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Country stars weigh in on the state of country music

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“CBS This Morning” co-host Anthony Mason talks to country artists Vince Gill, Maren Morris, Ryan Hurd and Rissi Palmer about whether the genre and the country industry is going through a reckoning from top to bottom. Plus, only on "CBS This Morning," Vince Gill plays a brand new, unreleased song he recently wrote about the ongoing fight against racism in America.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ANTHONY MASON: Our new series, "Unifying America" highlights people who are trying to cross the racial and cultural divides that separate so many Americans. Today, two of country music's biggest stars, Maren Morris and Luke Combs, will have a conversation at the Country Radio Seminar about how artists can help open up the genre to diverse voices and make changes for the better.

This follows the industry's rebuke of Morgan Wallen, who was suspended by his record label after using a racial slur. And the industry's support of TJ Osborne of the Brothers Osborne after he became the first openly gay artist on a major country label. With the genre at a crossroads, we spoke to four artists about the state of country music right now.

VINCE GILL: I got to be honest. When you told me you wanted to talk about this, I'm nervous.

NARRATOR: Vince Gill was hesitant.

VINCE GILL: Your intentions can be so good and then you can just get just ripped.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

NARRATOR: Country music has long avoided uncomfortable questions about its history and diversity.

VINCE GILL: And I think most people perceive that country music is extremely conservative and I'm not sure that that's true. Maybe the audience might be predominantly conservative but I don't know that the artistry is, I don't know that the community is, so there's a rub in there.

NARRATOR: Gill is one of the most distinguished members of that community with 21 Grammys, the most of any male country artist.

ANTHONY MASON: Do you think country artists need to speak up more?

VINCE GILL: Well it'd be nice. You know I mean, no matter what the issue is, to see TJ Osborne come out I thought was spectacular.

ANTHONY MASON: What did you think when you saw the news about Morgan Wallen?

VINCE GILL: It was just sad. You know it was just disappointing because I knew that everybody was going to massacre country music and white America. When they make the argument well, I hear it in rap music all the time, I hear it in da da da da da. I go, have you not been paying attention to the last 300 or 400 years? How that word has been used by the white community? It's a derogatory, just dismissive and hurtful, it doesn't have a place.

NARRATOR: Wallen is the latest white man to rule the country charts. Between 2014 and 2018, a recent study found 84% of artists on Billboard's year-end chart were men.

ANTHONY MASON: Country music at the moment is perceived as a white man's genre.

VINCE GILL: Sure. Women in country music could make the same claim, to some degree, that Black artists could. That they haven't been made to feel welcome.

ANTHONY MASON: Why is it so hard for artists of color and women to--

VINCE GILL: I don't know.

ANTHONY MASON: --get into country music?

VINCE GILL: I wish I knew. You know because I'm someone that adores what they do.

ANTHONY MASON: Yeah.

VINCE GILL: And I think we would be better for it.

NARRATOR: Maren Morris is one of the too few women to break through.

MAREN MORRIS: I think the only way that we can really move forward is by deconstructing our view of what the genre is built on. And acknowledging the fact that at its roots is racism and cultural appropriation and completely destroying that mentality going forward.

NARRATOR: Morris and her husband, singer-songwriter Ryan Hurd, were quick to condemn Morgan Wallen, who recorded Hurd's song, "Heartless".

RYAN HURD: I don't want to seem like we're piling on Morgan, but there's no place for that word.

MAREN MORRIS: Morgan is a symptom of a much bigger disease of what our genre is right now.

NARRATOR: They were encouraged when hundreds of radio stations took Wallen's music off the air. And when their friend, TJ Osborne, of the Grammy nominated Brothers Osborne, came out as gay.

ANTHONY MASON: He's out there alone on this, I mean, as a major artist in country music.

MAREN MORRIS: Yeah.

RYAN HURD: I hope he doesn't feel that way. He is such an amazing human and it takes so much strength to make that statement in our genre. And I think that, like, you're seeing a lot of these little moments add up to something really big.

ANTHONY MASON: Yeah.

MAREN MORRIS: The world is looking at us right now. People are starting to speak up, we're not protecting our own with this wall of silence because we're afraid we might be canceled next. It's like, no, we're all becoming more accountable.

NARRATOR: When Morris won Female Vocalist of the Year at the CMAs in November, she used the moment to highlight Black artists. Among them, Rissi Palmer. When Palmer scored a hit with "Country Girl" in 2007, she was the first African-American woman to crack the charts in 20 years.

ANTHONY MASON: Why did you want to be part of an industry that was not especially welcoming to people of color or to women?

RISSI PALMER: I knew in the very beginning that there weren't a lot of people that look like me. And I knew that that was going to be a mountain that I was going to have to climb. But I love the music, I love the songwriting, I love the storytelling, the way it makes me feel. I'm a fan.

ANTHONY MASON: On some level it's got to be heartbreaking to be a fan of something and then find they won't let you in the club.

RISSI PALMER: It's heartbreaking. I've been turned away at my own shows. Trying to get on stage and a security guard wasn't going to let me get on because he was like, who are you? And I was like, I'm Rissi Palmer. They're calling my name right now.

NARRATOR: Palmer now hosts the "Color Me Country" show on Apple Music that celebrates artists of color.

RISSI PALMER: It's my contribution to the reckoning or the change that I want to see in Nashville.

ANTHONY MASON: Do you see a real self-examination going on?

RISSI PALMER: I think in some sectors, yes. But we'll see. We'll see in hiring practices, we'll see in signings, we'll see in how the charts look.

ANTHONY MASON: That will tell the tale.

RISSI PALMER: Hmm. Yeah.

ANTHONY MASON: Is country music ready for this conversation?

RISSI PALMER: Yes. I mean, the thing is it's like they're going to have to be. Because there's an influx of artists of color and it's time.

NARRATOR: And Vince Gill, who was nervous about that conversation, at the end offered up a song--

VINCE GILL: Here it comes.

NARRATOR: --he'd only recently finished.

VINCE GILL: (SINGING) 400 years of history couldn't be more wrong. Reckoning is coming, march on, march on.

NARRATOR: Gill calls it, "March On, March On."

VINCE GILL: (SINGING) He came here in shackles, picked the cotton in chains. That's the sin of my people and I carry that shame. God knows you must be weary, you've been dreaming so long. You built this country, so march on, march on.

ANTHONY MASON: To hear the full song, the full "March On, March On" by Vince Gill, and our interviews, more of our interviews, you can go to "CBS This Morning" on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube.

We also want to note that despite the backlash, Morgan Wallen's album remains number one on the Billboard Chart and it has been now for five straight weeks. We'll be watching today's virtual seminar with Maren Morris and Luke Combs, who has been criticized for his use in the past of the Confederate flag. We'll see if he addresses that today.

GAYLE KING: And Morgan Wallen, to your point, his song is number one but he's apologized and said, please don't support me in this. I was wrong.

ANTHONY MASON: That's right. Yeah.

GAYLE KING: I like that he's sending that message. I like what Rissi-- not like but when Rissi Palmer said she can't even get on her own stage.

ANTHONY MASON: She couldn't,yeah.

- Amazing.

GAYLE KING: We always keep saying cancel culture, guys. And I think maybe we should think about accountability culture. There are cases of cancel culture but in this case, in this particular story, to me it's more about accountability.

- That's a beautiful point.

ANTHONY MASON: Yeah and if you want to get to the question of why this is happening, which Vince Gill said he couldn't answer, you need to talk to Rissi Palmer. Because when she put out "Country Girl", the label actually told her to change the lyrics. Because she mentioned in the beginning that she was Black and in the end, she doesn't. And so there is a form of prejudice in there, it's either the labels or the label assuming their audience has it. And it's got to be addressed.

- Well Anthony--

GAYLE KING: Love Maren Morris, the world is watching. The world is watching.

- Vince Gill said he couldn't say why but then he wrote that song.

ANTHONY MASON: That's right.