Mickey Guyton was supposed to have her breakthrough moment years ago.
“My husband and I were having drinks in L.A. and I asked him, ‘Why do you think country music isn’t working out for me?’” Guyton told NBC News. “Because I’d been pursuing country music for five or six years at that point and I hadn’t really had much success. I’ve had some success, but not that much success.”
The artist, who had grown up in Texas listening to her grandma play Dolly Parton repeatedly, decided to pursue country music after hearing LeAnn Rimes sing the national anthem at a Texas Rangers baseball game when she was 8 years old. Upon graduating from high school, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of performing music like the country greats she admired.
In L.A., Guyton recorded a handful of demos and even auditioned for the eighth season of “American Idol,” but she didn’t have her lucky break until she’d met a DJ who introduced her to managers who arranged a meeting with representatives at Capitol Records Nashville. The record company is part of the Universal Music Group (which was once part of NBC), and its Nashville subsidiaryis known for representing artists like Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban. Guyton signed with Capitol Records in 2011, becoming the only Black female country signed to a major label.
Mainstream success seemed imminent. Guyton debuted her first single, “Better Than You Left Me,” a power ballad about a former boyfriend who tried to get back together with her after he saw her advancing in her career, at the Grand Ole Opry in 2015, and it was released on country radio days later. The song spent four weeks on Billboard’s Country Airplay Chart and Guyton was nominated for new female vocalist of the year by the Academy of Country Music the following year.
Yet Guyton’s career didn’t gain the momentum she wanted it to, which she largely attributes to being held to a different set of standards as a Black woman in the industry.
“I had heard so many noes. I’d heard people say, ‘Oh, I don’t know if you can do that.’ ‘You can’t sing that.’ ‘That’s a little too pop,’” Guyton said. “Meanwhile, I’m seeing all these dudes with trap beats and R&B melodies in their songs, making all this money and selling out tours, but I’m not allowed to do that.”
The conversation regarding which songs should be considered country hit a fever pitch in 2016 when Beyoncé’s submission to the Grammy’s country music categories was rejected, according to The Associated Press. She’s even performed the song, which includes horns and hand claps and underscores her upbringing as a Southerner, with The Chicks at the 2017 Country Music Association Awards.
Modern mainstream country music remains overwhelmingly white and male, though the genre was built by and is indebted to Black artists — a fact that was widely discussed during the debate over whether Lil Nas X’s viral “Old Town Road” should be considered a country song. Billboard removed the track from its Hot Country Songs chart, writing in a statement to Rolling Stone that “while ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” The rapper said the song should be considered “country trap” and appear on both charts. He later recorded a remix of “Old Town Road” with Billy Ray Cyrus, which held the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for 19 weeks, breaking Mariah Carey’s record.
Guyton felt like she had reached a standstill, when that conversation with her husband pushed her to keep fighting for her space in the industry.
“He said: ‘You're running away from everything that makes you different. You need to write your songs about your experiences. Country music is the truth, right? So write your truth — don't write somebody else's truth,’” Guyton recalled. “It was such a life changing conversation for me.”
She decided to push back against her fear of retaliation should she more openly discuss her identity.
“Everybody's like, ‘Look, everybody knows that you're Black, so we don't really have to bring attention to it. So let's just focus on the fact that you are a really great vocalist and we don't really need to talk about the fact that you're Black, since it's already a known thing,’” Guyton said. “And that made me scared to talk about being Black and dealing with discrimination.”
She noted that watching The Chicks get blacklisted in the industry after criticizing former President George W. Bush and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, had made her even more reluctant to broach anything remotely controversial in her music.
“You can't piss off anybody because it'll stop you from getting opportunities and getting played,” Guyton said. “I just felt like I had my hands tied behind my back and I didn't want to rock the boat, but I had all these feelings that I couldn't talk about because I didn't want to make anybody feel uncomfortable. Therefore I was the one that was constantly uncomfortable and constantly not feeling like myself. And it wasn't until I had that conversation with my husband, that I was like, ‘I've got to stop doing this to myself.’”
Guyton began shifting away from the generic and started writing specifically about her experiences and the injustice she’s witnessed. She released “What Are You Going to Tell Her?”, a song about sexism and violence against women, in February, and another single called “Black Like Me” in June. The latter had been years in the works — Guyton was first inspired to write it after reading John Howard Griffin’s book with the same name as a student at Santa Monica College in the late 2000s — but as Black Lives Matter protests prompted by the death of George Floyd took hold, she couldn’t think of a more appropriate time to release it.
Both songs will appear on her upcoming album, which will be released sometime this fall.
“I have so many cool fun songs that I want to release, but this is where people are going and we're having to run with that,” Guyton said of the initial success of “Black Like Me.”
“And it's a beautiful thing, but it also puts a lot of pressure on me. I get comments from fans, ‘Of course, she's pulling the race card’ and I'm like, ‘If you had any idea of what I've gone through for almost 10 years, you would never say that.’”
With protests and reforms in all pockets of society and culture, though, the country music industry has slowly started to reckon with race. In recent weeks, both Lady A and The Chicks changed their names to omit references to the Antebellum South, though Lady A is now suing a Black blues singer who shares the same name.
Guyton says she wants to redefine notions of what country music is and who it belongs to.
“Country music is for everyone,” Guyton said. “It’s for LGBTQ communities, Latino communities. It’s so important that people of color, Black, brown, whatever color you are, are seen within this industry.”