a country superstar, live and apparently un-canceled

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 24: Country singer Morgan Wallen performs at Crypto.com Arena during his Dangerous tour on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Morgan Wallen performs Saturday night at Crypto.com Arena. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

What’s clear at this point about Morgan Wallen — clear since long before the country superstar touched down Saturday night at Crypto.com Arena for the first of two sold-out concerts — is that being caught on video drunkenly using the N-word to refer to a friend has not derailed his career.

A year and a half after TMZ published a grainy clip shot by a neighbor as Wallen stumbled around his driveway, the singer’s 2021 LP, “Dangerous,” has set a new record for the most weeks in the top 10 of Billboard’s album chart. He just received the Milestone Award from the Academy of Country Music. And in November, he’ll compete for Nashville’s most prestigious title, entertainer of the year, at the Country Music Assn. Awards.

So although Wallen seemed briefly to face the threat of cancelation when the video surfaced — his songs were temporarily removed from radio and streaming playlists, and even his label said his contract had been “suspended” — the only question now is whether the controversy may actually have helped propel the career of the 29-year-old native of tiny Sneedville, Tenn.

Before the video and its fallout, Wallen was no doubt headed for huge success as a charismatic young performer and gifted songwriter with an instinctive knack for blending traditional country themes with the textures and attitude of hip-hop. After, though, he became something bigger: a (perhaps unwitting) mascot for the pushback against cancel culture.

Wallen, who’s repeatedly apologized for his “ignorant” use of the N-word, has drawn the support lately of numerous Black artists, including Darius Rucker and rapper Lil Durk, who’s said Wallen “ain’t no racist.” What Wallen is, of course, is a beneficiary of a racist system that not only permits white ignorance but also enables it. Yet to be a Wallen fan, at least for some, is to reject the perceived excesses of that worldview — a powerful accelerant for anyone involved in the work of building an audience in an era as fractured as ours.

Not that any of this was explicitly in the air at Crypto, where Wallen arrived near the end of a lengthy tour set to wrap early next month with a stadium gig in Arlington, Texas. The singer made no mention of the TMZ video, unless you count a lyric about the mistakes he’s made from “Don’t Think Jesus,” one of several singles he’s quietly released this year as part of his comeback; nor did he play directly to any kind of anti-woke sensibility, unless you count the proud down-home-isms of “The Way I Talk,” which like so many modern country tunes borrows elements of a Black creative lexicon to enshrine a white cultural heritage.

Morgan Wallen

Morgan Wallen performs. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Then again, the point of winning is no longer having to press your case, and in that way, Wallen carried himself Saturday like a victor. Backed by a muscular six-piece band, the singer ran through his many hits — including “Chasin’ You,” “More Than My Hometown” and the only country song currently near the top of the Hot 100, “You Proof” — with an untroubled confidence that belied his speedy ascent to arena-headliner status, not to mention the years of road experience he missed out on because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He was a rowdy party-starter in “Up Down” and “Country Ass S—,” the latter of which found him patting a disc in the back pocket of his jeans as he sang about “an empty can of long cut.” For the wistful “Sand in My Boots,” he sat down behind a piano and recounted a beach-town dalliance with a woman destined to break his heart. Vocally, Wallen is most impressive on his records as a balladeer, channeling desire and nostalgia in songs like “Somebody’s Problem” and the almost painfully pretty “7 Summers”; here, both suffered a bit from his oversinging to match the pumped-up arrangements required by the size of the room. But the slightly aggro approach paid off in Wallen’s stark rendition of Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up,” where he squared up against the microphone like a baseball player with a bat.

At about the halfway mark of the 90-minute show, Wallen invited out two of his frequent collaborators on tour as his opening acts: Ernest, with whom he sang the acoustic “Flower Shops,” and Hardy, who joined Wallen for the rap-rocky “He Went to Jared.” (Earlier, in his own set, Hardy flashed the culture-warrior streak Wallen resisted when introducing his song “One Beer,” about a couple waiting for the result of a pregnancy test. “Got any pregnant people out there tonight?” he asked with a sly grin, before adding, “Stupid joke.”)

It was easy to sense the pleasure — and maybe the comfort — Wallen took in having his pals onstage with him, not least when he and Hardy shotgunned a couple of beers and then crushed the cans and flung them into the crowd.

For more than a year, he’s been in a spotlight of his own making, both a pariah and a figurehead. Yet you wouldn’t say he looked lonely when Hardy and Ernest split. He’d been assured that he belonged up there, and who was he to doubt it?

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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