In 2011, Mickey Guyton signed to Capitol Nashville, becoming the only Black woman at the time backed by a major country label. After 10 years, her debut single “Better Than You Left Me” in 2015 and three EPs, the 38-year-old singer has become a household name.
In May 2020, a time fraught with Black Lives Matter protests after an onslaught of police brutality, Guyton released a snippet of her single “Black Like Me” on Instagram. The video amassed over 8,000 views, and Spotify contacted Guytonteam asking for the completed version, later adding it to their Hot Country playlist. Now, the song has over 8 million streams on Spotify.
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There was no formula, no master plan to “go viral.” For the past decade, Guyton has remained honest, rejecting pressure to conform to the industry’s standards. But upon leaning into her authenticity and singing candidly about navigating the Nashville music scene as a Black woman, things began to click.
“It’s a really weird feeling. You try so hard at something and then you finally come to grips with the fact that it’s probably not going to happen for you, then it does. It happens at a time where there is so much pain,” Guyton said. “I didn’t write this song for this moment. I wrote this song before this moment, for Black people in country music and for Black people in America in general. This is out of my own frustration.”
Suddenly, Guyton started receiving long-overdue traction and attention. She did interviews with Variety, ABC 20/20 and People, earned a 2021 Grammy nomination and performed at the award ceremony. Most importantly, she had achieved a platform to talk about the realities of being a Black woman in country music and to carve a path for other Black women in the industry.
While some may dub her “the ‘Black Like Me’ Girl,” Guyton says she doesn’t feel pigeonholed. Rather, she feels a sense of responsibility.
“For the longest time, before this moment happened for me, I was trying to prove that I was just a country singer that loved country music. I was told to not even focus on the Black part of me, but that’s who I am,” Guyton said “It’s not a pigeonhole at all to me, and I am trying to normalize it as much as possible. How I normalize it is by opening the door for other Black women, especially in country music.”
On Sept. 24, Guyton released her debut album “Remember Her Name,” an homage to Black womanhood, love, healing and the past decade in Nashville. The album includes 16 tracks, such as “Higher,” “Love My Hair,” “All American,” “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” and more.
Guyton said that the moment she dropped the album was terrifying, while simultaneously a miracle and a dream come true. After writing unfulfilling “middle of the road” songs about white picket fences and the blue-eyed James Dean archetype, she was intentional in releasing a project that was unique to her lived experiences.
Be it verses about James Brown, early experiences with racism on the playground, or reveling in Daisy Dukes and dookie braids, Guyton’s “Remember Her Name” sounds like a heartfelt love letter bridging Black womanhood and her Southern roots.
“I remember I’d be in a writing session, we’d be singing about love, and they would throw out ‘with his blue eyes.’ I’m like, ‘My man has brown eyes. He doesn’t have blond hair and blue eyes.’ I was like, ‘No, I’m going to put in what love looks like for me,’” Guyton said. “That really was important for me, to write country music just from my perspective. It wasn’t for anybody else, but for someone that understands my walk — and hopefully, help other people understand it as well.”
On Wednesday, Guyton will be gracing the Bridgestone Arena stage in Nashville for her debut CMA Awards performance. Though she is nominated for New Artist of the Year, the reality is that Guyton is not new to this craft.
Born in Arlington, Texas, and raised in Waco, Guyton’s love affair with country music started when she was 5 or 6 years old, singing in the choir at Mount Olive Baptist Church. She credits her father with discovering her singing abilities.
“There’s a song that my church sang called ‘Fully Committed,’ and it was a duet. My dad would make me sing the girl part, and he would sing the guy part. I just happened to be good at it,” Guyton continued, “I’m very, very private with myself, so singing outwardly, I was really embarrassed by it, but I loved it alone. I would practice ‘I Will Always Love You,’ the Whitney Houston version, over and over and over again, and I would drive my family crazy.”
“I was told to not even focus on the Black part of me, but that’s who I am. It’s not a pigeonhole at all to me, and I am trying to normalize it as much as possible. How I normalize it is by opening the door for other Black women, especially in country music.”
At the same time she was listening to the Spice Girls, Guyton was also tuned in to LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain and Dolly Parton, thanks to her grandmother, “a huge Dolly fan.” Whenever Guyton would visit her house, a small shack in Riesel, Texas, on the outskirts of Waco, she’d find VHS tapes of movies such as “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Steel Magnolias,” and the “Roots” collection along, with Kenny Rogers duet videos.
Guyton’s love for country wasn’t so much about the genre alone, but rather about the powerful voices she heard while listening to it.
“So many women had so many powerful voices,” Guyton said. “You had Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, then came Carrie Underwood. It wasn’t one or the other. I just liked good music, and that was good music to me. I liked R&B, I liked it all.”
However, as Guyton’s singing career progressed, she found that many people would attempt to silo her, calling her an R&B artist rather than acknowledge her legitimacy as a country musician.
“I remember I was sitting at a bar in a restaurant, and a white family was sitting next to us. They’re like, ‘What kind of music do you sing?’ I said, ‘Country music,’ and they were taken aback by it,” Guyton said. So, she proceeded to play them “Better Than You Left Me” before its release, and the family was impressed.
“With Black women, we’re supposed to be just R&B,” she said. “That is where everybody’s comfortable putting us in.”
In 2018, Guyton sang “Caught Up in Your Storm” for the film “Forever My Girl.” She distinctly remembers a group of white men loudly yelling during her performance, “That’s R&B! That’s R&B!” She had to start over.
“There’s a video of me singing it, and that was the day that it happened,” Guyton said. “Because I was a girl and because I was Black, they felt that they could do that, say that, and they were very, very rude about it. But I don’t care. I’m here. Sorry, not sorry.”
Not only is Guyton here to stay, but she is one in a long line of Black women in country, from the Pointer Sisters and Tina Turner’s solo debut studio album “Tina Turns the Country On!” to Rhiannon Giddens and Rissi Palmer.
In 2007, Palmer was the first Black woman since 1987 to chart a country song with her single “Country Girl.” The singer and songwriter hosts a podcast called “Color Me Country,” which shares the same name as Linda Martell’s 1970 album. The podcast amplifies the country genre’s Black, Latinx and Indigenous roots and highlights new talent such as Guyton, Camille Parker, Yola and others.
With the exception of Turner, the aforementioned legends were often regarded as soul and R&B artists. Meanwhile, men in country — from Jason Aldean to Florida Georgia Line, Blanco Brown, Breland and others — have been afforded the ability to float between genres, fusing trap beats and collaborating with artists such as Ludacris and Nelly without fear of backlash.
“It’s funny how differently I’m treated ... just look at the comments on any of those platforms,” said Guyton, citing the inexplicable vitriol she receives online. “I have no answers for it. We’ve always been at the bottom of the totem pole, but we truly have the voice and the ability to affect the most change. It’s a heavy cross to bear, but Black women bear it every single day. We get the brunt of it, but then we have to be the protectors.”
For Guyton, she finds solace in her husband, her 2-year-old son and her two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles. As she mentions in her song “Do You Really Wanna Know?” going to therapy is a necessity and a constant for her, but she finds her strength in standing up for other women in the industry.
“I’m a fighter, and I stand up for other people and celebrate other people. That comes very naturally for me, more naturally than celebrating myself ever,” Guyton said.
She recalled a moment when a young white female country artist reached out to her upon releasing a single and thanked Guyton for her advocacy. The artist remarked that the reason she finally feels comfortable creating authentic, honest music is because of Guyton.
“She said that to me, and I was like, sobbing my eyes out,” Guyton said. “That’s how I take care of myself, seeing those messages, getting messages from little Black girls, and people finding out about Camille Parker and all these other amazing artists. Watching the fruits of my labor succeed in them is my therapy.”
In supporting the next generation of artists, Guyton is intentional about mentorship, as she knows what its absence feels like. She seeks to give new artists the tools and advice she wished she had given her younger self. Honoring that mission, Guyton is bringing Black women on the journey with her.
On Wednesday night, Guyton will be attending the 55th Annual CMA Awards red carpet with 14-year-old Faith Fennidy, the inspiration behind her single “Love My Hair.” Later that evening, she’ll be performing the song on stage with country artists Madeline Edwards and Brittney Spencer.
“I’m bringing my sisters with me because I’m legitimately walking the walk. This isn’t lip service. I’m not saying, ‘Give Black people opportunity,’ then taking every opportunity for myself and not helping a single Black woman,” she said. “That is not what I’m doing. This moment is a moment for Black women.”
“I’m really excited to sing at the CMA Awards, especially what I’m singing and what is being represented here,” she continued. “I realized that God has given me this platform to use in a beautiful way, and that is to uplift other Black women in these spaces. I’m using the little bit of influence I have to hopefully change the trajectory for a lot of people in country music and show people that country music is more than just one way.”
Following last summer’s “racial reckoning,” Guyton has seen small moments of reflection and steps toward progress. She remarked that there are some well-intentioned people in the industry signing Black artists, now collaborating with Black songwriters, and being cognizant of diverse representation in their bands. Notably, Guyton has seen aspiring Black country artists reaching out to her saying, “I sing country music — what do I need to do?”
Only time will tell whether the industry’s efforts are performative or longstanding, but Guyton hopes to push for even more change.
“Certain people have been put into these boxes that don’t exist, and we have to stop allowing those boxes to exist. If you want to sing alternative music and you’re a Black girl, do it,” Guyton said. “There is no face of country music. It’s all of us. Black people are country. I hope little Black girls know that; I hope they feel like there’s someone that really sees them.”
Guyton will be performing at the 2021 CMA Awards on Wednesday, Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. Eastern. On Tuesday, Nov. 16 at 1 p.m. Eastern, tune in to HuffPost’s Twitter Spaces conversation: “Black Women & Country Music’s Future.” Sign up to be notified here.