Country music trailblazers Maren Morris and Luke Combs joined NPR’s Anna Powers for a panel discussion about racism, equality, and diversity within the industry at 2021 Country Radio Seminar (CRS) virtually on February 17.
Initially, the panel was meant to be centered around their fast-rising careers. However, due to the current climate in the world and the most-recent Morgan Wallen racism incident, the two artists believed it was important to shift gears and spark a conversation around the lack of diversity and inclusion in country music.
“This one conversation among many happening about country music’s heart and soul,” says Powers before diving into the conversation. “And among other things, addressing racial inequity in the genre. It’s important to say before we start talking that we are three white people talking about race among other subjects, so necessarily, this is an incomplete conversation. At the same time, I am so glad that Luke [Combs] and Maren [Morris] pushed for a panel that was originally intended to focus on their careers to become one about personal artistic and genre-wide accountability,” she adds.
Morris and Combs used their voice to demand change during the one-hour panel that took place in front of leading music professionals. They both shared their views and opinions on how to move forward in order to create a unified and inclusive community.
“I think we just wanted everyone to know that we’re here and that we want to be stewards of our genre because we are proud of it. And you do hear the old adage of ‘country music is a family.’ And I believe that more than anything, but I want it to be a family that everyone can feel like they’re a part of. Because it has changed my life; it has changed my band’s lives and my best friends’ lives that I write songs with. And I want everyone that wants to feel that to be able to experience it because it’s an incredible feeling. I just want everyone out there to be able to come into our community and be accepted and not feel excluded or pushed out… I want those people to have the same opportunities that I had to feel that incredible feeling of having their dream come true in the amazing genre that we have,” says Combs during the Q&A session.
Morris agreed with Combs and believes including black vocals in the studio and the writing room will change the sound of country radio for the better. “There’s an influx of Black talent, and it’s only going to make our genre, our songs, what we consider catchy, better. We kind of have to start at home – Black songwriters in the room making hit songs with us, feeling comfortable and welcome to do so, will change the sound of the country for the better.”
During the informative conversation, the country artists also spoke about being held accountable for poor actions, what accountability actually looks like, and the approach musicians should take to solve the racial injustice matter in country music today. However, the panel took a sudden turn, as Luke Combs addressed the images that resurfaced from early on in his career with a confederate flag.
Back in 2015, Combs appeared in Ryan UpChurch’s music video for “Can I Get An Outlaw,” which has several confederate flags in the background. Combs also has press photos of himself holding a guitar with a confederate flag sticker. These controversial photos reappeared when he released his recent unifying anthem “The Great Divide” with Billy Strings.
As one of the most influential voices in the industry, Combs came forward and took accountability for his past actions. “Obviously, those are images that I can’t take back. They are not images that I can say, ‘Well, they are gone now so that didn’t exist.’ Those images are seven to eight years old now and I’ve grown a lot as a man, as a human being,” says Combs during the panel. “There is no excuse for those images. I’m not trying to say this is why they were there and it’s okay that they are there because it’s not okay. I think as a younger man, that was an image that I associated to mean something else. As I’ve grown in my time as an artist and the world has changed drastically in the last five to seven years, I’m now aware of how painful that image can be to someone else and no matter what I thought at the time that that word meant or what it could have been interpreted as for myself, I would never want to be associated with something that brings so much hurt to someone else.”
Combs continued to apologize for his actions and asked for forgiveness.” I do apologize for that. I apologize for being with that. Hate is not a part of my core values. It’s not something I consider part of myself at all so I’m just looking to be here not to just say, ‘I’m so sorry, please forgive me.’ I’m trying to learn, trying to get better,” he adds.
Morris shared stories of her childhood and what she thought the rebel flag meant back in the day before she turned a certain age and understood the underlying meaning of the problematic symbol. The country artists also noted that becoming a new mom has influenced her to be more vocal to help resolve the social and racial injustice problem we see dividing our country today.
To finish off the panel, Combs and Morris challenged music publishers and labels to do better and to treat everyone, no matter the color of their skin – equally.