Country stars Luke Combs and Maren Morris took on the elephant in the room in a joint interview for the annual Country Radio Seminar conference Wednesday, address perceptions of racism and a lack of diversity in the genre that have gone from behind-the-scenes Nashville discussions to the talk of the nation in the wake of the Morgan Wallen N-word scandal two weeks ago.
Although Morris has been the most outspoken of the two on these issues prior to their Q&A, it may be because of her famous existing candor that more attention will be trained on what the previously shyer Combs had to say. And what he said may not cause ripples in too much of the nation, but is bound to stir a few in his native South: The Confederate flag, which he had previously posed with, is not okay.
Combs acknowledged that when he released a single a few weeks ago urging understanding and reconciliation titled “The Great Divide,” there was a rush to do a “gotcha” by recirculating old photos, one of which had the singer standing in front of the Confederate flag and another of which had a sticker with the image on his guitar.
“When I released the song, there were some images that resurfaced of me,” he told interviewer Ann Powers of NPR, “snd it’s not the first time that those images have surfaced and have been used against me. And obviously those are images that I can’t take back. …. Obviously in the age of the internet, those things live forever. And there is no excuse for those images. … It’s not okay. 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.” He 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 I apologize for being associated with that.”
Morris addressed flack she’s taken for speaking up on social media about Wallen, when not many in her elevated position as a star have, with some comments to the effect that she has betrayed the country music family by knocking Wallen or saying that racism has been an ingrained part of country.
“This isn’t about going after people or a fan base for sport,” said Morris. “That doesn’t give me pleasure. But I think (saying) ‘We’re different; we’re country; we protect our own; we don’t go after people in public’ … Well, I mean, going after someone saying the N-word is bad? That’s the least we can do is not say that. I think that your fans are a reflection of you and what you’re about. And you can’t control a human being, but you absolutely can let them know where you stand. And I appreciate Morgan saying ‘Quit defending me’ to his fans, because it’s indefensible. And he knows that; we know that… All we can do is, so there isn’t an elephant in the room, is say that out loud and hold our peers accountable.
“I don’t care if it’s awkward sitting down the road from you at the next awards show — call them out! 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. All of us — (including) people of color, LGBTQ-plus, and all — feel like we are a part of this family. This whole ‘We’re a family; we’re protecting our own’ is protecting white people. It’s not protecting Black people, and that’s the long and the short of it.” She said that those who put out statements on social media saying “‘This is not representative, actually, of our town’ — I think that by saying it isn’t (representative) with this whole controversy is absolutely diminishing the plight of Black people in country music that are trying to make it in this genre… That is what they see representing it every day.”
Added Morris, “My husband — because I had some fans coming after me after just calling it out — was like, ‘I’ve never seen someone so willing to get the shit kicked out of themselves’ — talking about me. And I was like, yeah, that’s true. But I mean, imagine what a Black person in country music feels every day. So this is like a sliver of it. I just think if you love something, you absolutely should call out the parts that are complicit and wrong, so we can move forward in a healthier way. And I think sitting here having this conversation with you, Luke, at CRS, the week of country music (pros gathering), is a huge step.. We’ve all got healing to do. And accountability is the first step of that. I think that we’re on the road to a very hopeful place, but we have to be willing to have these conversations with each other and with our friends. I don’t care if you’re holding them accountable on Twitter or if you’re holding them accountable after a show when people are drunk on the bus — just call them out when you see it happening so we can move forward.”
As CRS executive director RJ Curtis previously told Variety, the idea of having the joint Q&A focus on racial attitudes and accountability was not the outspoken Morris’s, perhaps surprisingly, but that of Combs, who called Morris up the day after the Wallen controversy broke and said they needed to change the topic for their already scheduled appearance.