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Three chords and some truth you may not be ready for.
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Music City

By Holly Gleason

You don’t need to talk to Morgan Wallen about The Voice, where Adam Levine stole him from Usher. Or bring up Florida Georgia Line, who shared his first smash, “Up Down.” Nor is it necessary to talk about the Jason Aldean #1 “You Make It Easy,” co-written with Brian Kelley, Tyler Hubbard and Jordan Schmidt. To understand the East Tennessee Wallen, you just need to listen to “The Way I Talk,” the first single from his first EP and a track on his debut album, If I Know Me. With its opening, “Some people like to make a little fun of the way I talk/It gets slower after three or four cold beers/And gets louder when I’m cheerin’ on the Volunteers,” you’ve got quite the core sample.

It’s hours before the Rock the South throwdown in Cullman, Ala. Wallen’s sharing the bill with HARDY, Jake Owen and FGL—and there’s a bus containing the entire Big Loud Team rolling south out of Music City to celebrate the tsunami #1 success of “Whiskey Glasses,” including 211 million total global streams. For a preacher’s kid from Sneedville, Tenn., it’s all pretty crazy, and it’s also all about staying true—mullet included—to who he was raised to be.

“Whiskey Glasses” is officially “one of those songs.”
I see it every night when I play live. It’s taken over as the best moment in my set. You can tell, people just know, they feel what that song is. It’s fun when they’re so into it.

After a song like “Up Down,” you want to follow with something that can measure up. You don’t want to expect something that would go like “Up Down” again, but I’ve got this team who works so hard for me, and I didn’t want to let them down.

“The Way I Talk” says everything about you.
If you were at my shows, you’d think that was a big ole hit. I’d met Ben Hayslip, who wrote it with Chase McGill and Jesse Alexander, and really hit it off. He’s just a good ole boy, so he understands. He sent it to me and said, “This feels like you.” And it sure does.

“Talkin’ Tennessee” and “Had Me at Half-time” are very East Tennessee kind of songs.
In my music, I wanted people to get a sense of who I am and what makes me me. It was important that there were some pieces on me. I think people do wanna get to know you, not just like the songs. They wanna like you and who you are. I’ve noticed quite a few people talk to me about those songs, and they’re not even from Tennessee.

Tennessee football is almost a religion.
[Laughs] Growing up, I didn’t even think about it. Now that I’ve traveled some, I see it. In Knoxville, it’s bigger than the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA combined. The stadium is 100,000 people—and it’s not necessarily the football, though that’s part of it. The Vols are representing us, and we’re all proud of where we’re from.

You really are like your audience.
It comes with the territory of where I’m from. I don’t make a big deal of it, because it’s just who I am. Who thinks about that? My buddies would give you the shirt off their back, even if they didn’t know you. There are a lot of good people from out there in the middle of nowhere; maybe they were raised right. Maybe it’s just in their genes. But they will go out of their way to help other people, to be nice. There’s just a certain way we treat people.

So much has been made of your mullet.
I guess people think it’s a bold statement. But honestly, I was just messing around. Half my fans don’t even remember Joe Diffie or know who he is. But every single show, a bunch of dudes show up in sleeveless flannel with a mullet. There’s pockets of these guys, and they’re having a blast with it. I didn’t have a massive plan for some branding thing, I promise you. Everyone at my label and management was like, “Hell, no.” But it shows my personality, because people with mullets really don’t care what people think. They like to have fun, and that’s their deal.

Was it hard finding someone who’d do it?
This girl named Amy, she was pretty much the only one who believed in it, the only one who agreed with me. She’s been cutting my hair a long time She’s also now my stylist. She goes out and finds me things to wear. It’s not very hard [laughs]—you just need some scissors.

I heard it was because your dad had a mullet.
I don’t know. When I was growing up, my grandpa owned a barber shop, and he cut my hair. After he passed, I was always disappointed in people who cut my hair. But I don’t know if he did my father’s mullet.

More than even the preacher’s-kid contrast, your dad was a bigger oxymoron— he loved rock music.
Led Zeppelin was his main go-to-favorite; “No Quarter” really got him. But he loves the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, AC/DC, The Allman Brothers. He even liked Def Leppard, the arena-rock stuff.

When he was growing up, he was pretty rowdy and wild. He really lived his life, which is what brought him to faith. So, he’s one of those preachers who didn’t condemn and judge people. He was mostly about loving and accepting people. That’s how he believed and how he raised me.

Jesus would’ve probably hung out with the rockers.
Jesus hung out with anybody. That’s what we’re supposed to do. If you struggle with something, it might be a problem if you do it all the time. But overcoming is part of the journey.

Your mom was into contemporary Christian music. What did you get from her?
When I was little, she said all I loved was bluegrass. We shared that. I don’t really remember it, though.

So where does country come in?
I heard Eric Church, and he was the first person. With “Love Your Love the Most,” his words were so honest and detailed about his life. That’s what I wanted if I was ever going to make music. Then there was Tim McGraw, Keith Whitley—who’s probably my most favorite singer. I wish he could’ve told his truth a little more. My dad loves Keith Whitley too. “Kentucky Bluebird” is my favorite.

You cut Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up.” You know he’s not exactly a fan of the mainstream country-music industrial complex.
Jason isn’t mainstream or on Country radio, but I just love that song. The first album I heard was Southeastern. I don’t even know how I found it, but there was no denying that guy. All I want to do is feel something with music, and he’s obviously been through it.

Taste of Country wanted me to do one original and one cover, so I had to do “Cover Me Up,” because I just love how it feels. The reaction was so strong, I thought we should record a version. People really seemed to want it—and even with him not being on the radio, the reaction live is like it’s a hit.

Have you heard what he thinks?
I’m sure when he first heard I was gonna put it out, he hated it. But later, he tweeted and said he thought I did a good job. He’s pretty private, so I thought that was great.

For a kid who’d never traveled beyond the Southeast with your baseball team, you’ve suddenly been all over the world. Craziest thing?
Going to Australia the way we did was 36 hours. It’s already the next day. We landed in Cairns, near the Great Barrier Reef. I don’t like helicopters, but Seth [England], my manager, and Tyler from FGL were like, “C’mon, it’s gonna be all right.” We landed on a pontoon near it, then snorkeled around the Great Barrier Reef.

And there’s this thing called “shoeys,” which is… Well, there’s more rednecks there than I ever thought, and they really get into the spirit of it. Some girl threw her boot up onstage, and I think she wants me to sign it. So I’m reaching for a Sharpie, when the crowd starts shouting. I’m like, “What?” And they pass a beer up. They wanted me to drink the beer out of her boot.

And you did it?
You can’t turn it down in the moment. You don’t wanna look weak. So, yeah, I did. A few times on that run.

How was it?
Tasted like beer.

What else would people be surprised you listen to?
I love The War on Drugs; they’re one of my favorite bands. I really like Local Natives from California; they remind me of a modern-day Fleetwood Mac. They’ve got this song “Dark Days,” and a girl on the second verse who sounds a bit like Stevie Nicks, which is always a good thing. I would love to know who she is.

Music really defines you. And you’re in a place that seems very communal.
Big Loud is amazing that way, a little bit like Motown. You have these three floors with Publishing, Label, Management, Producer all right there. And it does all hang together.

I’m so glad it’s where I’m signed, because they so understand me—and they seem to understand what makes each artist who they are. We’ve never had an issue the whole time I’ve been here. That’s a rare thing in this business.