On Monday, country star Luke Combs and bluegrass artist Billy Strings released a new single called "The Great Divide." Like Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard's "Undivided" and dozens of other country songs in the past decade, it's a "why can't we just get along?" call for national unity, presumably in response to the political polarization of the post-Trump era. "We're about to fall apart now / If we can't reach the other side," Combs sings in the chorus. "We gotta find a way across the great divide."
"I thought now was a good time to put this song out with everything that has been and is going on in the world," Combs said in a Tweet. "It isn’t meant to be political or try and tell you what to think or believe; that’s not my job."
Combs and Strings' decision to release "The Great Divide" on the first day of Black History Month felt clumsy and cringeworthy, crowding out the voices of people of color who have been calling out the racism entrenched within country music with a milquetoast call for unity. But the whole thing felt especially misguided when it was revealed that Combs' friend and former tourmate, Morgan Wallen, had been caught on tape using a racial slur the same day of the single's release.
In a video that surfaced Tuesday night, Wallen—arguably country music's biggest new star whose new double album Dangerous has been Billboard's number one album three consecutive weeks—appeared stumbling around in his driveway after a rowdy Sunday night in Nashville, telling a member of his group to watch over a drunk friend and calling the drunk friend the n-word. In the TMZ article that broke the story, Wallen apologized in a statement, saying, “I used an unacceptable and inappropriate racial slur that I wish I could take back." While the backlash was swift—his label suspended him, CMT is removing his appearances from their platforms and his songs have been removed from iHeart radio and Cumulus Media, in addition to official playlists on Spotify, Apple Music—it's unclear how this will affect his career long-term.
The two back-to-back events are emblematic of the toothless and counterproductive way mainstream country music has responded to the present moment. What good is its ubiquitous message of unity when the industry's anointed new star is caught being racist after his stratospheric rise? Though Combs has never publicly stated his political preferences,the song's content felt especially hollow given the song's release in the weeks following the end of the Trump administration and the Capitol riots. And, as Margo Price pointed out, it was hard to take Combs' self-distancing from politics seriously when you consider his history of using confederate flags in his public image and flashing the "OK" sign, a hand gesture appropriated by white supremacists. Unity is a worthy sentiment, but there is no unity without progress and accountability.
Wallen, for his part, is no stranger to public apologies. The 27-year-old Tennessee native and alum of The Voice was arrested last spring in Nashville at Kid Rock's Honky Tonk for public intoxication and disorderly conduct. Later that summer, after he snagged a gig performing on Saturday Night Live, the show temporarily revoked the invite after several videos surfaced revealing him violating the show's COVID-19 safety protocols in the lead-up to the broadcast, running around maskless and making out with partying coeds in Alabama. While he apologized and poked fun at himself on SNL, these controversies didn't hurt his career. That he named his album Dangerous—after a song on the record that winkingly says going out and partying "could be dangerous"—is no shock. The boozing, hard partying persona is part of his appeal—and one he incarnates on many of the LP's 30 tracks.
That, after so many controversies, Wallen was able to rise to chart-smashing success, buoyed by breathless headlines calling him the "Future of Country Music", the genre's "Biggest Crossover Star in Years," and "the Country Bro You Can't Help But Root For," while still being comfortable yelling a racial slur outside his home, says a lot about who the industry allows to succeed and who they throw loads of money into well-oiled marketing machines to promote. Country music's impulse to churn out self-consciously apolitical songs calling for national unity without seriously addressing its famous women, queer, and Black artists who have been advocating for the genre to root out its systemic racism explains how someone like Wallen can rise at others' expense.
The same day Wallen was caught on camera using a racial slur, veteran country singer Mickey Guyton, who is the first Black woman country solo artist to be nominated for a Grammy in a country music category ever, appeared on Late Show with Stephen Colbert to sing her single "Black Like Me." On the track, she sings, "And if you think we live in the land of the free / Then you should try to be, oh, Black like me." After the Wallen news broke, Guyton took to Twitter. "When I read comments saying “this is not who we are” I laugh because this is exactly who country music is," she said. "I’ve witnessed it for 10 [god damn] years. You guys should just read some of the vile comments hurled at me on a daily basis. It’s a cold hard truth to face but it is the truth."
The forces that gave Wallen second chance after second chance are the same forces that have kept a Black woman solo artist from getting a Grammy nod until 2021. There's a wealth of Black country artists like Guyton who have been fighting for a spot in country music's mainstream who have never been allowed to have a second chance, let alone in many cases a first. Just imagine if the same rapturous praise Wallen, Combs, and Strings received was instead given to an artist like Willie Jones, a Black songwriter whose latest single "American Dream" was released on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and actually contained insight into injustice, racism, and the United States' present crises.
The best case scenario for country music right now is using Wallen's reckoning as a moment for reflection and change. The culture war that's been raging in country music is reaching a breaking point, and no ineffectual calls to just get along will stop the bleeding.