Morgan Wallen, Pop-Up Album Release Show
How does a superstar celebrate releasing new music? When you’re Morgan Wallen, whose double-disc Dangerous shattered consumption records in spite of a fairly profound “time-out,” a free show for One Thing At A Time designed to keep the focus on the music. But for the Sneedville, Tennessean, a pop-up show isn’t about playing Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge or even the Ryman. Instead, it takes Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena to meet demand.
Thursday, March 2nd, fans circled the building twice, trying to get tickets to the GA on the floor, reserved seats on the sides, surprise performance. Deemed “power acoustic,” the largely 20- and 30-something crowd were treated to 78 minutes of new music, a few hits and enough of the bonhomie that permeates Wallen’s country-forward, hip hop-undertowed songs.
The trouble with album launch shows, especially on such a large scale, especially with projects delivering 36 songs, is unfamiliarity. In such a large space, the lean-in listening isn’t as likely – and even obsessive fans struggle to stay “in” the moment. Adding to disconnection was Wallen’s reliance on a teleprompter, spending several songs sitting on a stool and not moving around the “in the round” stage to connect with the fans on the sides or behind him.
Wallen’s strength is how he makes fans feel like his songs are their lives. From the moment “Whiskey Glasses” started connecting, he was the good-timing, aw shucks embodiment of that audience, right down to the detours and disappointments that mark a life being sorted out. Those things – even on some of the more unfamiliar material – were on full display in his 22 song set.
The show opening “Born With A Beer In My Hand,” which also opens One Thing At A Time, the coping skills “Whiskey Friends,” the slip-rhythmed “Sunrise” that tracks the girl or the SEC conference annexing hot Alabama co-ed “Tennessee Fan” suggests this way of life isn’t as exotic as Yankees, intellectuals and the people living the high white collar life might think. Easy-going, deeply committed to a way of life, Wallen’s truth is fly-over America’s current soundtrack.
Even more powerful, in the stripped down setting, the country roots of Wallen’s music dominate the songs. The giddy-yup back beat of “Everything I Love” manifests classic hillbilly misdirection and word play, while the steel guitar-tangling “Devil Don’t Know” scrapes the heartache bottom of a young man facing the special kind of hell losing the girl has become. Delivered as a simple witness, it showed Wallen can inhabit the simplest and most unadorned country song.
Invoking one of his favorite artists, “Keith Whitley” uses song titles and personal stumbles to offer an assessment of how life and love can spin away from you. Even as an unprecedented heavyweight champion playing multiple stadiums, Wallen remains most impactful losing the girl, being plagued with the self-doubt and insecurity that defines boys chasing girls.
The misadventures that fueled his most recent #1 country radio hit “Thought You Should Know,” directed to his mother, and “Dyin’ Man,” which tracks Elvis’ and Hank Williams’ demise, take that vulnerability and create a new platform for the mullet-sporting vocalist. More than just the pain or the party, these two songs suggest growing up are part of inhabiting life completely.
Beyond the new music, Wallen foments joy among his fans. Attentive (enough) through the first two-thirds of the show, the watershed arrived with him solo at a piano delivering “Sand In My Boots,” an “Anything But Mine”-evoking #1 where a summer love sees the boy heading home alone, that had the arena punctuated with lights held aloft.
From there, it was a seven-song superset of his best-known hits. With more velocity and a higher comfort level, Wallen prowled the stage, moving freely, smiling and reaching into the space with a will to embrace the room.
“More Than My Hometown” took the audience to a new threshold, one where they sang along with complete abandon. The gently defiant, small town-embracing “The Way I Talk” and bounding “Whiskey Glasses,” which launched his career, had enough bounce to keep the mood aloft.
It set up a close of the massive “Wasted On You,” the syncopated drunk fight/forgive “Last Night” and One Thing’s lead smash “You Proof” that swept the night into a power-close. With the audience swept into the “oooohs” that each song provided, there was dancing in the seats and arms throwing from side-to-side.
Whether young people sharing Wallen’s attempt to find their place, the heavyset middle-aged women remembering who they were back when, older men looking embarrassed when they realized the girl they were dancing with was 19, as well as the false-eyelash/cutoffs’n’cowboy boots or sparkle plenty party girls, it’s a celebration of flawed innocence where people can be who they are and it’s okay.
Just being seen and celebrated in a world that’s too heavy and strident is a luxury that Wallen’s fans exult in. For one night only, at a pop-up power acoustic show, middle Tennessee got to experience a new record in a way that’s profoundly different from the pyro’n’video, dry ice smoke and everything else production-heavy presentation of his last tour.
If there were stumbles or tentativity, it was real. Sometimes that’s the greatest gift an artist can give their fans.