Morgan Wallen was supposed to headline last year's Country Thunder Arizona festival.
Then video surfaced of the up-and-coming country star shouting the N-word and other profanities at a carload of friends outside his Nashville home after a heavy night of drinking
Reaction was swift and escalated quickly, derailing the singer’s career, however briefly, as he entered rehab and took some time away from touring and the country music spotlight to reflect.
That Country Thunder date is one of many concerts Wallen canceled.
Big Loud Records suspended his contract.
Spotify, SiriusXM, Pandora, Apple Music, CMT and the nation's most powerful radio chains — Cumulus Media, Entercom and iHeartMedia, the largest U.S network — pulled his music.
He was banned from award shows and otherwise shunned by the industry.
A year later, all will never be forgiven in some quarters.
But that didn’t stop him from logging 10 weeks at the top of Billboard’s album chart with “Dangerous,” which went on to top the Billboard year-end charts for 2021.
Last month, Wallen picked up Album of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards.
By then, he'd launched a sold-out Dangerous Tour at Madison Square Garden.
Now, he's headlining what certainly appeared to be the biggest night of this year’s Country Thunder Arizona festival by far.
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Morgan Wallen opens his set with 'Sand in My Boots'
Wallen opened the show on piano singing the mournful rendition of “Sand in My Boots” that closes the bonus edition of “Dangerous.”
The proper album opens with a full-band version of the same song, arguably the album's finest moment.
It’s the sort of song the Eagles would’ve written in their early years if they’d been better lyricists, a richly detailed story song about falling in love on vacation and fooling himself into thinking she’d actually follow him to Tennessee.
The thought of leaving Tennessee for her would never have entered the narrator’s mind. He’s too country for that. As Wallen sang much later in the set on “More Than My Hometown, “I can’t love you more than my hometown.”
There are several songs on “Dangerous” that feel as timeless as “Sand in My Boots,” and Wallen played them all at Country Thunder, from “7 Summers” to “Somebody’s Problem,” “865” and “Wasted on You.”
Other highlights included the Jason Isbell song “Cover Me Up” and several songs that played more to the Country Thunder state of mind, from “Somethin’ Country” to “Country A$$ (Expletive).”
A number of those highlights are the work of outside writers, including Hardy, who joined him onstage for a raucous rendition of "He Went to Jared" from Hardy's "Hixtape, Vol. 1."
But Wallen had a hand in writing 16 of the album's 30 tracks. And it's a credit to the way he gets inside the songs he sings in that whiskey-soaked Tennessee twang that they all sound like they were written in the same voice.
Wallen made his way through 16 songs from "Dangerous" at Country Thunder Arizona, reaching back to his first album, "If I Know Me," for "Up Down," "Chasin' You," "The Way I Talk" and "Whiskey Glasses."
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Wallen never addressed the controversy of the past year
Wallen spoke a lot but never mentioned the events that led to him not playing Country Thunder Arizona last October. He mostly talked about the inspiration for his songs, which is great. But it felt like a missed opportunity to clear the air and maybe share his feelings on that night.
One oft-repeated aspect of the narrative surrounding Wallen since that video hit TMZ is that the double-platinum success of Wallen’s album is because of – not in spite of – what he said that night in Tennessee.
Of course, some people bought that album just to “own the libs.”
Some people will do anything.
But did the crowd at Country Thunder sing along to every word and hold their phone lights in the air — for songs that didn’t have a thing to do with what he said that night —to send a message?
You’d have to ask them.
But it seems more likely that they really do appreciate his music on a level that means more to them than what he said that night or how they feel about it.
Morgan Wallen setlist
"Sand in My Boots"(Piano solo)
"Still Goin' Down"
"Silverado for Sale"
"Country A$$ (Expletive)"
"Wonderin' Bout the Wind"
"Cover Me Up"
"He Went to Jared" (with HARDY)
"More Than My Hometown"
"The Way I Talk"
"Wasted on You"
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Morgan Wallen: Country Thunder Arizona 2022 concert review