Progress often comes when people examine their past actions and make changes based on what they've learned more recently. Neither Luke Combs nor Maren Morris contends to be perfect, either in the past or as they're working to grow into more inclusive individuals, but both artists took a public step in their journeys during an hour-long discussion with journalist Ann Powers on Wednesday (Feb. 17).

Combs and Morris -- the reigning male and female artists of the year, respectively, at both the ACM and CMA Awards -- were originally booked for a panel at the 2021 Country Radio Seminar to discuss their hot career trajectories. However, Powers explained at the start of their conversation, following the country music industry's swift rebuke of fellow star Morgan Wallen in early February, after he was caught on camera using a racist slur, Combs and Morris asked to turn the moment into a look at "personal, artistic and genre-wide accountability."

As her career has progressed, Morris has more and more often tried to use her platform to advocate for issues in which she believes: In 2020 alone, she endorsed Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for president and vice president, supported the Black Lives Matter movement and used a CMA Awards acceptance speech to shout out a number of the genre's Black women. "I didn't really set out to be this activist," Morris noted during Wednesday's discussion, adding that, in her eyes, her decision to speak up was "a little late, but better late than never."

Combs, meanwhile, has only recently begun to seize opportunities to speak about major social and political issues. His new song "The Great Divide," a collaboration with bluegrass artist Billy Strings, asks for unity in a way that's more a comforting hug than a call-out -- a tactic familiar to country music fans, who've heard plenty of the former and perhaps not enough of the latter, but a step forward for Combs, whose success is rooted in his humble everyman image.

However, after Combs released the song in early February, promotional photos of the singer standing with a Confederate flag in the background and using a guitar with a Confederate flag-adorned sticker circulated on social media, and not for the first time. The photos are about seven or eight years old, Combs said on Wednesday, adding that he knows that doesn't justify his actions.

"I've grown a lot as a man and as a human being, and as a citizen of the world," Combs says, but nonetheless, there is "no excuse for those images," and he "apologize[s] for being associated with that."

"I am now aware how painful that image can be to someone else, and 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," he admits. "I want people to feel accepted; I want people to feel welcomed by country music and by our community ... Hate is not a part of my core values."

Morris, too, confessed to not fully understanding the implications of the Confederate flag and phrases such as "the South will rise again" until she was in her teens: Growing up in Texas, "those are all just terms thrown around; there was no explanation behind it," she points out.

"I can't imagine, thinking back on all the times and places that I've seen that flag, if I were a Black man or a Black woman and [had to] just go, 'This is definitely not somewhere where I'm being welcomed,'" Combs reflects. "I never considered that up until seven or eight years ago."

Later, Morris called for artists to use their power as performers to ban Confederate flags from concerts and other country music events. "I see the Confederate flags in the parking lots, [and] I don't want to play those festivals anymore," she says. "I feel like the most powerful thing as artists in our position right now is to make those demands ... That's one of the things we can do, is say, 'Nope, I'm not doing this, get rid of them.'"

Said Combs, "There are so many things beyond the 'rebel flag' that we can do to be proud of being from the South." He, for example, has started a garden and been cooking passed-down family recipes.

A Brief History of Black Country Music:

In addition to reckoning with that type of overt racism in country music -- and, therefore, in the South -- part of advancing the genre is acknowledging and teaching a more complete, non-whitewashed version of its history: recognizing the banjo's roots in Africa and the roles that so many Black musicians and singers played in influencing the artists idolized as country music's founders and early stars.

"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 says. She continues, "In country music in particular, we really hold our idols on a massive, massive pedestal ... [but the] people that we idolize, they are our pioneers, they were not the pioneers."

As Morris and many other artists imbue their music with the traditions of gospel, R&B and other historically Black genres, that education should also include the history of that music as well, the artist says. She's previously been called out for making a song such as her Girl album cut "RSVP" without enlisting Black creatives, and while Morris at first bristled at the criticism, it made her stop and think.

"Going forward, I have got to correct that and acknowledge that," Morris says. "I love country music so much. I have my own version of it, of what I make, and I think, going forward, I just want to actually pay respect to the people who built it for me."

"People can be changed. I'm a living, mouth-breathing example of it right here," jokes Combs, who agrees that criticism "can make you want to clam up in a shell ... because you feel like, 'Man, I'm trying to be better, I'm trying to do this, and people just keep attacking me for this' ...

"But you just have to know where your heart is, and you have to know that you're doing it for the right reasons," he adds.

Throughout their conversation with Powers, both Combs and Morris noted how much country music means to them and how it's shaped them. They appreciate the often-used description of the genre as a "family," but don't agree that calling it as such means staying silent when others misbehave or keeping family drama out of the headlines.

"I think just saying there are things that need to change and taking a moment to be aware of that, and knowing that there are problems that exist, is the biggest first step that I have taken," Combs said early on in the conversation. "I'm here to learn."

Says Morris, "This isn't about going after people or a fanbase for sport ... That doesn't give me pleasure ... Your fans are a reflection of you and what you're about, and I think that, you can't control a human being, but you absolutely can let the know where you stand."

"If you really love something and this is a family ... call [bad behavior] out so you can rid the diseased part, so we can move forward ... and all feel like we are a part of this family," she adds, pointing out that not doing so is "protecting white people, it's not protecting Black people."

Of course, fully creating a more inclusive genre doesn't only mean ridding it of racist symbols and actions and honoring its complete history -- it means fully opening up avenues to careers within country music to a more diverse group of people. From signing creatives of color to publishing deals and record deals and promoting them to radio, to hiring them as co-writers, producers, in-studio musicians and touring band and crew members, a broader community -- a broader family -- will only result in better music.

"We've all got healing to do, and accountability is the first step of that. It's gotta get bad before it gets good," says Morris. As she pointed out early in the conversation, people will make mistakes and feel uncomfortable, "but that's how we know it's working."

CRS 2021 runs online through Friday (Feb. 19). The event usually takes place annually in Nashville, but is virtual this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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