Morgan Wallen returned to the Grand Ole Opry stage on Saturday (Jan. 8), making a surprise appearance during up-and-comer Ernest's Opry debut. The pair performed their newly-released duet, "Flower Shops," which came out on New Year's Eve (Dec. 31.)

It was the first time that Wallen, who debuted at the venue in 2017, has hit the Opry stage since video footage emerged in February showed him yelling a racist slur. In the wake of that incident, he was removed from many country radio playlists, disqualified from major awards shows, had his contract "indefinitely suspended" by his record label and more. The singer cancelled his planned touring engagements for 2021 and stepped away from the spotlight, asking fans not to defend him for the time being and promising to take ownership of the consequences of his actions.

But Wallen has been slowly returning to work in recent months, and announced a massive tour for 2022.  In addition to joining Ernest for "Flower Shops," he also duetted with rapper Lil Durk on a song called "Broadway Girls" recently, and appeared on his friend and frequent collaborator Hardy's second Hixtape project.

While video footage of Wallen's surprise appearance on the Opry stage showed plenty of rousing applause from the audience, his reappearance at the venue was controversial. "Congratulation[s] on telling everyone racism is still a big part of country music. And telling Black country artists they still don't matter," one Twitter user replied, in response to a post from the Opry about the performance.

Another shared a screenshot of the Opry's social media from June 9, 2020 -- during the height of that year's rejuvenated Civil Rights movement after the death of George Floyd -- which read "Racism is real. It is unacceptable. And it has no place at the Grand Ole Opry."

For his part, Ernest's Grand Ole Opry debut was the latest installment in many recent exciting career developments. A songwriter-turned-artist who's penned hits like Florida Georgia Line's "I Love My Country" and Kane Brown's "One Mississippi," Ernest will be on the road with Chris Lane's Fill Them Boots Tour in 2022.

Top Country Songs of 2021, Ranked

You'll find much more than just the Top 10 Country Songs of 2021 on this list. Enjoy the 21 best country songs of the year, based on Taste of Country staff and country music fan opinion, plus commercial data (sales, streaming, airplay).

To be considered, the song must have been released in 2021 or have actively charted for a portion of the year (see "Wine, Beer, Whiskey"). New artists including Lainey Wilson, Larry Fleet and Morgan Wade crack the top songs list, while hitmakers including Thomas Rhett, Jason Aldean and Luke Combs make the Top 10.

Let us know your favorite song of 2021 on Twitter, or email us at staff@tasteofcountry.com.