Morgan Wallen Opens Up In First Major Interview In Two Years About His Historic 2023 and ‘How Much My Words Matter’ (2024)

After Morgan Wallen wraps his sold-out Nov.10 concert at Atlanta’s Truist Park with a crowd singalong to his 2019 No.1 “Whiskey Glasses,” he ­enthusiastically roams the edge of the stage, crouching down, eager to get close to his ardent fans. As they thrust albums, cowboy boots and cardboard signs into his hands, the 40,000-seat stadium suddenly starts to feel more like a 200-capacity club.

Wallen has come prepared. He pulls out the appropriate black or silver Sharpie from his jeans pocket and yanks off the cap with his teeth, then autographs each item and poses for selfies. Even once the stadium lights have switched on and people have started to head toward the exits, Wallen is still hanging out. Finally, he starts to jog off, but then stops, turns around and runs back to autograph one more sign — the one that reads “You’re our entertainer of the year” — before leaving the stage for good.


Morgan Wallen: Photos From the Billboard CoverShoot12/06/2023

The sign is a nod to Wallen’s prowess as an energetic, engaging performer — his Atlanta audience had no clue he was on antibiotics and was so concerned about a possible return of his spring vocal cord issues that he didn’t talk to anyone for hours before the 90-minute show, including postponing this interview. But it was also a reminder that, although he had lost entertainer of the year 48 hours earlier at the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards — and weathered a potentially career-ending scandal in 2021 — he remains tops with his millions of fans.

When time allows, the post-show autograph session is a nightly ritual. “I like looking them in the eyes,” a recovered Wallen says 10 days later over Zoom in his first major interview in two years. He’s dressed head to toe in gray camo, on his “lunch break” from hunting deer on the sprawling farm outside Nashville he bought earlier this year with his booking agent and good friend, Austin Neal. He has scrubbed off his camo face paint: “I didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of you,” he says with a good-natured grin.

“There’s usually a few people every night where I’m just like, ‘God, that is like the happiest person in the world right now,’ and I always pick those,” he says. “I’m almost tearing up thinking about it. It’s just like, man, I mean a lot to this person, I can tell. I try to tell them, ‘Hey, I saw you up there. I saw you tonight.’”

Those fans helped make Wallen, 30, the biggest winner at this year’s Billboard Music Awards, which are based on year-end performance metrics on the Billboard charts. The Big Loud/Republic artist won 11 trophies, including top male artist, top Hot100 artist and top country artist, as well as top Hot100 song for “Last Night” and top Billboard200 album for One Thing at a Time — the first time a male artist has captured the latter two in the same year since Usher in 2004. He dominates the country year-end charts, claiming the No.1 spot on 12 of the genre’s 28 lists, including Hot Country Songs, where “Last Night” succeeds 2022’s year-end chart-topper, Wallen’s “Wasted on You.”

Wallen’s groundbreaking accomplishments transcend country, too. When “Last Night” hit No.1 on the Billboard Hot100 in March, it became the first song by a solo male country artist to top the chart since Eddie Rabbitt’s “ILove a Rainy Night” in 1981. Once it reached the summit, “Last Night” spent 16 nonconsecutive weeks there, the most ever for a noncollaboration. (Wallen nixed the idea of releasing remixes to potentially propel the song past the 19-week record held by Lil NasX’s “Old Town Road” featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, says Big Loud partner/CEO Seth England, who heads Wallen’s label and co-manages him with K21’s Kathleen Flaherty. “Morgan loves the original version, and he had made it that far on his own music and accord,” he says.)

When One Thing at a Time debuted at No.1 in March, its predecessor, 2021’s Dangerous: The Double Album, logged its 110th nonconsecutive week in the Billboard200’s top10, second only to the My Fair Lady soundtrack and the most by a solo artist since the chart began publishing weekly in 1956. One Thing at a Time has spent 16 nonconsecutive weeks at No.1 on the Billboard200, the most for any album since Adele’s 21 in 2011-12. And, after debuting at No.1, the album logged the next 31 weeks in the top five.

As country music experiences its biggest surge in popularity since the Garth Brooks era three decades ago, Wallen (alongside Luke Combs) is the tip of the spear for the genre’s new generation, which includes Zach Bryan, Lainey Wilson, Jelly Roll, Bailey Zimmerman and Wallen’s frequent writing partner and close friend, HARDY. He has shifted country’s streaming calculus by releasing albums that contain more than 30 tracks and racking up tremendous consumption tallies: One Thing at a Time’s songs earned 498.3million on-demand streams in its first week, the most ever for a country album, according to Luminate. Through the third quarter of 2023, country music’s on-demand audio and video streaming grew by 24% year over year ­— and Wallen accounted for 31% of that growth. Of all country music on-demand streams through the same period, 10% belonged to Wallen. For the first time since the 2013 launch of the year-end Streaming Songs Artists chart, a country act (Wallen) leads the list, and a country song (“Last Night”) is No.1 on the year-end Streaming Songs chart.

He’s catching the eye of legendary country artists, who now study his methods. “This is a new generation that is streaming, which is something new to Dolly,” says Dolly Parton’s manager, Danny Nozell. “What Morgan is doing, I want to take and see how I can apply that to Dolly.” (To wit: Parton released the longest album of her career, the 30-track Rockstar, in November.)

Similarly, Luke Bryan, who calls his good friend Wallen a “world-class songwriter, singer and performer,” was also impressed by Wallen’s new-school methods. “His ability to relate to fans by way of introducing new songs by performing them on socials was truly a brilliant way to build his career,” he says.

“When I started doing this, I had no intentions or expectations of becoming that guy,” Wallen says of being the defacto leader of this new country movement. “But yeah, I’m definitely proud of it. Especially when people say to me that they never liked country music before and now it’s [their] favorite.”

Morgan Wallen Opens Up In First Major Interview In Two Years About His Historic 2023 and ‘How Much My Words Matter’ (2)

As massive as Wallen’s following is, in early 2021 and for quite some time afterward, it looked like he could lose it all after a neighbor gave TMZ video footage of him using a racial slur. But Wallen’s fans never abandoned him — in fact, they rallied around him.

Their fervor was, in some ways, a testament to how, in a sea of male country artists who often seem interchangeable, Wallen has always stood out — not only for his instantly recognizable raspy twang, but for the intimate tone of his songs, many of which he co-writes.

“There’s a level of conversation Morgan brings to a song that makes him such a strong writer; you immediately feel invested in the story,” says Miranda Lambert, who co-wrote One Thing at a Time’s “Thought You Should Know” with Wallen and Nicolle Galyon. In February, the song became his eighth No.1 on the Country Airplay chart; he has already scored two more.

While he leans toward tried-and-true tropes — the cry-in-my-beer midtempo ballad, the playfully co*cky you’re-going-to-wish-you-never-left-me tune — he often injects them with a vulnerability that’s the antithesis of last decade’s bro-country movement. And by infusing many of his traditional country melodies with rap cadences and beats and alt-rock guitars, Wallen has expanded his audience far beyond country’s typical listenership.

“I obviously have brought some of my own flavor into the space and everybody doesn’t necessarily like that, and I don’t care because I love it,” says Wallen, whose favorites range from indie-rockers The War on Drugs to country rebel Eric Church to rappers like Moneybagg Yo and the late Young Dolph. “I love being able to incorporate all the types of music that I like. If I had to sing one kind of song for two hours, I’d lose my mind.”

The first stadium show Wallen played was on May31, 2018, as one of three supporting acts for Bryan at Toronto’s Rogers Centre. It was also the first stadium show he had ever attended. Bryan had heard Wallen’s 2017 hit “Up Down” and felt “it spoke to just the right audience, and I knew then I wanted Morgan on tour with me.”

“I remember going out there and it was like, ‘Gawwwwd!’ It just felt so massive,” Wallen says. Five years later, stadium stages feel like home. “We played in Austin [five days ago] in an arena. There were 12-13,000 people there, and it felt tiny,” he says. “Then we played the stadium in Houston [two days later], and it was like back to normal again.” He laughs as he catches himself, knowing there’s nothing normal about his life these days: “What? That’s not normal.”

Growing up in Sneedville in East Tennessee (2021 population: 1,315) and then outside of Knoxville, Tenn., where his family moved when he was in middle school, Wallen, the son of a public school teacher and a minister (his father is now a semitruck driver), had no money for luxuries like concerts. Any extra cash went to support his baseball career: He was a star pitcher and shortstop in high school before an arm injury his senior year took him off the diamond for good.

“When baseball ended, that was really tough because that’s all he was thinking about,” England says. “I think he probably transformed that into a new drive and [thought], ‘I’m going to have to really work hard at something else.’”

Now he’s filling the ballparks he dreamed of playing in as a kid. This year, the One Night at a Time tour played three nights at the Boston Red Sox’s Fenway Park and had double plays at venues including San Diego’s Petco Park and Atlanta’s Truist Park, the respective homes of baseball’s Padres and Braves. Through Nov.18, the tour had grossed $300.4million and sold 1.5million tickets, making it the highest-grossing country tour ever reported to Billboard Boxscore.

“The charisma has always been there, but now [the show] is so tight,” says Neal, head of The Neal Agency and Wallen’s booking agent since 2017. (Neal launched his company in early 2022 following his departure from WME, several months after Wallen left the agency.) Wallen used to talk and fidget much more onstage. “We used to say he’d go on a soliloquy, but now he’s so dialed in. Plus, he can’t talk that much because he’s got so many songs that he’s got to play.”

Morgan Wallen Opens Up In First Major Interview In Two Years About His Historic 2023 and ‘How Much My Words Matter’ (3)

Still, in April, Wallen’s vocal load caught up with him. Minutes before he was to go onstage for a second sold-out night at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss., 45,000 fans learned he had lost his voice and couldn’t perform. After powering through a few more shows several days later, a visibly upset Wallen told his more than 6million Instagram followers that doctors had ordered him to go on vocal rest for six weeks, resulting in the postponement of multiple shows.

Though Wallen says he isn’t “the type of person that really worries a lot,” the experience scared him, especially after some doctors told him his voice might be permanently altered. He was spooked “100%” by what happened in Oxford, England says. “During that stretch, he was having real trouble with his voice. It was rough.” But unlike in Oxford, when Wallen started having vocal issues the week of his Atlanta shows, he had doctors at Vanderbilt and his vocal coach — who taught him methods to make singing more sustainable and joined him in Atlanta — at his disposal.

The support system that has sprung up around him is a far cry from 2014, when Wallen was working as a landscaper in Knoxville and competed on The Voice. Back then, he could certainly move more freely, without the bodyguards he requires now.

“Everything has gotten so, so huge,” he says. “I don’t really go to the grocery store. I have to go through back doors to go to the doctor and all that kind of stuff. I still try to hold on to as much [normalcy] as possible. I like driving, so I try to drive as much as I can by myself.” Adjusting to fame has been tough at times for Wallen, and he’s not sure that he has. When old friends don’t invite him to events, it sometimes bothers him, even though he knows the disturbance his presence can cause. And he has found a second use for the camo gear. After hunting, he sometimes leaves on his cap, camo top and a little face paint, just enough so that he can “sneak around, just wherever I can go, maybe a Mexican restaurant.” Otherwise, he says, “I play my shows, I hang out with my son, [Indie, 3], and I hide pretty much. And I’m OK with that. I’m happy as hell with that.”

HARDY, who has toured with Wallen off and on since 2018, speaks more bluntly about the limitations fame has placed on his friend. “In the last couple of years, he handles himself so much differently out on the road. He protects himself from situations that might get him in hot water,” he says. “He doesn’t go out to bars. If there’s a good time to be had, we have it backstage where we’re safe and where f–king people aren’t videoing and trying to get a rise out of somebody. We will still have the same amount of fun, but we do it in an environment [without] the public eye on us anymore. It sucks that you can’t really do it that other way, but you just can’t when you get Morgan Wallen famous.”

If Morgan Wallen wasn’t already aware of how famous he was, he found out Feb.2, 2021, when TMZ published that video of a drunk Wallen (on “hour72 of a 72-hour bender,” he later said) casually using a racial slur as he told a friend to get another friend home safely. TMZ’s post included an apology from Wallen, but the reaction was swift and severe. Radio playlists pulled his music, his booking agency dropped him, awards shows deemed him ineligible, and his own label suspended him.

It wasn’t the first time Wallen’s behavior had raised flags. He was arrested for public intoxication and disorderly conduct in May 2020 after a disruption at Kid Rock’s Nashville bar, and five months later, Saturday Night Live revoked its invitation to perform after he violated the show’s COVID-19 safety protocols. (The show had him on two months later.) But Wallen says that the experience in 2021 truly showed him “just how much that people listen to me. I don’t think I realized that, at least not at that grand of a scale at the time,” he says, carefully weighing his words. “I [learned] how much my words matter.”

Now, nearly three years later, Wallen says, “That person is definitely not the same person I am now.” He doesn’t diminish the hurt his words caused or question the actions the industry took, but he admits to feeling anger that so few gave him the benefit of the doubt and rushed to brand him a full-blown racist.

“There’s no excuse. I’ve never made an excuse. I never will make an excuse,” Wallen says of using the slur. “I’ve talked to a lot of people, heard stories [about] things that I would have never thought about because I wasn’t the one going through it. And I think, for me, in my heart I was never that guy that people were portraying me to be, so there was a little bit of like, ‘Damn, I’m kind of actually mad about this a little bit because I know I shouldn’t have said this, but I’m really not that guy.’ I put myself in just such a sh-t spot, you know? Like, ‘You really messed up here, guy.’ If I was that guy, then I wouldn’t have cared. I wouldn’t have apologized. I wouldn’t have done any of that if I really was that guy that people were saying about me.”

“Any of that” included meeting with several Black leaders, including 300Elektra Entertainment chairman/CEO Kevin Liles, Universal Music Group executive vp/chief people and inclusion officer Eric Hutcherson and Grammy-winning gospel artist Bebe Winans, as well as with the Black Music Action Coalition (BMAC) and other groups in an effort to educate himself; his process “to learn and try to be better” continues, he says.

“I think that moment was a cloud with a silver lining because I think it showed him he has a platform that can do good,” HARDY says. “He realized, ‘I’ve got to get my sh-t together.’”

One such platform is the Morgan Wallen Foundation (formerly the More Than My Hometown Foundation). By February 2022, Wallen and Big Loud (on behalf of Wallen from his royalties) had donated $500,000 to organizations including The National Museum of African American Music, Rock Against Racism and the BMAC. Three dollars from every concert ticket Wallen sells goes to the foundation, which primarily helps underserved communities through supporting music and sports youth programs, and has donated over $1million in 2023, including $100,000 to the Atlanta Braves Foundation and $500,000 to Habitat for Humanity of Greater Nashville to help revitalize a baseball and softball complex.

Despite this philanthropic push, don’t expect Wallen to use his sizable platform to speak out on social or political issues. When asked if he plans to endorse a presidential candidate in 2024, he swiftly answers, “No,” before continuing: “That’s not where my head’s at. I’m not an expert. I just don’t know enough to try to guide people. I know what I know, and that’s music.”

Morgan Wallen Opens Up In First Major Interview In Two Years About His Historic 2023 and ‘How Much My Words Matter’ (4)

Following the incident, Wallen says he did a 30-day stint in rehab in San Diego, and he has since drastically changed his drinking habits on the road. “That used to be my warmup — to get half lit: ‘I’m going out there, and we’re going to go have fun.’ Now, that is not the way I approach it,” he says.

Part of the change is just plain logical: playing massive stadium stages, “there’s a lot more ways you can fall than there is on a little one,” he says with a laugh. But his lifestyle changes (and the boost in his confidence level that has resulted) have also completely altered how he approaches performing. “I used to be scared to even think about what it would be like to play a show without drinking: ‘That sounds terrible. Why would I ever do that?’ And now I’m almost scared to wonder what it’d be like if I was drunk.” As far as drinking off tour, “I’m still figuring out my personal life,” he says. “I probably always will be.”

Despite the work he has done to make amends, there are still inroads to be made. While his fans fervently stood by him — sales of Dangerous soared 102% the week after the incident, and he headlined a 55-date arena and amphitheater tour in 2022 — not everyone was ready to move on.

Since the scandal, Wallen’s name is seldom heard when nominations or winners are announced at peer-voted awards shows. In November, he didn’t receive any Grammy nominations (though “Last Night,” which he didn’t write, is up for best country song), and Wallen, who won best new artist at the 2020 CMA Awards, went 0-3 at the CMAs this year. (Dangerous did win album of the year at the 2022 Academy of Country Music Awards.)

England acknowledges that “some people have no intention of forgiveness, but that’s also OK. Morgan realized that he has just got to control what he can control. He’s certainly not getting shut out in these awards because he’s a bad musician.”

Wallen shrugs off the snubs. The CMA losses “bothered me for like five minutes,” he admits. “And then I’m like, ‘Why am I mad? I’m about to go play for 80,000 people in Atlanta.’”

Morgan Wallen Opens Up In First Major Interview In Two Years About His Historic 2023 and ‘How Much My Words Matter’ (5)

And there are other recent victories to celebrate, like sharing the BMI Country Awards’ songwriter of the year honors with Combs on Nov.7 — meaningful recognition for Wallen, who says he has heard criticism that he doesn’t write enough songs on his albums or relies too much on his co-writers. He has nothing but praise for the writers who contribute to his records but admits with a wry chuckle that the BMI Award was “validating… It’s kind of like maybe I do know a little bit about what I’m doing.”

Wallen has released collaborations with top country names including Eric Church, Chris Stapleton and Florida Georgia Line, as well as with Diplo and rapper Lil Durk. (Their “Broadway Girls” reached No.1 on Billboard’s chart in 2022.) But he’s well aware that he hasn’t yet released a game-changing co-ed duet like Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood’s “If I Didn’t Love You” or HARDY’s murder ballad “wait in the truck” with Lainey Wilson. However, he quickly adds, it’s not for lack of trying.

“I’ve reached out to a couple of people, and they’ve turned me down,” he says, declining to name names. “I just really want certain people, and I haven’t gotten the chance to do it yet. I’m going to keep trying to write songs for it or write with them.”

England says the timing hasn’t worked out, adding that Wallen sent a song for his next album to a noncountry artist as a possibility. “The answer was bittersweet,” he says. “It was, ‘Holy sh-t, this sounds like a global No.1 record, but I just can’t do it right now.’”

Wallen says he “would love” to write with more women, but admits he frequently returns to his very successful “little squad” of collaborators “because I’ve just been slammed, and when I’m not on the road, I’m spending time with my son or hunting. I haven’t really wanted to branch out much just because I needed to keep myself sane.”

One new collaborator eager to work with Wallen: Post Malone. The artist, who is recording a country album, wrote with Wallen, ERNEST and Charlie Handsome, among others, when he was in town to perform with Wallen and HARDY at the CMA Awards. But Wallen confesses that Post Malone’s studio hours were hard for him. “[He] likes to write really, really late at night — and I can’t do that three nights in a row. I can do that one night,” he says with a laugh. “I can start about 5p.m., but starting at 10p.m. — that’s rough.”

A little while ago, when HARDY was at Wallen’s house, they headed out to his workshop. “Indie was in the bed. Morgan’s out here looking for an outlet to plug in a baby monitor. I was just like, ‘Man, that’s something I didn’t think I would see five years ago,’” HARDY says.

In Atlanta, the tow-headed Indie giggled in delight as he ran through the empty stadium concourse before showtime, pushing a toy dump truck and exuberantly honking the horn on a full-size forklift. “Anything about a vehicle or any part of it, that’s all he cares about,” Wallen later says, grinning broadly.

Wallen and Indie’s mother split before he was born and share joint custody. But Wallen says fatherhood happened for him at the right time. “It gives me something to focus on that’s not just all about myself because for a while, I had to be super selfish. I had to mostly focus on myself or [my career] wouldn’t work,” he says. But now, “it’s nice to really think about someone other than yourself and about what you’re passing down. He’s my favorite thing about life.”

And Wallen’s friends say fatherhood changed him. “Having a son really grew him up fast,” Neal says.

Becoming a dad made him look at life differently, Wallen says, including sparking an interest in expanding into businesses outside of music. In addition to buying real estate, he’s working with Plus Capital to find the right investments, including his recent affiliation as investor and brand ambassador with upstart Ryl Tea, which aligned with his desire to partner with health and wellness brands. “I like having a bunch of different things for me to focus on. [Otherwise], I’ll get bored,” he says. “I have a lot of opportunities, so I’ve been trying to take them.” Will one of those opportunities be, as is a rite of passage of sorts for so many country stars, opening a bar in Nashville? England says only: “It has been discussed. Stay tuned.”

But first, Wallen will spend much of 2024 carrying on with the One Night at a Time tour. In addition to continuing to make up this spring’s postponed dates and a headlining show at the Stagecoach festival, Wallen has added 10 more markets, many with multiple nights at stadiums, including three at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium.

Also potentially ahead: a full-blown international tour, perhaps in 2025. After starting 2023’s tour in Australia, Wallen ended the year with a Dec.3 show at London’s O2 Arena that sold out in one hour. It was his first time in Europe, and Neal is exploring the best way to proceed globally. Wallen is up for the challenge: “I think it would be fun to go try to win people over again,” he says.

Next year, he’ll also return to the studio. Though more singles are coming from One Thing at a Time, Wallen is already writing and reviewing outside songs for his fourth album. Handsome, who co-produces Wallen’s music with Joey Moi, predicts the next one will be his biggest yet. “I’m expecting to see more songs that can go No.1 at pop radio because I think people have seen that a country singer with a very Southern voice by himself without a feature can still have a No.1 Billboard hit,” Handsome says. “Morgan’s leading the way for what country music is now and what it’s becoming.”

When England compares Wallen to another artist, it’s not a fellow young country superstar or a legend of the past, but another especially prolific and versatile performer affiliated with Republic: Drake. “Drake can do a hardcore R&B song, a trap rap song or a Caribbean-tinged beat global pop song,” England says. “I think Morgan is that in our genre. His voice is always going to be country even if he’s singing pop melodies, and the verses are likely to have some country imagery. But when it’s time to sing the big runs and melodies, the guy can do it. Even though he’s got a lot of older fans, he’s certainly got the young kids just wrapped around the sound right now. I don’t think that’s just a short-term thing. I think the guy’s got the ability to do that for decades to come.”

Morgan Wallen Opens Up In First Major Interview In Two Years About His Historic 2023 and ‘How Much My Words Matter’ (6)

This story will appear in the Dec. 9, 2023, issue of Billboard.

Morgan Wallen Opens Up In First Major Interview In Two Years About His Historic 2023 and ‘How Much My Words Matter’ (2024)
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