You may know that they tried to launch a fourth televised country music awards show on Thursday, September 28th. Or you might not know since the reviews weren’t exactly stellar. The new show attracted 3.96 million viewers and was the second most-watched show on network television after The Bachelor. For comparison, the 2022 CMA Awards last November attracted 9.7 million viewers. So this new awards show hasn’t exactly sent the world into a frenzy.
It was called the People’s Choice Country Awards. They were created through the new partnership between NBC Universal and the Grand Ole Opry’s parent company called Ryman Hospitality Properties. In April last year, NBC Universal paid $293 million to buy about 30% of Ryman Hospitality. A new awards ceremony was their idea of how to unlock “synergies” between the two companies.
The opening prices weren’t necessarily a disaster, but they were still pretty terrible. People are still talking about Toby Keith’s moving performance of “Don’t Let The Old Man In.” However, the presentation lacked any significant star power. Kelsea Ballerini was called out for lip syncing, but it turns out it was the camera that was out of sync and not the music. Blake Shelton won Social Country Star of 2023, but openly questioned what the heck the award even was in his acceptance speech.
The way they sold the People’s Choice Country Awards to the public was that, just like the all-genre People’s Choice Awards that have aired since 1975, the industry doesn’t pick the winners like the CMAs, or musical ones Colleagues like at the Grammys. It is the people who choose the winners. It is voted on by fans, which sometimes means the most popular artists win, and sometimes the fan base that is most mobilized takes home the trophy for their favorite artist.
It turns out that the people of country music have chosen Morgan Wallen as the first People’s Choice Country “Artist of 2023.” They also selected Wallen’s album One Thing At A Time as “Album of 2023” and his tour as “Concert Tour of 2023.” Aside from Jelly Roll, who won four awards himself, Morgan Wallen was the biggest winner of the night, taking home three of the biggest prizes.
But if you watched the People’s Choice Country Awards, you would have no idea Morgan Wallen won anything. Aside from his name being mentioned a few times as a nominee for awards that others had won, it was never announced on the television show that Morgan Wallen had won anything at all, let alone three of the top awards. Only after the award ceremony was this information announced in a press release.
So the obvious question is: Why shouldn’t the People’s Choice Country Awards’ top prizes be announced during the broadcast? Some may point out that the presentation only lasted two hours, as opposed to the three hours of most awards shows, and that they may not have had time. Another theory could be that Morgan Wallen wasn’t present and they didn’t want to draw attention to that fact because the presentation lacked star power.
Jelly Roll wasn’t even there in person. He played a show in Cincinnati, although they beamed him in via satellite to accept the Male Vocalist of the Year award. But just because an artist isn’t present doesn’t mean the prize shouldn’t be awarded. That happens all the time, and they did that with Jelly Roll too. It is rare, if ever, for the award to simply not be presented, especially if it is a major award.
It looks like the People Choice Country Awards didn’t want the heat that would come with Morgan Wallen winning their top awards, especially when he wasn’t even there. So rather than risk a public backlash on Twitter, they simply dropped back 20 yards and punted.
Remember, the premier country music institution behind the People’s Choice Country Awards is the Grand Ole Opry. In January 2022, Morgan Wallen jumped on the Opry stage to perform his duet “Flower Shops” with country artist Ernest. Wallen wasn’t even scheduled or asked to appear at the Opry; it was simply a spontaneous performance. However, the Opry posted a video of it on social media and a firestorm ensued.
Jason Isbell, The Black Opry and others heavily criticized the Grand Ole Opry for allowing Morgan Wallen on stage. At the time, almost a year had passed since the infamous N-word incident. While the media covered the story, the Grand Ole Opry did not address the situation, released no statement and remained radio silent on social media for weeks without posting anything for fear that the comments would be bombarded by anti-Morgan opponents become Wallen activists.
It appears that the Grand Ole Opry-backed People’s Choice Country Awards have decided to use a similar tactic at their inaugural show to deal with Morgan Wallen’s wins. Instead of acknowledging the results and standing behind them, they simply distributed the information via press release and tried to pretend it didn’t happen.
From a PR perspective, it may be hard to blame them. Whether they didn’t want to promote Morgan Wallen winning, or they didn’t want to promote the fact that the night’s biggest winner couldn’t even be bothered to attend, they decided to bury the embarrassment under the rug sweep. But it undermines the entire premise of these awards. Morgan Wallen’s fans mobilized to make sure he would win, and then they didn’t even get the satisfaction of recognition on the broadcast.
Obviously, Morgan Wallen remains a polarizing character. But it seems like most of the public has moved on. Despite mischaracterizations in the press, Morgan Wallen apologized multiple times for the N-word incident in January 2021. donated $500,000 to black charitiesand continues to make efforts to restore its character and image.
This is not a full-throated defense of Morgan Wallen by Saving Country Music. If this website had its way, there would be no such thing as the People’s Choice Country Awards, and if there were, artists like Zach Bryan, Tyler Childers, Cody Jinks, Billy Strings, Sierra Ferrell, and The War and Treaty would be there to win. Ironically, the International Bluegrass Music Awards took place on the same night, with Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle emerging as big (and deserving) winners.
But in many ways, the People Choice Country Awards and the Grand Ole Opry by Proxy showed their assholery with their decision not to mention Morgan Wallen at all. It feels like a cowardly move. Many country fans wish that Morgan Wallen wasn’t the most popular country artist for a variety of reasons, including that much of his most popular music is not country music. But own the results of your awards. It’s what happened.
If you have concerns about promoting artists with shady pasts, look no further than Jelly Roll. He was convicted of armed robbery and sold drugs for years. He was also part of Mikel Knight’s country rap universe from which emerged Several people are killed.
That’s not to say Jelly Roll shouldn’t be considered for awards. It is decidedly illiberal not to offer people a path to redemption and rehabilitation and not to allow country music to be that path. We should applaud and welcome artists who use country music to find the straight and narrow.
But in some circles, the mere mention of Morgan Wallen is still viewed as toxic. While it’s similar to the Streisand effect that occurred when they tried to cancel Morgan Wallen, not mentioning it on the awards show broadcast makes it almost more obvious and a bigger topic of conversation than if they had announced his awards and someone else had announced them could be accepted on his behalf.
Morgan Wallen performed at the CMA Awards last year and the world didn’t go into an uproar. Can you imagine the public and media backlash if the CMAs simply didn’t announce who was named Entertainer of the Year for a year?
Ultimately, it’s hard to imagine what will happen next for the People’s Choice Country Awards. If they are held again next year, it is likely that Morgan Wallen will win again. They are a popularity contest. That’s the People’s Choice Awards methodology, and Morgan Wallen remains incredibly popular, including among Black and Brown fans. Ironically, Wallen may have the most diverse fan base in all of country music.
The fact that the People’s Choice Country Awards didn’t anticipate this problem is pretty short-sighted. Before they even announced the awards, they had to know that Morgan Wallen would be a major contender. But if Wallen’s fans don’t play along next year, expect voting engagement and viewership to be even lower.
The Grand Ole Opry has taken some great steps recently to modernize and diversify the institution. But the People’s Choice Country Awards were a bad idea from the start. The whole strange distribution of Morgan Wallen’s wins just underlines how poorly thought out and executed it really was.