Mickey Guyton Takes On the Overwhelming Whiteness of Country Music
Guyton had her laptop set up in front of a dark-gray wall with posters for the Black Keys and Jack White. She was wearing a tan spaghetti-strap dress, a gold bracelet, and no makeup. Guyton has deep-brown, wide-set eyes and an easy, open smile. In conversation, she is affable and attentive. Midway through our talk, Savoy brought their two-month-old son, Grayson, into the room. Guyton picked him up from his stroller and sniffed his diaper.
“I think he might have pooped,” she said to Savoy.
Guyton took another whiff and briefly pondered the results. “He might have just farted.”
I told her that they made parenthood look sweet, almost peaceful. “Well, when you’re both helping—” she started.
“Or when you have Superdad, who is also Supernanny,” Savoy cut in.
Guyton laughed. “He’s calling himself Supernanny!”
A dinner conversation with Savoy a few years earlier had helped Guyton clarify her creative vision: “I remember asking, ‘Why do you think country music isn’t working for me?’ And he said, ‘Because you’re running away from everything that makes you different. Why aren’t you writing country songs from the perspective of a Black woman? Not from the perspective of what you think country music looks like for other people, but what country music is for you?’ That just blew my mind.”
There is no pristine road to stardom—mainstream success is nearly always dependent on capitulating to the whims of the marketplace—but Guyton’s rise has been convenient for Nashville, temporarily obfuscating the overwhelming whiteness and maleness within the country-music scene. Guyton is a skillful performer by any metric—her work is imbued with benevolence, grace, and power—but I nonetheless wondered if she worried that her music was being embraced and leveraged for other reasons. “One hundred per cent,” Guyton said. “I look back in my career, and I was a token in so many different ways. I remember there would be corporate events where—in order to make the company look good—who did they have front and center as one of the artists they’re excited about?”
Guyton is not the first Black person to sing country music (she is preceded by dozens—if not hundreds—of remarkable prewar performers, including DeFord Bailey, the Mississippi Sheiks, and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops), nor is she the only contemporary artist of color to appear on the country charts. But commercially successful Black, female performers are startlingly rare in Nashville. In 2020, when Maren Morris, accepting the Country Music Association’s award for Female Vocalist of the Year, cited six Black women for their recent contributions to the genre—Guyton, Linda Martell, Yola, Rissi Palmer, Brittney Spencer, and Rhiannon Giddens—the list felt comprehensive.
When Guyton and I had our initial conversation, she was a new mother, and I was seven months pregnant with my first child. It did not take long for me to abandon my professional obligations and ask her several thousand questions about childbirth. “Every mother is different, but, I’m telling you, you’re gonna know exactly what to do,” Guyton said. She often began our conversations with recommendations for the daunting amount of gear (tiny pacifiers, wipes, a curious substance called gripe water) that newborns seem to require. Sometimes, after our interviews, I felt so relieved that I wanted to sob. By our third Zoom, I was referring to Guyton as my birth coach. “If you need me, you can text me,” she said, laughing.
At the 2020 A.C.M. Awards, Guyton had been visibly pregnant. Near the end of a performance of “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” she placed her palm on her baby bump and swallowed, as if pushing down tears. (The dress she wore that night, ivory-colored and sleeveless, was recently included in an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame titled “American Currents,” which this year considers the tumult and the social reckonings of 2020.) “When I found out I was pregnant, honestly, I was, like, ‘This is going to ruin my career,’ ” she told me. “But I’m determined to show working mothers that they can do this. Yes, it’s hard. But I always try to normalize it: I’m in this interview, I’m holding my baby. I have writing sessions where I say, ‘Sorry, guys, my baby’s gonna be here, and you’re gonna have to deal with it.’ ”
Guyton was born in Arlington, Texas, on June 17, 1983. Her father worked as an engineer and a district manager for the company that became Oncor Electric Delivery, which meant that her family—she has two younger sisters and an older brother—moved every three to five years. “My life centered around the church,” Guyton said. “That’s where I learned how to sing and how to harmonize. It wasn’t like I had a love for music—our parents made us sing in the choir, so we did.” Guyton recalled getting dressed each Sunday—“Stockings, little dress, and the bows in your hair”—and growing restless in the pews. “Oh, my God, church was so long,” she recalled, laughing. “In Black churches, we like to be in church all day. I don’t personally understand it—give me an hour Mass, yes, Lord, praise Him! On Sundays, my dad would make us oatmeal, because, in his mind, oatmeal would fill us up and keep us sustained.”
When Guyton was nine, and her family was living in Crawford, Texas, her church attended a Texas Rangers baseball game: “We were way up in the nosebleed section, and the announcer said, ‘Please rise while ten-year-old LeAnn Rimes sings the national anthem.’ ” Guyton had heard country music before (“When I went to see my grandma, I’d watch all of the Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers VHS tapes hanging on the back of her door,” she remembered), but Rimes made her dream of being a country singer: “Seeing someone who was young like me sound like a grown woman—I was, like, ‘I can do that!’ And I really could.”
Guyton’s parents enrolled her in a small private school in nearby Waco. The family had experienced racism within their community—Guyton’s mother recalled hearing racial slurs yelled out the window of a bus from the public school—and worried that the lack of Black students might make Guyton and her siblings feel conspicuous and unsafe. “This was not in the eighties,” Guyton said. “This was not in the seventies, not in the sixties—this was in the nineties. My parents couldn’t afford private school. So my mom became a substitute teacher for the elementary school and my dad coached the seventh- and eighth-grade basketball teams. That’s how we were all able to go.”
After Guyton graduated, she moved to Los Angeles, to attend Santa Monica College. “I just felt so stuck in the South,” she said. She started taking business classes and got a job at a cigar club in L.A. “That was a whole ’nother ballgame of sexual harassment and disgustingness,” she said. “But I was a hostess making thirteen dollars an hour, and I was, like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m really making it!’ ”
She was briefly a contestant on “American Idol”—she made the Top Fifty—but she was struggling to find a path into country music. “I had such a love for country,” she said. “It was something about that sound—with a good country ballad, there’s just something so beautiful about it.” She went on, “While everybody else was bumping whatever, I was bumping Rascal Flatts. But I didn’t know how to get to Nashville, and that’s where I felt I really needed to be.”
One afternoon, she was out shopping for a fiftieth-birthday present for her mother. “I ran into this d.j. I knew, DJ D-Wrek, who was Nick Cannon’s d.j. for ‘Wild ’n Out.’ He was, like, ‘You do music, right? What kind of music do you sing?’ And I was, like, ‘I sing country.’ It was the first time I’d said it. I was thinking I’d keep moving and that’d be it,” she said. “But a hip-hop guy got me in contact with a country guy.” D-Wrek ultimately introduced Guyton to a producer and songwriter named Julian Raymond, who connected her to her current management. In 2011, she moved to Nashville.
This year, the Academy of Country Music nominated four Black artists, the most ever, for major awards. They included Guyton, Kane Brown, John Legend (for a collaboration with Carrie Underwood), and Jimmie Allen; two won. (Allen became the first Black performer to win the A.C.M. New Artist award, and Brown became the first Black solo artist to win Video of the Year.)
Guyton took the stage in a feathered, one-shoulder white dress and matching boots festooned with what appeared to be hundreds of tiny crystals. She and Urban bantered cheerfully. “She’s a real artist, and she writes from real experience,” Urban told me later. “That’s a process for every artist, but I think we’re starting to see a connection taking place between her and her audience. The portals are starting to open up.”