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DANGEROUS TIMES: A CONVERSATION WITH MORGAN WALLEN

 

Morgan Wallen was locked down in a hotel room somewhere in New York executing his Saturday Night Live quarantine with precision. For an athletic kid from East Tennessee who likes to spend his days fishing, it wasn’t ideal. “But,” he said with a laugh, “I’m in a corner, so I’ve got windows on two sides and can see a lot of the city.”

With his 30-song Dangerous: The Double Album (Big Loud/Republic) coming on fast and hard, the mullet-sporting breakout star proves his quadruple-platinum “Whiskey Glasses,” triple-platinum Diplo and Julia Michaels collaboration “Heartless,” current platinum “More Than My Hometown” and Apple single-day country-streaming record holder/#6 debut “7 Summers” weren’t just momentum or a moment.

Working outside the traditional Nashville mainframe with producer Joey Moi and Moi’s Big Loud partner Seth England, Wallen continually colors outside the lines — whether covering Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” or dropping songs on Instagram and TikTok. As that last example suggests, he’s connected to his fans in ways unprecedented for a country star. When Wal-Mart leaked Dangerous, for instance, he took to his socials.

From the wistful “Sand in My Boots” through closers “Livin’ the Dream” (a nervy number) and “Quittin’ Time” (a ruminative acoustic), Dangerous unpacks the realities of being a young man seeking his place in the flyover. His yearning, kicking-back, seeking-love, getting-hurt and having-fun-along-the-way 808s-’n’-bluegrass-instrument pop-meets-country cocktail may be the best look yet at small-town coming of age for a nation seemingly further divided by the day.

A double album is pretty ambitious.
We probably had 18 or 20 songs. That’s where you’re thinking, “Well, let’s trim it down to 12, or 15.” Though Seth and I had jokingly been talking about a double album. That was before COVID. Once we figured we might actually have enough time to write even more songs and record ’em all, we decided to go for it.

Still, that’s a lot.
I’ve always wanted to do a little bit extra. And I think albums matter; albums are something you should strive for. I don’t think everyone’s gonna love every song, but the people want to get to know you, and I don’t think they can do that with one song. I’ve seen people approach it like, “I just need one song, one single, and we’re gonna take it to radio, and it’ll be great.” Then they wonder why they’ve only got one single. And then, that’s it. I don’t understand that approach, chasing something.

One disc is the romantic; the other’s the guy living his life.
I’ve got my redneck rambunctious side, then more of a soft, introspective side. I like to have a good time for sure. But if I’m going to sit down to write by myself or with a close friend, it’s probably going towards taking a look at myself, at something that’s happened. I wrote “Dangerous” after I got into trouble; [songwriter] EARNEST and I wrote it a couple days after [Wallen was arrested at Kid Rock’s bar], so “I don’t want to go downtown” is basically me talking to me.

Not what people think, is it?
I’m always the life of the party; I like to make people happy, see folks have a good time. Most people are in my corner. But at this point, I’m realizing there are people who’ll take advantage of me. But it’s also if I’m feeling a certain way, if I’m getting rowdy to try and run away from something or forget. That’s what I really meant; that’s when I’m dangerous — when I’m trying to escape.

You’ve had some troubles.
This year has been incredible for a lot of reasons, but I’ve really tried to stay the same. I didn’t change anything, even with the “trouble” I got into. I’m not super shameful about the shit I was doing, you know? It’s not like I was hurting anyone.

And you’ve owned it.
I’ve always believed you can’t really run from things. I was taught what’s done in the dark will be brought to the light, so you might as well just go ahead and bring it to light and get it fixed as soon as you can. I still live by that. I try to be honest. I’m gonna let you know everything in my music, even in my everyday life. I may offend you, but I’m gonna tell you how I really feel.

You’ve got Chris Stapleton on “Only Thing That’s Gone,” some old-school country blues.
He’s one of my favorite vocalists of all time. We sent him a couple songs and gave him total freedom. When he comes in on that first chorus, it adds a whole new element. He’s a pretty dynamic singer, but he’s singing very soft. I figured if we could get the blend, it would sound awesome.

And Jason Isbell. Not what people would expect.
I don’t remember who showed me Southeastern, but “Cover Me Up” stuck. So Dom [Frost], my guitar player, and I always warmed up with that. Backstage, wherever, and we were on a lot of tours. People would always stop and ask, “What song is that?” Jason and I are in a completely different lane. I wanted to bring his song into my lane and give it a different life.

On an album with “Country A$$ Shit,” “Need a Boat,” “Beer Don’t”...
It’s all life.

Is that why one album’s redneck and one’s romantic?
When I’m writing a song, I just try to get the feelings out, whatever they are. When it came to recording, we picked those songs because of the way they made us feel. Those songs were how side two felt.

You use trap beats, 808s. Then you have Bryan Sutton, a 10-time International Bluegrass Music Association Guitarist of the Year. And Ilya Toshinsky, an Academy of Country Music Specialty Instrumentalist of the Year winner.
I’ve even used some banjo on this record and a mandolin, too. I love those sounds based off my childhood, so we wanted to bring those in. Since Joey and I met, he’s kind of understood me and my direction, maybe better than I did. So this time, there are songs where there’s a lot going on, which Joey’s known for, and some that are pretty simple.


So this is all of you.
You get to draw from every emotion in your life, maybe not over all the years but the years writing and collecting songs for this album. It definitely gives you more of a chance to explore all the things you’ve felt. This record made me feel a lot of different things. That’s what I’m really most proud of.

Feelings are something men don’t always talk about.
I’m not afraid to tap into my emotions, or to even show my emotions or say what I want to say to a girl. It’s not something that scares me. I’m gonna be the man in the situation; I’ll step up if I need to. But I’m not scared to let someone know that I’m feeling a certain way. That tough-guy act can be exhausting.

“Livin’ the Dream” captures a rare feeling, the hollowness of fame.
That was written before I had any idea what all of this was. It’s hard to put into words, but to go from a small circle of people caring about you to a large group of people with expectations... It’s not some slow song with me moping around, though; it’s got a groove, a little more pop, more in that Fleetwood Mac range. Because I really don’t want it to come across like I want pity. I do realize how blessed I am.

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