Photo: John Shearer
Morgan Wallen On Crafting His Chart-Topping, 30-Song Project ‘Dangerous: The Double Album’
Fast-rising country star Morgan Wallen spoke with GRAMMY.com about his record-breaking 'Dangerous: The Double Album' and the challenges of a nearly gig-free year
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.
Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More
The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'
In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.
"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.
Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.
"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."
Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American.
"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."
Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images
5 Questions With ... Luke Bryan
Rising country star sits down with The Recording Academy in Nashville
Country singer/songwriter Luke Bryan was the recent guest for an installment of The Recording Academy's 5 Questions With … series. Held at The Recording Academy Nashville Chapter, Bryan discussed how becoming a father has affected his songwriting, his first headlining tour and future projects, among other topics.
"[Being a parent] makes me a little sleepier when I'm writing songs, but being a father and also a husband just adds depth to your life, which I think helps add depth to your songwriting," said Bryan. "That aspect of my life will definitely enter into a lot of my music."
View video from 5 Questions With … Luke Bryan
Born in Leesburg, Ga., Bryan was gifted his first guitar at age 14. He had previously tried his hand at piano, but it was the guitar and a heavy dose of radio that served as the tools for his music education. After graduating from Georgia Southern University, in 2001 Bryan relocated to Nashville where he landed a songwriting deal. In 2004 one of his songs, "Honky-Tonk History," served as the title track for GRAMMY winner Travis Tritt's My Honky Tonk History. After signing a deal with Capitol Records, Bryan released his debut album, 2007's I'll Stay Me, which reached No. 24 on the Billboard 200. Bryan's sophomore set, 2009's Doin' My Thing, cracked the Top 10, peaking at No. 6. The album spawned a pair of Top 40 singles, "Do I" and "Rain Is A Good Thing." Also in 2009, Bryan released the first of his four Spring Break EPs. His next installment, Spring Break … Here To Party, is set for release March 5. Bryan's most recent full-length album, 2011's Tailgates And Tanlines, reached No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and surpassed platinum sales.
In December 2012 Bryan performed at "The GRAMMY Nominations Concert Live!! — Countdown To Music's Biggest Night," which was held for the first time in Nashville. Bryan is currently on tour throughout the United States with dates scheduled through October.
ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"
Singer/songwriter Ant Clemons puts his own spin on Bill Withers' immortal "Ain't No Sunshine" in an exclusive performance for ReImagined At Home.
Why has Bill Withers' immortal hit, "Ain't No Sunshine," endured for decades? And, furthermore, why does it seem set to reverberate throughout the ages?
Could it be because it's blues-based? Because it's relatable to anyone with a pulse? Because virtually anyone with an ounce of zeal can believably yowl the song at karaoke?
Maybe it's for all of those reasons and one more: "Ain't No Sunshine" is flexible.
In the latest episode of ReImagined At Home, check out how singer/songwriter Ant Clemons pulls at the song's edges like taffy. With a dose of vocoder and slapback, Clemons recasts the lonesome-lover blues as the lament of a shipwrecked android.
Giving this oft-covered soul classic a whirl, Clemons reminds music lovers exactly why Withers' signature song has staying power far beyond his passing in 2020. It will probably be a standard in 4040, too.
Check out Ant Clemons' cosmic, soulful performance of "Ain't No Sunshine" above and click here to enjoy more episodes of ReImagined At Home.
"GRAMMY Effect" Spikes Sales
"GRAMMY Effect" Spikes Sales
The 52nd Annual GRAMMY Awards drove a 3.3 percent increase in album sales compared to last week, according to a Billboard report. The 2010 GRAMMY Nominees album jumped to No. 5 with sales of 71,000 units, a 55 percent increase. Top GRAMMY winner Beyoncé's I Am…Sasha Fierce rose to No. 14 with sales of 32,000 copies, a 101 percent increase. Other GRAMMY performers experiencing sales increases include Pink (up 234 percent), Dave Matthews Band (up 114 percent), the Zac Brown Band (up 82 percent), the Black Eyed Peas (up 76 percent), Taylor Swift (up 58 percent), and Lady Gaga (up 17 percent). Lady Antebellum, who also performed on the telecast, remained at No. 1 for the second consecutive week. (2/10)
Grainge Promoted To UMG CEO
Universal Music Group International Chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge has been promoted to CEO of Universal Music Group, effective Jan. 1, 2011. He will succeed Doug Morris and report to Jean-Bernard Lévy, chairman of the management board of Vivendi. Grainge will relocate from London to New York to serve as co-CEO of UMG in tandem with Morris for six months starting July 1. Morris, who has served as UMG chairman and CEO since 1995, will remain as company chairman. (2/10)