So we’re really going here, are we? Fine, let’s get this over with.
Back in February, Morgan Wallen was caught on video shouting “profanities and [a] racial epithet” outside his home in Nashville. Such behavior is inexcusable no matter when it happens, but in the wake of a year in which high-profile murders of Black individuals such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor had heightened the nation’s awareness of the racial inequity that persists in American society, the incident felt especially galling. At the time the reaction was swift: Wallen’s recording contract was suspended, he was booted off the radio, and he was declared ineligible for the ACM and CMA awards for that year (however, the CMAs let him remain eligible in some categories “so as not to limit opportunity for other credited collaborators.” The incident sparked a broader conversation about country music’s troubled history with artists of color, and for a moment it seemed like the incident would serve as a catalyst for long-overdue change within the industry.
Six months later, the disheartening truth is that nothing has actually changed within country music. The genre remains as exclusionary as it’s ever been: Female artists still struggle to find radio traction, Kane Brown remains the only artist of color who can find consistent airplay (Jimmie Allen‘s track record is mixed at best, and Darius Rucker appears to be getting cycled off the airwaves), and Brothers Osborne has had zero momentum ever since TJ Osborne publicly announced that he was gay. Wallen, on the other hand, saw a sustained surge in the sales of his Dangerous album, so much so that the album is currently the best-selling album of the year across all genres by a massive margin. In the end, Wallen’s airplay ban didn’t even last a full album cycle, as “Sand In My Boots” was officially shipped to radio last week as the third single from Dangerous.
It’s impossible to look inside someone’s heart and know if they’ve truly changed their ways and become a better person, but personally I think it’s too soon for Wallen to be back on mainstream radio. He didn’t exactly come across as a changed man in his GMA interview with Michael Strahan, and he’s yet to follow through on some of his earlier promises, such as an agreement to meet with the NAACP (which still hasn’t happened as of August 21st). It seems like he’s trying to return to an old normal instead of helping to create a new one, and just wants listeners to forget about his transgressions. For me, however, Wallen is still the guy who felt comfortable dropping a racial slur at full volume on a Nashville street and admitted five months later that “I haven’t really sat and thought about that,” when asked if country music had a race problem, and much like Lady A’s name controversy when talking about “Like A Lady,” it’s impossible to look past that.
So where does that leave us with “Sand In My Boots”? The song is a lament from the narrator about a romance that could have been but never was, and to the producer’s credit, the production does it job by setting the mood and emphasizing the melacholy hindsight of the whole ordeal. The song is primarily driven by a piano (serious song alert!), supported by some minimal guitar and organ work and light-touch production, and absolutely marinated in reverb effects to give the mix a more-spacious feel. While the song has few minor chords and the instrument tones are mostly neutral, the prominence of the piano and the general simplicity of the riffs give the track some real weight and emphasize the significance of the moment in the narrator’s mind. For the most part, the volume levels are kept low to keep the focus on the story rather than the sound, which helps get the narrator’s point across. It’s a solid effort that does its best to keep the song on message, and it’s a bit of a shame that everything else around it drags it down.
I’m a bit ambivalent on the writing here, as it seems to contradict itself when talking about the narrator’s night with their prospective partner. While it’s essentially the story of a failed attempt to pick someone up, I like the fact that it’s framed as an actual story, walking us through the various scenes from the initial meeting through the narrator’s ride home alone the following day. What I don’t like, however, is the way the other person is portrayed in the most unflattering way possible, as they come across as ignorant and insensitive when they “tried talkin’ with my accent” (don’t ever do that to someone you just met; it makes you sound like a jerk) and “said ‘Don’t cowboys drink whiskey?'” (they might as well have asked where the narrator’s horse was). In all honesty, the narrator doesn’t come off sounding great either: They give off this pretentious, holier-than-thou vibe when they say they come from “somewhere you never been to” and declaring that “you’ve never seen stars like the ones back home.” The song really tries to frame the narrator as a sympathetic/tragic figure, and lines like these leave a bad taste in the listener’s mouth regarding both parties. It’s also worth noting that whatever chemistry is present is only in the narrator’s mind, as the other person rejects their offer to meet the next day (you can’t be stood up if the other person never agreed to the meeting in the first place). In the end, the story fails to convince the listener that it’s worth paying attention to, so no one cares if the pair leaves the scene together or not.
Finally we have Wallen himself, and frankly it’s just not time for him to return to the radio just yet. I was never a fan of him as a vocalist to begin with, and while the song doesn’t test him technically (there are no range or flow issues to speak of), I simply can’t hear him without thinking about his antics last winter. This leads to some serious negative synergy with the lyrics: I just said the other person sounded “ignorant and insensitive,” but Wallen’s behavior makes the narrator come across as more than a little hypocritical in their judgment. Wallen does a decent job infusing the song with the required sadness and disappointment, but when you think about how little consequence he’s suffered for his actions this year, you can’t help but think he deserves to feel some pain and disappointment, even if it’s only in a fictional story. At this point, Wallen remains a toxic presence, and the song (which certainly has a few of its own flaws) gets dragged down through no fault of its own.
I don’t know where Morgan Wallen goes from here, but I know where country music should go from here: Rather than give airtime to “Sand In My Boots” and letting an artist get away with carelessly tossing around damaging words with little consequence, this genre needs to look in the mirror and declare “We can do better.” We can carve out room for outstanding artists that don’t come from Nashville’s faceless young white male assembly line, and give some more spotlight (and spins) to acts like Chapel Hart (whose new album just came out) and Mickey Guyton (whose album is finally coming out next month). There’s a path to a brighter, more inclusive future in country music, and it starts by broadening our horizons and bringing in people of all genders, races, and identities to tell their story. There’s a place for Wallen in this future too, but he’s going to have to do a lot more to earn it.
Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth your time.