Maren Morris is using her platform to discuss the lack of diversity in country music. In a panel moderated by NPR music critic Ann Powers during the 2021 Country Radio Seminar, Morris and fellow country star Luke Combs discussed their own accountability as artists in the genre.
One topic of conversation was the use of Confederate flags and Confederate flag imagery at country festivals. Combs apologized for his prior use of the Confederate flag (old photos of Combs posing with a Confederate flag sticker on his guitar and a 2015 appearance in a Ryan Upchurch video featuring Confederate flags recently resurfaced on social media).
"There's no excuse for those images," Combs said (quote via The Tennessean). "I'm not trying to say, 'This is why they were there and it's OK that they were there.' It's not OK. As a younger man, that was an image I associated to mean something else. As I've grown in my time as an artist, I am now aware how painful that image can be to someone else. No matter what I thought at the time, I would never want to be associated with something that brings so much hurt to someone else. I apologize for being associated with that. Hate is not part of my core values. It's not something I consider a part of myself at all. I'm just looking to be here and not say 'I'm so sorry, please forgive me.' I'm trying to learn. I'm trying to get better."
Morris said while many country fans may not be aware of the symbolism of the Confederate flag, it's important to understand what it signifies.
"This is just sheer ignorance and privilege, but I did not know that the rebel flag meant what it meant until I was probably 15 or 16 years old," Morris said. "I mean, this is how horribly whitewashed history is and how it has failed us. 'The South will rise again' -- those are all just terms thrown around. There was no explanation behind it. And I think a large majority of people that listen to country music don't know, either, the deeper meaning of what that flag signifies. Or maybe that's hopeful, wishful thinking, but I don't think they understand what that really signifies."
The "Girl" singer said country artists should demand the removal of Confederate flags from festivals.
"I see these Confederate flags in the parking lots. I don't want to play those festivals anymore," she said. "If you were a Black person, would you ever feel like going to a show with those flying in the parking lot? No. I feel like the most powerful thing as artists in our position right now is to make those demands of large organizations, festivals, promoters, whatnot. That's one of the things we can do, is say, 'No, I'm not doing this. Get rid of them.'"
Morris also said acknowledging and celebrating Black artists' contributions to the roots of country music is an important step in bringing about equality in the genre.
"I remember watching the amazing Ken Burns 'Country Music' documentary, and just myself being so ignorant to the roots of what this genre started in -- like not knowing that the banjo is a West African instrument, and this is so integral to the sound of country music's beginnings. Things like that... My relationship with country music, what I've always loved about it, is the honest truth of it and if we want to pride ourselves on being 'three chords and the truth,' we need to be truthful with ourselves and know who started this genre," Morris said. "It wasn't just white people, and going forward, making room [for Black artists] is essential."
Combs, who recently released "The Great Divide" with Bluegrass artist Billy Strings, echoed Morris' words, adding that it's important to consider how his experience with country music industry members, from publishers to label executives, could differ from artists of color.
"If you're a publisher and a Black writer comes in, are you giving them the same look that you're giving me if I come in?" Combs asked. "If you work at a label, are you giving everyone that walks through the door the exact same chance that the last guy had or the next girl has?"
Morris said country music as a whole is missing out on incredible songs and artists by not ensuring that artists of color are heard.
"That's the point of inclusion," Morris said. "If you're shutting out Black writers, Black artists, you have no idea if you are shutting out the next hit song, do you? Imagine over the last 50 years the songs that we haven't gotten to hear because we shut the door in a Black person's face."
The conversation comes just days after Morgan Wallen was caught on camera using a racial slur. Wallen was later indefinitely suspended by his record label and removed from iHeartRadio and Cumulus radio stations.
Morris addressed the fact that she was criticized on social media for speaking out about Wallen.
"I don't care if it's awkward sitting down the row from you at the next awards show -- call them out! If this is a family and you love it, call it out when it's bad, so you can rid the diseased part so we can move forward. All of us -- (including) people of color, LGBTQ-plus, and all -- feel like we are a part of this family," Morris said. "This whole 'We're a family; we're protecting our own' is protecting white people. It's not protecting Black people, and that's the long and the short of it."
Morris recently appeared on country singer-songwriter Rissi Palmer's Apple music radio show Color Me Country, joining Palmer, singer-songwriter Cam and author, journalist and activist Andrea Williams for a discussion about diversity and authentic representation in country music.
"I think where I can create my space is writing with Black songwriters, Black artists and building those relationships like I have with my white co-writers over the years. That happens over time, but it's also -- that is where the value lies in the music industry," Morris said on Color Me Country. "Those songs don't just create themselves. People do it."
Watch the entire converstaion below.