Living Dangerous: Morgan Wallen – Shattering All Records, Raring For The Road
Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images for Ryman Auditorium – Morgan Wallen
appears on the cover of Pollstar. He’s pictured performing at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021.
Dangerous, Morgan Wallen’s 30-song, double disc sophomore release, topped this week’s Billboard Top 200 Albums chart for the third straight week –marking the first country album in eight years to rule the chart for three weeks. In its debut week, Wallen shattered every record imaginable for streaming, along with playing a livestream concert from Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. After notching 1.8 billion streams in 2020, he followed with 265,000 album-equivalent units moved for Dangerous’ first week – including over 240 million streams of the release. The next week the album boasted 159,000 units including 177 million streams and the third week it earned 130,000 equivalent album units.
Between his Diplo (with and without Julia Michaels) collaboration “Heartless,” his No. 1 “Chasin’ You” and a heart-tugging cover of Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up,” Wallen had been building his place in country music. But this fall, he watched the Instagram/TikTok-erupting “7 Summers” explode as his platinum-certified “More Than My Hometown” worked its more conventional way to No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart.
Suddenly, the mullet-sporting emerging country superstar who’d been bounced off – then redeemed and rebooked on – “Saturday Night Live” solidified as a force of nature. For perspective, last year Luke Combs and Kenny Chesney were the only country artists to have topped Billboard’s Top 200 Albums, demonstrating a reach few Nashville artists have.
“And if we were touring, it would’ve been more,” laments Big Loud partner/CEO Seth England. “That number would’ve been over 300,000, because the passive fans would’ve seen him and this music – and responded.
“We’ve seen the way touring impacts consumption. For a lot of people, it goes from, ‘I really like this guy’s songs’ to ‘I believe the singer, and what he’s saying. I’m IN.’ We saw three-day speed bumps (when he’d play a show) starting out; seven days when there was radio because of the excitement the stations would drive. And it was catalogue wide, not just whatever single was on the radio.”
When iconic Nashville agent Kevin Neal of WME met Morgan Wallen, he knew there was something special about the kid from East Tennessee who had a voice that was a little bit porous, a little bit turpentine and pinewood and more than a little shaped by singing in church. Even as his first single “The Way I Talk” peaked at No. 35 on Billboard’s Country Singles chart, Austin Neal – the legend’s son and now Wallen’s RA – set about booking him on a small 23-city headlining tour in 2018 between direct support dates for Jason Aldean; believing “Up Down,” his follow-up featuring Florida Georgia Line, would help sell tickets for the unproven young act.
Kiley Donohoe – Livin’ the Dream:
Morgan Wallen performs July 19, 2019, at the Xfinity Theatre in Hartford, Conn., in support of Florida Georgia Line.
“There was just something about him,” Austin Neal says. “My dad told me I needed to meet him; that he was special. We played golf and rode in the cart together. A week later my dad had his stroke and Morgan and I got close, updating him on how Dad was doing…”
Stepping in, stepping up, Austin had no idea he was holding onto the tail of a comet. The pair would watch the ultimately double-platinum “Up Down” shoot to No. 1. Tours with Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line got him in front of the right potential fans. Suddenly, the guy from Sneedville, Tenn., was viral, blowing up streaming charts and emerging as a certified sensation.
2018’s “Whiskey Glasses” also hit No. 1, as well as being the No. 1 Country Song of 2019, mining RIAA quadruple-platinum status and MC-certified quintuple-platinum in Canada. Suddenly, there was no denying the guy who decided a mullet haircut was a good idea. With a preacher dad who liked hard rock, a mother who loved country and Christian music, a home outside Knoxville that was fertile ground for bluegrass and the hip-hop lean of kids his age, Wallen and producer Joey Moi (Nickelback, Jake Owen, Theory of a Deadman) distilled all the music he knew to hit a vein with the kids who looked like he did.
“When Joey and I got together, he kind of understood me and my direction better than I did when we first met,” today’s country supernova says. “He gets where I come from, brings some of the things – like mandolin and banjo, which we’ve not really used too much – with it, but he does those songs that have a lot going on that he’s so known for.
“I try to write and sing songs that are honest, that make me feel something because I think that’s what people really want. I have songs like ‘Still Going Down’ that’s more of the celebrate/ drinking thing, because I love to have a good time and go out. But, you know, I don’t always feel like going to a bonfire and partying.”
It may be the yearning songs that really pull people in. As England explains, “It seems the biggest themes he draws on are girls who dream bigger dreams, girls who move on to bigger things while he just holds on to his smalltown values.”
Country artists become true superstars on the road. Lots of folks can run songs up the charts, but who sells hard tickets really tells the story. When the pandemic hit, Wallen was on the verge of ascending to being a meaningful headliner in boxscores, not just name-on-a-ticket. He’s lost a year of development on the road – save a one-off socially distanced outdoor show in Rome, Ga., where Austin Neal marvels, “Tickets were pretty aggressively priced; our front row pods were $1,500. We capped at around 5,000 and it sold out that day.” Yet, nothing seems to be slowing him down.
“He was going out on Luke Bryan’s tour,” England says. “Luke was there in the beginning, and Morgan appreciated that. It’s all outdoor amphitheaters, so it was a big decision, but the plan was to do that and festivals… After that, it was a blank slate, go into arenas, but no one knows what that really means.
John Shearer / Getty Images / Ryman Auditorium – Live From The Ryman:
Morgan Wallen celebrates the release of his sophomore album with a free livestreamed show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., on Jan. 12, 2021.
“With Dangerous, and not by decision, he’s almost caught up to Luke Combs in terms of songs in the marketplace. Even before COVID, the fans were digging on the hits, but not just the hits. They knew all the songs that were out there, some only on streaming services.”
When Dangerous dropped, not only did “Wasted on You” debut at No. 9 on the all-genre song chart, it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart where – wait for it – 27 of the 30 charted. He even landed 19 of those songs on Billboard’s Global 200.
The volume of new music has created either an interesting opportunity or problem, depending on how you choose to see it. England, a marketer who understands analytics as well as the emotional connection of actual people, is bullish on the future.
“We know right now Morgan could do two Madison Square Gardens,” explains the Big Loud manager/label executive. “Promoters we’ve worked with say to me, ‘How’s he going to do all this music?’ I’ve said, ‘Maybe it’s two nights, different set lists.’ We’re going to need to be strategic; we’re also going to need to be creative.”
“Our approach has always been to leave some meat on the bone,” Neal adds. “In November 2019, we put 2,500-5,000 capacity shows on sale. They were gone the day we went on sale. We want what’s going to give him a long term career, not just a grab for the money. Change things up, be smart, let it evolve.
“The thing about Morgan, he’s always had a high energy show. Elements of classic country, some pop, rock, it’s all in there, so his music reaches across a lot of ground. We had him booked at Bonnaroo on the Which Stage this year in front of Grace Potter, Young Thug and Vampire Weekend.”
For only attending his first concert in 2014 – Eric Church at Knoxville, Tenn.’s Thompson Boling Arena – Wallen’s scaled pretty quickly. This summer, beyond the Luke Bryan dates, he will (if the dates hold) headline the Houston Rodeo & Livestock Show; Country Thunder festivals in Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin and Alberta; Heartland Country Stampede in Topeka, Kan.; and Country Jam USA in Eau Claire, Wis.
“When he’s being honest and telling it like he’s seen it, or lived it, whether it’s love gained, lost, nostalgia, being lonely, ‘Livin’ The Dream’ and the challenges that come with it, he’s so blunt and real, people lean in,” England surmises. “It appears the artists Gen Z like are a little more angsty. Post Malone is a kid from Texas, whose body is covered in tattoos, who’s compared to Kurt Cobain yet can fit in a lot of different places. He and Morgan aren’t so different like that.”
While it’s unlikely a Kardashian is going to fall for the sleeveless, plaid flannel/T-shirt-sporting Wallen, a lot of girls find the good guy preacher’s son the kind of guy who “gets it.” Whether he’s singing about “Rednecks, Red Letters, Red Dirt,” “Country A$$ Shit,” the blues/soul country “Only Thing That’s Gone” with Chris Stapleton, as well as the wistful “Sand in My Boots” or “Quittin’ Time,” the 27-year old vocalist is someone fans look at and relate to.
Neal laughs about how Wallen talks onstage, just sharing in the moment with the fans. “You know, there’s the things you tell artists when they’re starting out – to make their show better, more fun. Talking too much is one thing you don’t do. Except Morgan is so raw and vulnerable, does it all the time, tells the audience what’s on his mind, and they love it.”
“I try to just be the same guy onstage that I am offstage,” the former Gibbs High baseball player explains. “I believe my fans have learned that to be true, and I think it creates a bridge between the stage to their seat or where they’re standing. We try to be honest in the songs, to keep a variety of sounds and tempos to keep people from being bored. So far, it’s worked.
“I think people want what they want, and they want to get to know you. They can’t do that from one song, or a couple songs. You’ve got to have a story to tell with your music and with you as a person. That’s the more honest place; if it’s not that, it’s just chasing something. I think people can tell.”
Kiley Donohoe – Rocking The South:
All eyes are on Morgan Wallen during his performance at “Rock The South” in Cullman, Ala., May 31, 2019
Having been conscious about underplaying, Team Wallen has embraced dynamic pricing as a way to protect the fans. It means paying attention to the way things are selling, as Neal explains, “We’ve always tried to combat scalpers. We’ve been very aggressive about the secondary ticket markets – and you have to pay attention.”
England also recognizes the working class aspect of Wallen’s base. “Whatever we do, I just want to make sure the prices are where the fans can buy their tickets. The ones who listen need to have access to them.
“We will make the fence superhigh to start, to thwart the resellers, because we know they won’t go there. One of the things people don’t know about our dynamic ticketing is at certain price points, it triggers VIP experiences, which is something you can’t buy. We make varied efforts to reach out to who the buyer might be, to stay engaged.
“For Morgan, it’s absolutely always about taking care of the people who love his music.”
With access to Universal’s Demographic Breakdowns, they’ve learned that beyond country fans, a large percentage of Gen Z and pure pop fans are embracing his music. Given the success of Diplo’s “Heartless,” the blurred genre-preferences make sense. England marvels, “He’s having the most bleed-over with Diplo, Post Malone and Blackbear, very Top 40/alternative kind of acts, which opens the door to touring with someone beyond the genre.”
That thinking outside the box serves an artist whose career is also exploding far beyond the traditional country model. That adaptivity even informs the plan to get out there should the COVID vaccine roll-out slow down America’s return to live music.
Having been forced to cancel a sold-out tour of the United Kingdom, Team Wallen is paying as much attention to the rest of the world as they are the States. Based on streaming and Shazam numbers, Wallen’s songs have moved from the BBC’s B List to the A List rotations without a great deal of nudging.
“We were supposed to be there in May, playing 500 to 2,000 seaters, with double plays in some cities – and they sold out immediately,” England says. “So we know he can easily become an arena act in Europe. We know we have to go three, four times, but one of the possibilities we could potentially see ourselves doing is embracing those areas around the globe that may open before the U.S.
“For these artists, getting out there and playing is so important. It’s what feeds their soul. For Morgan, so is building that hard ticket base that will sustain him.
“It’s so easy to play a festival for a nice six figure guarantee, do that three times a weekend across a few weekends over the summer. But when it’s over, what do you have? He wants to have a real relationship with the fans, and we’re going to do everything in our power – knowing every plan we’ve made can change over and over – to make that happen.”
Troy ‘Tracker’ Johnson: Day-To-Day With Morgan Wallen, Country’s Most ‘Dangerous’ Man
Troy ‘Tracker’ Johnson: Day-To-Day With Morgan Wallen, Country’s Most ‘Dangerous’ Man