Morgan Wallen is at the top of the Hot 100 with the naggingly catchy Last Night.
Firstly, kudos to the five songwriters. Well done especially to Ashley Gorley, who has burst out of the country charts and finally written a number one pop hit. I wonder if the Number One trophy will go to the front of his packed cabinet or, more likely, trophy room.
Ditto for Charlie Handsome aka Ryan Vojtesak, who exec-produced the Post Malone album Stoney and has worked with Drake and Chris Brown. He was one of 13 writers to work on First Class, the 2022 number one from Jack Harlow, where his cheque was diluted because of the sample of Glamorous by Fergie.
Ryan/Charlie seems to have treated Wallen like a pop star who happens to be based in Nashville. He already has a lot of money from the tracks he wrote for Dangerous: the singles Wasted On You and More Than My Hometown, and album cuts Warning, Still Goin’ Down, Blame It On Me, This Bar and the Diplo collaboration Heartless.
The other two writers of Last Night are John Byron and Jacob ‘J Kash’ Hindlin. The former is a fellow Tennessean who is on the staff of Big Loud, Wallen’s label. On their website Byron’s biography notes that he ‘started his career writing mostly rap songs’. Eureka. In 2023 alone he has had four cuts on the new Chase Rice album including the single Way Down Yonder and the gorgeous Key West & Colorado, as well as eight cuts on the 36-track behemoth One Thing At A Time. I hope he invests his money wisely.
Those Wallen writes include 98 Braves, Sunrise (which is one of the hip-hoppy ones), Wine Into Water, In The Bible and I Deserve A Drink, which he wrote with Hillary Lindsey, Devin Dawson and Devin’s brother Jacob. Byron has earned his corn, as has Vojtesak, who is credited on 15 of the 36 tracks, three of which (Thinkin’ Bout Me, Days That End In Why and Single Than She Was) had Byron in the room too. The others include some of my favourite of the 36 – the poppy Me To Me, the Allman Brothers-indebted Everything I Love and the ‘dirt rock’ title track – and also my least favourite, the execrable 180 (Lifestyle).
As for J Kash, he first hit my ears when I learned he had written a lot of his friend Charlie Puth’s hits: Attention, How Long, Girlfriend, The Way I Am and We Don’t Talk Anymore. His list of copyrights include some huge pop hits, including the number one Savage Love for Jason Derulo and the One Direction US number 10 hit Perfect, when J Kash was in the room with big-hitting LA-based A-Listers Mozella and John Ryan. A pair of Maroon 5 hits, Sugar and Memories, were kept at number two (the former was written with pop producers Dr Luke and Cirkut) and Meghan Trainor’s No was held up at number three. J Kash’s trophy room is as packed as Gorley’s, and it’s no surprise that Nashville and LA writers have come together in the era of the monogenre when all music makes the same sound: KA-CHING!
All this is to say that Wallen was just a guy from Nashville, on a Nashville label, who was usually found all over country radio with his country twang. He is now one of America’s biggest pop stars, the Garth Brooks of the post-Trump era. I hope he’s prepared for it. Morgan is trying to control his drinking, especially as the father to a young son called Indigo, while also making a killing for Big Loud, who will be popping champagne to celebrate a Hot 100-Billboard 200 album chart double.
So what happens next? Flogging the horse is what happens next.
Remember when Amy Winehouse got famous and begat Adele and Paloma Faith, or when Arctic Monkeys ushered in a host of regional rock bands from Sheffield and Staines? This is what happens when an act gets to number one. More recent examples include: Drake, who begat Future and Post Malone; Katy Perry, who begat Ke$ha; and Nicki Minaj, who begat Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and, arguably, Lizzo, who herself begat Latto.
This is my Theory of Archetypes, where a really original act synthesises disparate musical elements to create something new. Then comes the horse-flogging, where chancers, copyists and acts who make money for their label and the label shareholders get a turn. George Michael and Prince, for instance, are groundbreakers; Robbie Williams and Babyface are lesser versions of those archetypes.
Wallen is interesting. He’s an act who has achieved enormous streaming numbers and has had plenty of number ones. Like Drake, he’s a mix of genres because he wants to get in as many playlists as possible. I remember him talking to Grady Smith about ‘DSPs’, a term new to both me and Grady, which reeked of marketing meetings at Big Loud: these Digital Streaming Platforms were key to making Wallen an A List star. The interview, which went live in February 2020, is worth watching.
Collaborations, such as the one Drake had with Rihanna (Beyonce was the archetype, Rihanna the copyist), increase the reach and brand recognition of a newer act. Indeed, Wallen’s first number one was a duet with Florida Georgia Line called Up Down. In some ways, Wallen has taken over from FGL, but in others he has had to move the sound of country music forward.
He’s also surpassed the pop chart performances of FGL, who had two huge Hot 100 hits with Cruise (number four) and Meant To Be (number two, kept off the top by Drake), while Sam Hunt took Body Like A Back Road to number six. Hunt, like Wallen, was keen on synthesising hiphop elements with Nashville melodies and stories, mingling the urban and rural and laughing all the way to the bank.
It may have helped Wallen’s cause that he was headline news for the video leaked to TMZ that threatened to wreck his career; when they were having hits, FGL and Hunt were both working within the constraints of the ‘good boy’ Nashville system even as they expanded the sound with guitars, loops and rapped deliveries. Would the average pop fan know which of FGL was Tyler Hubbard, for instance?
If anything, Wallen is a more successful version not just of Sam Hunt but of Jason Aldean, another hero of the flyover states who has had an extraordinary number of country number ones. Aldean’s own top 10 pop hit was Dirt Road Anthem, the ur-song of the bro era that was written by rapper Colt Ford. And yet Old Town Road, this millennium’s most successful song by its duration at number one in America, was ejected from the country chart despite sharing several elements of production with those on Wallen’s album. But we’ve done that argument, just as we’ve done the ‘Well, the Dixie Chicks said something bad and they were scrubbed off radio’.
The difference here is that Wallen, who is too big to fail, can bring a cavalry behind him. He already is: Bailey Zimmerman leapt out of TikTok and onto the radio, and he’s going out on tour with Wallen later this year. Hardy, who himself was due to support Wallen in the UK in 2020, has an album to promote which mixes hard rock and contemporary country, while Ernest K Smith (who, like Vojtesak, has had multiple credits across Wallen’s two albums) has traded his rap identity for a down-home blue-collar country style.
Lest we forget, Ernest and Hardy both feature on One Thing at a Time, respectively on the songs Cowgirls and In The Bible. Nor should we forget Broadway Girls, a collaboration between Wallen and rapper Lil Durk that topped the R&B/Hiphop charts. On the topic of rap, Jelly Roll has copied Ernest’s move away from rap, and like Hardy now has hits on the rock and country charts as he prepares an album for the country market, after many independent rap releases, just in time for CMA Fest. He has already been described as ‘country music’s Post Malone’ because of his face tattoos and last December he sold out the 16,000-capacity Bridgestone Arena. But Nashville already has a Post Malone and he’s called Morgan Wallen.
Indeed, one can compare Wallen to Drake in terms of chart performance: every track on One Thing at a Time made the Billboard Hot 100, something Drake has done on two occasions. In a time of few blockbuster stars, it’s easy to fix the charts and boast of having so many hits at any one time. But it’s not the size of the thing, it’s what you do with it. So what happens next?
Will people buy Ernest, whose song Flower Shops was a duet with Wallen and is arguably better than 95% of One Thing at a Time? Will they buy Hardy, once they figure out he’s one of the brains behind Wallen’s success? Will they see a massive guy with tattoos and buy Jelly Roll? What does this mean for women like Lily Rose, who is signed to Big Loud but is touring with Sam Hunt this year because there’s no space for her as Wallen gallops around the world?
More than one commentator, including Chris Molanphy in his Why Is This Song Number One essay for Slate Magazine, has posited that Wallen’s success is as a middle finger to the coasts, a sort of ‘own the Libs’ from the flyover states. Perhaps he is the totem of the same right-looking country as Toby Keith, particularly remembering the era after the September 11 attacks. Yet Wallen has not addressed the events of 2021 in song explicitly – and he certainly hasn’t warned any enemies of America ‘I’ll kick your ass’ – but, to quote the hook of the number one song, he certainly ‘let the liquor talk’ in the bender which led up to the video that almost killed his career.
In spite of his apology via the medium of an interview with Michael Strahan (‘I can only come tell my truth’), and in spite of donating half a million dollars to pro-black organisations, he still remains The Guy Who Used That Word.
Media organisations will always get clicks for painting Wallen as a saviour or a victim. Kyle Coroneos aka Trigger of Saving Country Music was very good at contextualising the incident, which happened in early February 2021 a month after the release of Dangerous, and compared the reaction to when Jason Aldean was caught cheating on his wife: ‘Everybody deserves a second chance but Morgan Wallen is about on chance #7.’
Even Kelefa Sanneh, in his recent appearance on the New York Times Popcast, admitted that people would turn off yet another conversation about The Guy Who Used That Word. He and host Jon Caramanica spent 20 minutes talking about the artist rather than the art; Caramanica called him ‘a cudgel of the culture wars’, while Sanneh marvelled: ‘He makes amazing songs…He has this kind of understated charisma!’
Sanneh has written two pieces on Wallen for the New Yorker: the first in 2020 went long on how he was ‘the most wanted man in country’ and ‘an online sex symbol’. By 2022, the narrative had turned into what was summed up in the headline ‘Morgan Wallen is Not on an Apology Tour’.
The era-dominant Dangerous is now joined by One Thing at a Time to create a total (with bonus tracks) of 68 songs across the two albums. Not even The Beatles or The Beach Boys could offer a catalogue like that and they were putting out two or three albums a year for two or three years. When it comes to the music, it is ‘a hybrid kind,’ Sanneh said, calling One Thing at a Time ‘an anti-concept album’.
Might this persuade other country artists to put out bloated albums? Bailey Zimmerman announced that his debut full-length, released by Elektra Records, will have 16 tracks. The exclusive came via an interview with Rolling Stone, which gave One Thing at a Time a lukewarm review which was headlined ‘A lot of partying, but not much introspection’. The reviewer noted that his ‘frizzled wail’ took influence from early-2000s rock bands like Staind.
It is interesting to note that Ernest put out his Flower Shops project as a ten-track album in 2022 and a 14-track follow-up in 2023. Blake Shelton once said he would prefer to put out singles than any albums: ‘Do people care about them anymore?’ Few cared about his 2021 release Body Language, which only had 12 tracks on it and was outstreamed by Wallen’s Dangerous.
I think, to quote Sanneh, we will see plenty more ‘slightly damaged heartthrobs’ like Wallen and Zimmerman. I bet every label in Nashville is scrolling through TikTok trying to spot a kid who would hit with the 16-34 demo in a small town in a flyover state. They would be made to slur country stuff over a lazy hiphop beat in a genre I’ll suggest should be called Hillbilly Hiphop but I bet someone has a better idea. There’s a marketing plan being written and a stylist trying to perfect the Wallen Look.
The music industry is very good at milking a cash cow, so expect Wallen and whatever sound it is that he makes to dominate country music and the pop charts until it is rendered as obsolete as yelling ‘hey baby get in my truck!’ over double-tracked guitars. It’s interesting that traditional music is back, and I wonder if Wallen will put out some acoustic versions of any of the 36 tracks to appease some fans.
As it stands though, he is dangerously close to being paid my ultimate compliment, which I’ve said about Stevie Wonder, Prince and Garth Brooks: Morgan Wallen is his own genre.
Read my piece on One Thing at a Time here.