For those who are unaware of the story, Morgan Wallen is a country music artist. I have never purchased one of his albums, nor seen him in concert, and for the most part he is not the sort of fellow I'd give much of my attention to. This was made all the more so when, in February of this year, a video of Wallen circulated wherein he was highly intoxicated and used the n-word to refer to a friend of his. The friend is apparently not black, though I'm not sure which would be worse. This sort of colloquial use of that word is one for which I have little use; however, suffice it to say, there is not a white person in this country who ought to use that word in any context. It was bad.
Wallen was rightly, and quickly, criticized by nearly everyone. He was also remorseful and apologetic. You can read (or watch) his complete statement here:
He also pledged $500,000 to black-led groups, earmarking part of it in $15,000 chunks in the names of 20 people who counseled him following this incident, and leaving with them the option of donating to the charity of their choice or keeping it within the BMAC, the organization to whom he donated the money.
Is that sufficient remorse? It's not for me to say. Ultimately, those he has harmed must answer that question, as must his fans and the country music industry. The latter, at least, have answered that question by continuing to purchase his albums and go to his shows. In droves.
Enter Jason Isbell. Jason Isbell, by contrast to Morgan Wallen, is one of my favorite songwriters and recording artists. I love his work with the Drive-by Truckers, and I love his solo work, especially his 2013 masterpiece, Southeastern. Jason Isbell writes songs about redemption. His redemption. In a particularly strange twist of irony, perhaps the greatest of these songs is a song off of Southeastern entitled "Cover Me Up." "Cover Me Up" was covered by Morgan Wallen. This embarrasses Jason Isbell, in the bright light of 20/20 hindsight.
"Cover Me Up" is a song about a drunk, high, stoned, arguably abusive Jason Isbell, and how his now-wife, then-girlfriend Amanda Shires helped him through that period in his life to become a better man. The lyrics include masterpieces such as these:
It is a particularly beautiful song, one that sounds themes of weakness, pride, hurt and ultimately humility, humiliation and eventual redemption. It is a song about brokenness, recovery and hope.
Because Morgan Wallen covered "Cover Me Up," Isbell thought it right to condemn Wallen's words when they were initially made public. He called them "disgusting and horrifying." He was right. They were. And he was also right that Wallen owed an apology and much, much more. For his part, Isbell donated the songwriting royalties for the Wallen version of "Cover Me Up" to the NAACP. This, too, was a noble act. After announcing the donation of the Wallen royalties to the NAACP on Twitter, Isbell's manager said he does not plan to comment beyond the tweet. This month, Isbell broke that promise.
This is, in part, because Wallen's redemption has been more than expected, certainly by Isbell at least. Morgan Wallen had the best selling album of 2021. Not the best-selling country album, the best selling album in any genre. His tour has played to sold-out venues all summer. One can imagine lots of reasons why, but two seem readily apparent. First, the attempt by people like Isbell to "cancel" Wallen generated a backlash. Second, people love a good redemption story.
Isbell talks about the second of those in a recent interview. Referencing George Jones, he says "excuses have been made over and over to try to craft that same white male narrative. It’s just part of the story. It’s like, ‘yes, sometimes, as white men who’ve been put upon, we slip and we make mistakes, but we can rise again! And that’s country music, folks.'" So to the extent country music fans, and Americans in general, believe in rising above your mistakes, Isbell thinks this is a terrible thing. Well, except for the success of his own version of "Cover Me Up," which is ironically about that very thing. Isbell sounds the themes, reaps the rewards, and then refuses to acknowledge that the same impetus that made his fans love "Cover Me Up" is the one that sends Morgan Wallen's fans to buy his album and attend his shows. The irony in this is hard to miss.
However, there is a greater issue, and it's the one Isbell doesn't talk about, except in an ironic sense because he's making it worse. Again referencing George Jones, he says "there’s a lot of shit that George did that was not cool, shit that you really should not be able to be completely redeemed from." Well, who is Jason Isbell to decide what one ought to be "completely redeemed from?" Does he want to live by those rules? The guy who "tore off (her) dress in Richmond on high?" Listening to Isbell's music, it is apparent that the very themes he sounds himself are the ones he cries against most loudly when others reap the benefit. This is a textbook example of why the phrase "virtue signaling" was invented.
This isn't the first time Isbell has done this either. In June of 2020, Mike Fuller, who makes Fulltone guitar pedals, made a comment on his own website about the rioting in Los Angeles, where Fulltone is based. He decried the looting "with 100% impunity," and said the mayor and governor don't care about small businesses. For this, Isbell took to Twitter to tar Fuller as a racist. He said "Check out black-owned pedal company Dogman Devices. http://Dogmandevices.com I’ve not used them but they seem to be good and fulltone has always made overpriced junk." So Isbell doesn't purchase Dogman Devices pedals, he calls Fulltone Pedals "overpriced junk" (which is nonsense -- I own two of them and they are fantastic pedals, whatever one thinks of Mike Fuller's politics), and he gets in his Twitter virtue signal and his shot at Fuller. But what has he actually done? Maybe he began purchasing Dogman Devices pedals? Even assuming so, before that he had ignored them in favor of other manufacturers. He wasn't promoting that pedal company except in an attempt to tear down Mike Fuller's pedal company. So what makes him better than Mike Fuller? Mike Fuller never trashed Isbell's music publicly, after all.
All of this highlights the real issue. Isbell is not speaking now because Morgan Wallen's apology, donations and remorse are insufficient. And being honest, he's not speaking now because Morgan Wallen did "shit that you really should not be able to be completely redeemed from." That's not his call to make. He's speaking now because he has a large following on Twitter, and he has made a name for himself in large part by calling for the cancellation of people he disagrees with. And let's be even more honest -- that desire to destroy Wallen is precisely why Wallen's fans flock to him all the more. It's why Wallen's albums outsell Isbell's by multiples, and why Wallen sells out bigger venues routinely. Granted, part of this is the different way they make music -- Isbell is and has always been a smaller operation, and as a songwriter he is not willing to make the compromises people like Wallen make to be a bigger artist. That is commendable. But after that video surfaced, Wallen's career could easily have been over. Instead, people like Isbell unwittingly encourage his fans to embrace the redemption story. And that is a good thing, if only Isbell could see it.
The prideful impetus that makes Isbell feel he has to speak out against Wallen is not based in a desire for Wallen's redemption. Far from it. Isbell seeks Wallen's destruction in order to appease his fans. And ironically ends up helping him to be bigger than ever. It is an indictment on our society that this is encouraged by anyone, or seen as virtuous. And while I doubt I will ever buy a Morgan Wallen record or concert ticket, I have not yet lost so much of my humanity that I don't appreciate the value of redemption. It is the core of what the Christian Church teaches us. We are all rotten. But there is hope, and that hope is in Christ, Who calls us to become by grace what He is by nature. Who, yes, redeems us.
It is, I suppose, a great irony that if I did not believe so much in the value of redemption, I wouldn't like Jason Isbell's music as much as I do. And it is a great tragedy that he fails to see that.