Maren Morris, Luke Combs Take On Racism in Country Music in Joint Q&A
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 row 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.
Both stars acknowledged that they take heats from all sides in daring to say or sing anything about these topics. Morris was hit by some on the right for her recent song “Better Than We Left It,” which, especially in its music video, addressed police killings of Black men and showed support for Black Lives Matter protesters. Combs, for his part, is one of several country artists that have taken heat from the left for releasing songs urging racial harmony at a time some believe musicians should be more overtly calling out problems instead of celebrating unity. The only sure win, seemingly, is to just shut up — but neither singer wants to take the easiest way out right now.
“The music is the perfect way to reach your fans, like Maren did with her song,” Combs said. “That was an incredibly brave thing to do…. When Maren released her song and I released mine, we were trying to do something positive, and I think there’s always an attempt.to say, ‘Well, you didn’t do this the right way’ or ‘You should’ve done it this way.’ B… I think sometimes when you’re attacked for (your expression), when you’re coming at it with great intentions, that can make you want to clam up in a shell and go, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to talk about it.’ Because you feel like, ‘Man, I’m, I’m trying to be better. and people just keep attacking me for that.’ I think it starts with the music, and that’s a painful process as an artist, because you do have people that want to cut you down and say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ But you just have to know where your heart is and know that you’re doing it for the right reasons.”
Combs said he wanted to make this the topic of their panel because “I think we just wanted everyone to know that we’re here and that we want to be stewards of our genre, because we are proud of it. And you do hear the old adage of ‘country music is a family.’ And I do believe that more than anything, but I want it to be a family that everyone can feel like they’re a part of. Because it has changed my life; it has changed my band’s lives and my best friends’ lives that I write songs with. And I want everyone that wants to feel that to be able to experience it because it’s an incredible feeling. I just want everyone out there to be able to come into our community and be accepted and not feel excluded or pushed out. … I want those people to have the same opportunities that I had to feel that incredible feeling of having their dreams come true in the amazing genre that we have.”
And his message was personal. Alluding to his once being willing to pose with the Confederate flag, Combs said: “People can be changed. I mean, I think I’m a living, mouth-breathing example of it right here.”
Morris stepped up to address the issue of racial disparity at the CMA Awards in November when, in accepting the award for best female vocalist (among others she picked up that night), she reeled off a list of Black artists she felt deserved a fair hearing and to ultimately also be up for that award. Between that, her “Better Than We Left It” single and her reaction to the Wallen scandal, she’s been increasingly looked to as a spokesperson for diversity. But she’s not unaware of the fact that it’d be better if Black women had that platform to speak up for themselves and each other.
“I really didn’t set out to be this activist, and obviously none of us are the authority on racism, because we are white people in a space that is historically rooted in a lot of racism,” she said at the outset of the CRS Q&A. “So I think it’s really hard for me as a white person to deconstruct all of that. And I think the initial sort of white fragility moment is like, ‘I’m not racist. I haven’t done anything racist. I have friends that are Black.’ Yada yada, you can go down the list. But I think once I took that layer away, it’s kind of liberating to not bow up anytime someone questions a motive or an action of yours. So I think that I’m still shedding that insecurity that white people especially in country music get when we don’t want to really face the history of this genre that I would say we all love dearly and has shaped us as human beings and as artists.”
She continued, “But it is really important for me to look at that history, and know who created it. And how do I, as one person, have enough of a ripple effect and do what I’m doing in my own lane to make room for more Black people that want to be in country music, whether that is a songwriter, an artist, a musician, or someone that wants to be in the industry? So I feel like that’s what I can do with my power as an artist…. That’s where my head is perpetually at, especially this last year. A little late, but better late than never.”