After a few weeks that have led multiple prominent country stars to publicly address the genre’s history of racism and exclusion, Luke Combs has apologized for his own actions in the fairly recent past. In a Country Radio Seminar panel with Maren Morris and NPR’s Ann Powers, Combs apologized for photos and music videos from 2015 that showed him with Confederate flag imagery, adding that he understands why Black musicians would feel unwelcome after seeing them.
“It’s not about history or this or that, it’s about, this is something that hurts someone else that I was standing in front of,” he explained. “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 how painful that image can be to someone else, no matter what I thought at the time.”
In October 2015, near the beginning of his mainstream success, Combs appeared in a Confederate-flag-laden music video for the song “Can I Get an Outlaw” with the country musician Ryan Upchurch. The song repurposed a chorus from Combs’s 2014 song about old stars of outlaw country, but in Upchurch’s verses, it became a broader celebration of the South. Stills from the video began to recirculate at the beginning of February, after Combs released “The Great Divide,” a collaboration with bluegrass guitarist Billy Strings, which dealt with last summer’s protests for racial justice.
On Wednesday, he explained the background of the photos and his efforts to distance himself from them. “That’s not the first time those images have surfaced and have been used against me,” Combs said on Wednesday. “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. I didn’t have a team in place then as well, so the second I got my team in place, it was like, ‘How can we disassociate ourselves with that?’ So we immediately tried to do that years ago. Obviously, in the age of the internet, those things live forever.”
Over the last few years, Morris has become known as one of the most outspoken country musicians, commenting on racism in country music and the exclusion of women from the genre. In her conversation with Combs, she said she also had to learn why the symbol is so offensive. “I’m from Texas…but I did not know that the rebel flag meant what it meant until I was probably 15 or 16 years old,” she said. “At these country music festivals, I see the Confederate flags in the parking lots. I don’t want to play those festivals anymore. If you were a Black person, would you ever feel safe going to a show with those flying in the parking lot?”
In a YouTube video posted Thursday, Upchurch objected to Combs’s apology without mentioning him by name, also referring to the backlash that erupted over Morgan Wallen’s use of a racial slur earlier this month. “I am friends with quite a few country singers and a lot of them have to stay silent. They can’t speak their minds because they’re stuck in these little cliques,” he said. “None of this was problematic until there was a problem. I’ve been preaching unity since day one, and I’m a guy who has the Confederate flag tattooed on me for life. There didn’t need to be another country singer saying the N-word for me to preach unity between blacks and whites.” He added that he didn’t think anyone needed to apologize or change.
In the original interview, Combs justified his apology by acknowledging his platform. “I know that I am a highly visible member of the country music community right now and I want to use that position for good,” he said. “People do want to change, and I’m one of those people trying, and if you‘re an artist or anyone out there that is trying to change, you should be able to do it.”
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