora. CMT removed him from their platform. Wallen issued a statement and made another public apology. His record label, Big Loud, suspended its recording contract indefinitely. On February 10, Wallen released a followup video with an apology that asked his fans not to defend him.

On July 23, Wallen appeared on Good Morning America. He shared that he checked into rehab in California and apologized again for using the term. In the wake of the scandal, sales of his newly-released album Dangerous spiked and showed increases of over 100%. He donated $300,000 to the Black Music Action Coalition. He was nominated for Favorite Male Artist and Favorite Country Album at the 2021 American Music Awards, but was not invited to attend. Wallen eventually rebounded, though—his subsequent headlining tours, The Dangerous Tour in 2022 and the One Night at a Time World Tour in 2023, were wildly successful.

Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images

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