Photo: John Shearer
Morgan Wallen On Crafting His Chart-Topping, 30-Song Project ‘Dangerous: The Double Album’
A single party almost cost Morgan Wallen the gig of a lifetime. Last October, the fast-rising country star, known for his '90s-era mullet, sleeveless plaid shirts and down-home vernacular, was disinvited from his "Saturday Night Live" debut after he attended a maskless party during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Wallen released an apology video and made his "SNL" debut in December.)
Wallen has four consecutive No. 1 hits on country radio under his belt: “Up Down" feat. Florida Georgia Line, “Whiskey Glasses,” “Chasin’ You” and “More Than My Hometown.” With such a controversy in the rearview, some artists might play it safe with their second album, fearing the dreaded “sophomore slump.” However, on Jan. 8, Wallen released his newest project, the 30-song Dangerous: The Double Album, on which he proved he has no problem being a rebel—personally and professionally. And it’s paying off, big time.
Last week (Jan. 17), Dangerous debuted atop the Billboard 200 albums chart. The project earned the largest streaming week ever for a country album, according to Billboard, besting Luke Combs’ record set by the expanded version of What You See Is What You Get, in October 2020. Dangerous remains at No. 1 this week, the "first country album to spend two weeks in a row at No. 1 since Chris Stapleton’s Traveller in 2015," Billboard reports.
In November, Wallen capped off 2020 by accepting the Country Music Association’s New Artist Of The Year award, which followed last summer’s soft-rock-tinged hit, “7 Summers.” The track debuted atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and shattered streaming records on Apple Music and Spotify.
Dangerous: The Double Album balances Wallen’s rowdy ways with more heartfelt, romantic material. Through countless odes to partying and endless rounds of liquid courage, he chronicles a journey of seeking love, losing love and growing up in the piercing heat of a global spotlight. Wallen steeped the album in an amalgam of country and swaggering arena rock, accented by banjos, mandolins, steel guitar and programmed beats.
The morning after debuting songs from Dangerous during his socially distanced debut headlining show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, Wallen spoke with GRAMMY.com about the challenges of a nearly gig-free year, the reason why he made a double album and the Jason Isbell song that most resonates with him.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Ryman Auditorium concert marked your debut headlining performance at country music’s Mother Church, but also your first full concert in about ten months.
I was honestly nervous because we hadn’t played in so long, and with all new songs and everything. But it felt even better than I expected. I had intentions to talk more during the show, but the first time I started talking, I almost started bawling my eyes out, so I decided not to talk much after that. I miss [playing shows] so bad, so it was emotional for me to be up there. Seeing those people and the energy they gave out is something I have missed tremendously.
When did you first visit the Ryman Auditorium?
My first time was playing a show with Craig Wiseman to support Second Harvest Food Bank. So the first time I ever went through the doors, I got to sing a song, which is pretty cool.
If I Know Me, your debut album, is certified platinum and reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. Still, putting out a 30-song album for your second major label project is a bold move.
With the time we are in, I was given a lot more time to work on it because I wasn’t on the road. The idea of making a double album started as a joke between my manager [Big Loud CEO Seth England] and me. We already had about 20 songs done at the beginning of 2020, but then everything happened the way it did, and I had time to add more. Some of those turned out to be my favorites on the album. We thought, “Why not?”
People need entertainment to get their minds off of what is going on, and it’s a hard time for everyone. Music is one of the only ways to get my mind off of it, so I figured most people felt the same way. We pretty much emptied the tank on this one and decided to go all-out on it.
Morgan Wallen performs at the Ryman Auditorium | Photo: John Shearer/Getty Images for Ryman Auditorium
Why “Dangerous” as the title track?
Ernest [Keith Smith] and I wrote that after I got into a little trouble, but we put a love story in it to make it more relatable. Honestly, it’s more of a letter to myself than it is a love story. I felt like it was a lesson I learned, and the overall premise of the message resonated with me, so I felt we should go with it as a title.
How have you handled writing songs via Zoom during the pandemic?
I did a couple of Zoom writes, then we figured out we could get mobile testing done, so we all made sure we were good before we would write in the same room. I wrote with the same group of guys a lot, so we had a pretty good trust with each other. Zoom writing is not something I enjoy doing at all. It’s hard for me to feel the same energy or vibe. I think I wrote two songs on Zoom. One was a failure, and we didn’t finish it. The other song I wrote with Thomas Rhett and was not a failure [laughs]. There are certain things you can’t replace and for me, writing in person is one of them.
You have performed Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” live, and you included a version of it for this project. What is it about that song that speaks to you?
That was the first Jason Isbell song I heard. I think that’s a pretty solid introduction to anyone, and then I discovered the rest of his catalog. The song’s arrangement is beautiful. It reminded me of my mom and dad. My dad used to be pretty wild and a little bit reckless, kind of not caring about anything. But he loved my mom, and he chose her over all that, so it reminded me of their story.
My guitar player and I would warm up by playing [“Cover Me Up”], and people would stop by and say, “Dang, what is that?” I was kind of disappointed that people in my lane, my part of life, didn’t know that song, and I thought they should. I figured the best way for me to spread that song was to do my own version.
Doing a cover like that is risky. You run the risk of the original artist not appreciating it. It took me a while to decide to do it, but my team and everyone made me feel comfortable. I appreciate Jason giving me the support he has on it.
You’ve had some ups and downs over the past year. Did your dad have any encouragement or advice for you during that time?
He felt for me because he had been in kind of a similar situation, without having to learn it in the spotlight. He just let me know he was there for me and that I would get through it. Just a lot of encouragement for me during that time, which meant more to me than anything he could have done.
Before the pandemic and this new album’s success, your star was already skyrocketing. You were set to open shows for Luke Bryan in 2020. But as you hopefully return to touring in 2021, how will that look for you?
I will still go out and open for my buddy Luke. We are honoring those dates, and we have plans to start doing our own arena shows as soon as we can get back to touring.
“Livin’ The Dream” starts with the gut-punch line, “Mama don't pray for my success anymore/But mama still prays for me.” The song addresses the stressors that often come with fame—the loneliness, the alcohol, the grueling schedules. Did you have any second thoughts about including it on the album?
I definitely had some second thoughts about it. I didn’t want people to worry about me. I didn’t want people to think it was a cry for help. We wrote that song a good while ago before I even knew the real meaning behind it. It was almost a prophetic song, in a way. You don’t always wake up pumped to be in the spotlight, but you always have to be “on.” That part can get a little tiring.
I don’t feel that way most of the time. Most of the time, I feel blessed to do something I love, but it’s not all fun and games. We wanted to write it from an honest perspective, and that’s one of the most real lyrics I’ve been part of creating.
There are several references to hometowns and small towns throughout Dangerous. You went to Gibbs High School, where Kenny Chesney attended. Did knowing that one of country music’s most significant artists came from your area give you confidence that you could try to pursue music, too?
I was so caught up in baseball in high school. I still sang and stuff, but I was supposed to play in college. Once baseball got taken away [due to an injury], I started writing my own songs. Between my family’s encouragement and knowing that someone from a little high school like I’m from could do it, that played a part in my lack of doubt.
I’ve never really let negative thoughts get in the way. I never let the idea of failure enter my mind, and I still don’t. I think that’s important for anything you want to achieve.