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Grand Ole Opry under fire for Morgan Wallen performance

Morgan Wallen sang at the Grand Ole Opry

Morgan Wallen sang at the Grand Ole Opry in Tennessee Saturday in a surprise performance. Neither he nor the Opry has commented on the decision to perform. Credit: Invision / AP / Evan Agostini

Morgan Wallen stepped on country music’s most historic and storied stage over the weekend, a sign that many interpreted as the Grand Ole Opry giving the troubled star its blessing and a path to reconciliation after using a racial slur on camera.

While the country star’s return to the public eye seemed inevitable, a tweet from the Opry about Wallen surprising fans at its regular Saturday broadcast show led to heavy criticism of the mostly white institution and its history as a gatekeeper.

Performers ranging from Yola, Allison Russell, Rissi Palmer, Noelle Scaggs of Fitz and the Tantrums, Joy Oladokun, Chely Wright, as well as Grammy winners Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell, weighed in on how the Opry’s decision could have troubling consequences for artists of color in country music.

"Morgan Wallen’s thoughtless redemption tour is the nail in the coffin of me realizing these systems and this town is not really for us," wrote Oladokun on Sunday.

Wallen was caught on camera last year using a racial slur and while some organizations banned him temporarily, he has returned to the airwaves and remained the most popular artist of 2021 across all genres. He resumed touring arenas last year and has been releasing new music, including collaborations with rapper Lil Durk, who is Black, and country artist ERNEST. Wallen made an unannounced appearance on the Opry, which has been broadcasting for nearly 100 years, to sing with ERNEST.

This time the criticism centered more on the silent signaling by the Opry than Wallen himself.

"It’s the idea of a young Black artist walking into that venue and wondering if ANYBODY is on their side," wrote Isbell. "What a lot of us consider to be a grand ole honor can be terrifying for some."

A publicist for the Opry did not return a request for comment from The Associated Press.

Soon after the video of Wallen using a slur was published on TMZ, the country singer apologized and told fans not to defend his racist language. But his fans have galvanized their support for him, boosting his streaming numbers when radio stations were pulling him off playlists. Wallen himself acknowledged a lack of awareness when asked on "Good Morning America" in July of last year about whether country music had a problem with race. "It would seem that way, yeah. I haven’t really sat and thought about that," he replied.

A publicist for Wallen did not return a request for comment from the AP.

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