'The boat has been rocked': Mickey Guyton, the Grammys' first Black solo female country nominee

Her song Black Like Me is a bold statement in an often conservative genre, but the Texan singer is conflicted about bringing diverse voices into the ‘lion’s den’ of country music

When Mickey Guyton was a little girl growing up in east Texas, she would line her white canopy bed with a cadre of stuffed animals posing as adoring fans and dream about the day she might attend the Grammy awards as a nominee. “I thought I was going to be in the audience wearing this big, glamorous, Whitney Houston-type dress,” Guyton says, calling from her home in LA a month or so away from giving birth to her son, and trying to keep her calico cat, Halle Barry, quiet. The Grammys, like most things in the Covid era, will be different this year. “I didn’t think I’d be in a pandemic, pregnant, among social unrest. It definitely played out a lot different in my mind, you know?”

Guyton is the first Black solo female artist to be nominated in a Grammy country category, for her single Black Like Me; the only previous Black women to be nominated for country music were the Pointer Sisters in 1976. She says she never pictured making history with a song that details the Black experience in an exclusionary genre, or that she would pivot from trying to keep quiet and compliant to being at the forefront of a movement to crack country open to new voices. But now, she says, “the boat has been rocked”. As Guyton sings on her 2015 release Better Than You Left Me, a track that should have been a hit if American country radio were not so committed to moderately talented white men as its bread and butter, “it’s funny what a little time does, baby”.

Hailing from Arlington, the same Texan town as the country superstar Maren Morris, and growing up inspired by LeAnn Rimes, Dolly Parton and the (formerly Dixie) Chicks, Guyton has a voice that can match Carrie Underwood in range and power but which simmers in its own unique and warm twang. She writes intimate ballads as well as the saccharine stuff that genre fans love to hear blasting out while sprawled out with a beer at a festival. But while country music has been fighting to correct the dismal female representation on the radio, Guyton has been left out of a battle that only seemed to include white women. “I felt like I was the forgotten one,” she says.

She moved to country music’s capital, Nashville, but her career stalled even as she kept writing songs such as Black Like Me and What Are You Gonna Tell Her?, a stunning mediation on the disappointments and broken promises of womanhood. Both appear on her Bridges EP, alongside the poppy and delightful Rosé.

Guyton crafted Black Like Me a few years ago, with the murder of Botham Jean, an innocent Black man shot in his home, heavy on her heart and mind. “I circled it around to certain people I trusted in the industry that I knew who had the power to help,” she says. “And the response was like: ‘Wow, this is really powerful. But I need to sit with it for a minute.’”

Its moment eventually came amid the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. As all great county lyrics do, its central chorus line – “If you think we live in the land of the free / You should try to be black like me” – spoke on both a universal and a granular level: to a country in the midst of a racial reckoning, and to a musical genre born from Black traditions that has long denied its origin story. Suddenly Guyton found herself in a new, sometimes reluctant position as an activist.

“[Black Like Me] is so much bigger than my own personal experiences,” Guyton says. “And realising I have to open this little window and bust it open for not only women of colour, but the gay community as well. In order for there to be change in country music, there needs to be such a surge of other types of artists who aren’t just white and male.”

Mickey Guyton
Another country … Guyton on stage in Arrington, Tennessee for the 2020 CMT awards. Photograph: John Shearer/CMT2020/Getty Images for CMT

That will finally include herself, too: later this year she will release her debut album, 10 years in the making, that will feature the whole breadth of her talent, and possibly even a “friggin’ dope” trap-country tune. Guyton has also made it a priority to promote other Black women in the genre, but she has wondered whether, in the process, she has been “leading them into the lion’s den”. Even with a Grammy nomination, she still wasn’t getting played on country radio. And after the insurrection at the US Capitol, and country megastar Morgan Wallen being caught on tape saying a racial slur, she found herself crying to her husband, wondering if she was doing the right thing.

“I’ve been putting my neck on the line, saying you can sing country music and be accepted,” she says. “There was a part of me that was also like: but can you? I’ve encouraged so many amazing, talented, beautiful people. But I want to protect the people I am leading into this, too.”

That means speaking out as much as she can, even when it gets uncomfortable. Messages to her on Twitter can be filled with hate and racism, showing how country music can be both a beautiful and deeply broken place. “It’s making some people very angry,” she says. “But we’re waking up.”

Contributor

Marissa R Moss

The GuardianTramp

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