“I think the only way that we can really move forward is by deconstructing our view of what the genre is built on, and acknowledging the fact that at its roots is racism and cultural appropriation — and completely destroying that mentality going forward,” country star Maren Morris said Wednesday during a segment on “CBS This Morning.” “Morgan is a symptom of a much bigger disease of what our genre is right now.”
While plenty of contemporary country singers have stayed silent — following Nashville’s typical guidance to avoid controversial topics — others are stepping forward to discuss the elephant in the room. The CBS piece aired the same day Morris participated in a virtual Country Radio Seminar Q&A with Luke Combs, which was originally billed as a conversation about two top stars’ careers but was changed to focus on “accountability.”
Some of the spotlight in particular was on Combs, one of the genre’s biggest success stories in recent years who was just named to Time’s 100 “Next” list. Every so often, photos of Combs circulate on social media that show him with a Confederate flag sticker on his guitar, as well as a 2015 music video where the flag appears repeatedly. The pictures resurfaced again this month after Combs released a duet with Billy Strings called “The Great Divide” that urges unity.
“There is no excuse for those images,” Combs said when moderator and NPR pop music critic Ann Powers brought up the photos. “As a younger man, that was an image that I associated to mean something else. And as I’ve grown in my time as an artist, and as the world has changed drastically in the last five to seven years, I am now aware how painful that image can be to someone else.”
“I want people to feel welcomed by country music and by our community,” Combs added. “At the time that those images existed, I wasn’t aware what that was portraying to the world and to African American artists in Nashville that were saying, ‘Man, I really want to come in and get a deal and do this thing, but how can I be around with these images being promoted?’ And so I do apologize for that.”
Combs, Morris and Powers acknowledged that as three White people talking about race, it was an “incomplete” conversation. But they discussed myriad topics, including ways to elevate Black musicians and industry staffers, and recognizing their own privilege as White singers. Morris detailed one moment last summer when journalist and activist Andrea Williams contacted her on Twitter and said something along the lines of, “Maren, I love that you’re doing R&B songs on your record,” citing her ballad “RSVP,” and asked, “Why are you doing them with a bunch of White people?”
Morris’s instinct was to be defensive, she said, but then she realized, “Okay, that’s a really good question.” She vowed to become more conscious about cultural appropriation. “I love country music so much, and I have my version of what I make,” she said. “And going forward, I just want to pay respect to the people that actually built it for me, and just continue working and educating myself and try to educate people around me.”
She also revealed she received pushback for publicly criticizing Wallen on social media, which goes against the genre’s guiding principles of “country music is a family” and “we don’t go after people in public.” Morris urged Nashville singers to do the bare minimum by condemning the n-word and holding their peers accountable, even if it means awkwardness when you bump into them at the next award show.
“If this is a family and you love it, call it out when it’s bad so you can rid the diseased part so we can move forward,” she said. “This whole ‘we’re a family, we’re protecting our own’ — it’s protecting White people. It’s not protecting Black people.”
Combs agreed. “There is change that needs to happen,” he said. “I want it to be a family that everyone can feel like they’re a part of.”
Morris and Williams were also a part of a wide-ranging discussion Sunday night on singer-songwriter Rissi Palmer’s Apple Music radio show “Color Me Country,” which focuses on the Black, Indigenous and Latino roots of country music. Joined by country singer Cam, the group discussed being allies, as well as how to change the culture of the format.
Palmer detailed why she left her label (and ultimately Nashville) after she released her debut country album in 2007. Trying to please the industry and make everyone happy while her motives and authenticity were constantly scrutinized as a Black woman felt “like I was chipping away, little by little, every day at my soul,” she said.
“You can play the game, do all the right things, and nothing happens for you. Then you can stand up for yourself and feel good and be able to look yourself in the mirror — and still nothing happens. So I personally choose to be the person who can look in the mirror and say things,” Palmer said. She brought up Mickey Guyton, one of the few Black artists signed to a major country label, who recently had a breakout moment with the release of two powerfully candid songs, including the Grammy-nominated “Black Like Me.”
“Even if nothing else happens from here, Mickey stood up, Mickey said what she had to say, and she’s better off for it, I think, in the long run, period,” Palmer said. “She cemented a place in history for herself, whether or not she ever sells another record or gets another song on the radio.”
Williams concurred. “Years from now, we’re going to look back on this — or our children, or our children’s children, will look back on this — and want an accurate historical record,” she said. “So if for no other reason, yes, it’s important that Mickey’s doing that. It’s important that people like me are willing to say, ‘Yes, here’s the truth about the industry.’”
Morris and Cam talked about the importance of difficult conversations and speaking up as allies, as Cam discussed working with the Grammys on diversity and being told it was “fine and normal” that the country music categories had no people of color. “We can’t play this game anymore of pretending anything’s fine. We have to be okay being uncomfortable,” she said.
On the “CBS This Morning” segment, which also included singers Ryan Hurd (Morris’s husband) and Vince Gill, Palmer was asked by co-host Anthony Mason if there was some “real self-examination” going on in country music.
“I think in some sectors, yes,” Palmer said. “But we’ll see. We’ll see in hiring practices. We’ll see in signings. We’ll see in how the charts look.”
“Is country music ready for this conversation?” Mason asked.
“Yes,” Palmer said, laughing. “I mean, the thing is, they’re going to have to be. Because there’s an influx of artists of color, and it’s time.”
(This post has been updated.)