Peyton Hoge – Mickey Guyton
at the Ryamn Auditorium in 2020.
“The older I got, the more I appreciated the truth of it,” Mickey Guyton says of country music. “There’s a Dolly song about maybe I should gain some weight, and Johnny Cash has ‘Don’t Take Your Guns To Town.’ Those things are as real as you get, and I loved that…
“I first moved to Nashville, all bright-eyed, and was instilled with this fear I had to prove myself as authentic country to this genre. Never mind I grew up in Crawford, Texas, on gravel dirt roads where country and country music is an actual way of life, that people live these songs.”
Mickey Guyton is now in the eye of the storm surrounding modern country’s vast white waste(d)land of young males working tropes of trucks, beer, God, country and yes, hotties. When she dropped “Sister,” a pledge to have other young women’s backs in the wake of country radio’s female desert, no one noticed. Or seemingly cared about the Texas-born and -raised power vocalist’s promise to rescue her sisters from whatever misadventure they found themselves in.
Then Me, Too and Time’s Up happened, and Guyton’s “What Are You Going To Tell Her?,” a deceptively tiny ballad that explodes vocally on the chorus, earned the only standing ovation at Universal Nashville’s notoriously star-studded acoustic Ryman Auditorium showcase during Country Radio Seminar 2020. The straightforward questions, often whispered over a metronomic piano, impales every justification expressed for why women can’t get played, can’t get a chance, won’t be believed when sexually abused or assaulted.
Photo Courtesy UMG Nashville – Mickey Guyton
Power vocal: Guyton performing at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium.
Suddenly, Mickey Guyton was tracking.
Then George Floyd was murdered… Say Their Names… Black Lives Matter… Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Freddie Gray. Baby name generators. Marches. Quilts stitched with the seemingly endless names.
Guyton, who looks like a Disney princess, was signed to one of Nashville’s most powerful labels on the spot after an a capella audition in UMGN Chairman Mike Dungan’s office — and counts Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban among her most vocal fans.
She knows what it’s like to be invisible and unheard. Ten years waiting for her shot, being scrutinized “to get it just right” and watching countless boys xerox each others’ hits race up the charts, she’d walked into UMGN President Cindy Mabe’s office numerous times to quit.
“It’s a very lonely position I’m in, because I see it so clearly,” she explains on the phone from her Los Angeles home, where she lives with her attorney husband. “Any time I’d turn in a song, it was ‘Sounds too pop, too r&b,’ but I was hearing trap beats, 808s, white guys talk/rapping in their songs, wearing flat-billed hats and Timberlands, drawling and making moves like a black guy… and I’m too?”
The smile in her voice practically lights up the phone line. There’s no rancor, no revenge fantasy here. Guyton hit bottom, almost walked away from the music she fell in love with as a girl listening to Parton with her Grandma and seeing LeAnn Rimes at the fair.
“I developed a drinking problem trying to cope, trying to figure out how to fit into this industry as a black woman who knows what it’s like to fit in in all-white rooms. I went to a private religious school because where we lived, it was known they didn’t want the Black kids in the public school.”
There’s a pause. Guyton knows it takes a moment to absorb what she’s sharing. She leaves no writer behind. But she also doesn’t marinate in unstated racism, because that’s time wasted. “Rock bottom is where you have your biggest breakthroughs. I was so broken, I couldn’t go on writing b.s. that doesn’t mean anything to me.”
– Mickey and Dolly
To be Real: Dolly Parton with Guyton, who says she sings about things that are “as real as they get.”
She was riding in a car with her husband, talking it through yet again. The young man who passed on Harvard because there weren’t enough people who looked like him, turned to his wife, and said, “You’re running away from everything that makes you different, that makes you you. Your story is different – and that’s what makes you stand out.”
“We’re not allowed to live in our truth, and I honestly didn’t know what I was supposed to be. ‘We want you like Taylor Swift’s sweet songs, so we can get you on the radio…’ I had a radio guy say, ‘Why don’t you write some cute little fluffy song?’ But I’m an adult. I’m a woman going through real shit – and my life isn’t light and fluffy.
“I took selfies and posed being pretty with my beauty light at all these events for girl power, drank the wine spritzers. But we still weren’t getting played … or released, even. To have no voice, to feel scared, it’s why women keep their mouths shut. They’re all in the same position – and some women are no better (about helping women) – people at record companies, at publishing companies have swept it under the rug because they don’t want to be uncomfortable.”
With nothing to lose and the support of her label and managers Steve Moir and Gary Borman, Guyton eschewed conventional wisdom, “how it’s done” and the tropes that weren’t getting her on the radio. Finding her own advocates – from songwriters and producers to glam – Guyton began writing her truth.
“Sister” boasts a chorus of “I got your back on the long, drunk stumble home / I’ll be your yes when all you’ve ever heard was no… I’m your shotgun seat, ride or die” declaration of solidarity. It felt better to the woman, who confesses, “I’ve walked on red carpets and felt like shit because I looked like shit, and I knew it,” to honor the differences, to seek out people who understood hair and make-up for Black women, who recognize the gap between how women experience and men assume they understand how women feel.
“She’s showing the face of what country music looks like in today’s world,” says Mabe. “This is what’s out there, not what’s advertised. She’s channeling those emotions, her emotions to girls who need it. Country music is a culture, life, how your voice matters in the entire world – and all the voices that share yours.
“I believe anyone who can hold a narrative means something. They can build a fanbase, especially for every little girl who feels the same way and needs someone who gives voice to their feelings.”
Mabe jokes her label isn’t “straight up the middle,” but she’s dead serious about the music. Without missing a beat, she leans in, “You can change the entire format with one artist’s creativity! A No. 1 record is not … it’s just not enough. Healing, relating, every moment of your life is part of what country music should be.
“Eric Church, Kacey Musgraves, Little Big Town, Jon Pardi, Luke Bryan are all going against the grain of where the music was when they arrived, speaking for people whose lives weren’t reflected. We are now the party-all-the-time channel; nobody lives like that.”
Courtesy UMG Nashville – Mickey Guyton
After “Sister” came the powerful “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” soon to have a Greg Wells remix and possible help from Def Jam. Written by four women about their collective frustrations, ambitions, disappointment and realities, SiriusXM’s J.R. Schumann, long considered a champion of females who aren’t getting terrestrial play, put it on The Highway. The Los Angeles Times, HITS, Variety, Entertainment Weekly and NPR praised its woman-positive message.
Then the pandemic hit, touring stopped – “I’ve never seen anyone so natural and winning onstage. Carrie is always asking me what’s going on with Mickey, so she can take her on the road,” Mabe says – and the marketing plan coming together was put on pause. As much as Guyton was ready, she continued honing her music, writing, recording, seeking.
“Black Like Me,” written at a writers retreat over a year ago, was destined to be on her next record. Not a single, not a focus track, just another facet of Guyon’s truth. Until George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, Say Their Name and Black Out Tuesday. For Guyton, who wasn’t looking to ride a moment or a movement, her message was strong, clear and without hype. No press release, no “cover, or photo even,” Mabe says, just a social media posting.
Drawn from her own experience, the simple sentiment pretty much said it all. Spotify called to ask if they could put it on their playlists. It hit No. 1 at Spotify the same day.
“Mickey doesn’t have a choice,” explains Associated Press Music Editor Mesfin Fekadu. “Whether she wants to (address it) or not, the fact she’s Black and a woman is a factor. She loves country music; she’s a girl from the country; and she wants to be a country singer. She could’ve been a pop singer, or a gospel singer, but her passion is country music.”
He notes when he first saw Guyton at a showcase during CMA Awards week five or six years ago, nobody told him she was Black. Clearly impressed, he’s followed her evolution – and recognizes Guyton’s work and potential impact. “Race is really sensitive in the genre. It’s uncomfortable for some people, but (the song) is so honest and pure, I think it’s important to have that vulnerable piece as part of it.
“It’s a great place to be; it’s historic to be able to break those barriers and be that representation. There’s a seat at the table for her, but she’s going to have to create that chair, then bring it to the table herself. It’s a lot of work, but she doesn’t care about being a country music star as much as being really passionate about country music and what the genre stands for.”
Dan Rogers, who runs the Grand Ole Opry, marvels at Guyton’s transparency. “That song is so powerful. In a time when we’re surrounded by news and social media, conversations with friends, that song – and her whole Opry family knowing her so personally – really hit home. I know exactly where I was on Gallatin Road when I first heard it.
“It was the first time a Black person had ever said that to me, that you wouldn’t understand it unless you’re black like me. That song spares no feelings. She’s saying how she feels, but also delivering a message that’s about so much more than what she feels… and it made me rethink so much about how I’ve handled my professional relationship with her, because with Mickey, even for the people sitting in the pews onstage at the Opry, if they notice her skin color, it’s so superseded by the amount of talent and charisma…”
As Underwood affirms, “I have always been a fan of exceptional voices. I love singers who choose difficult songs to perform, who have power behind their vocals. I love listening to voices that cut through the air and through your ears straight to your heart. Mickey checks all those boxes – and I’ve been a fan of her voice since I first heard it.
Courtesy UMG Nashville – Mickey Guyton
The Yellow rose from texas: Mickey Guyton and her parents, who came in from Texas for her Opry debut.
“Being a woman and being African American makes her unique, and should only add to the specialness that already exists. I’m not sure why, at this time in our format, uniqueness doesn’t seem to be celebrated, But I do know the only way to resolve it is by rewarding talent no matter where it comes from! That’s the kind of example I want those little girls in the audience to see when they come to our shows.”
Loretta Lynn. Merle Haggard. Kris Kristofferson. Parton. Cash. They’ve all spoken deeply personal truths that spoke to far larger issues. Feminism (“Fist City”). Birth control (“The Pill”). (Ex)cons (“Sing Me Back Home,” “Lonesome Fugitive”). Miscegenation (“Irma Jackson”). Revolutionaries (“Sandinsta”). Sexual freedom (“Me & Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through The Night”). Sexism (“Dumb Blond”). Gun control (“Don’t Take Your Guns To Town”). Immigrant labor. (“Deportee”) The shunned, poor and illiterate (“Coat of Many Colors”).
Mickey Guyton didn’t sign up to carry a placard. As she confesses, “I’ve seen a lot that’s not great. This is an industry that proclaims love and Jesus and family, and it doesn’t look like that at all a lot of times. Nothing’s going to change if we don’t speak up, if nobody’s trying to push the boundaries.
“They weren’t playing me anyway, trying to play by the rules wasn’t doing me any good.”
Chance Edwards – Mickey Guyton
She recognizes how many people are welcoming, how country fans respond at the Opry or seeing her sing “Whiskey Lullaby” with Brad Paisley when she opened his tour. But she’ll also acknowledge the Confederate flags waved during those opening sets, the times people have used the N word loud enough to be heard during her signing sessions.
Just as profoundly as she’s committed to speaking truth to race – for any little Black girls, who need a role model, or Black people who love country music – she’s as dedicated to parity for women. With zero recrimination, she explains, “It’s not just about being Black. Jimmie Allen, Darius Rucker and Kane Brown have all had some really strong success in country music. There are more black men on the charts than there are white women. Even as I sit here, I can name several women who’re amazing singers, are on major labels or were – and they can’t get their records released or played on radio.
“I try to encourage women all the time: Speak your truth. It’s not write better songs like they tell you, because those songs aren’t better… It’s be real. Women are getting lost because men are telling them how things need to be done, to dress, to act. But men don’t know how women feel.”
She pauses again, letting it absorb. She’s been having this conversation for the last few weeks, and she knows she’s thought it through deeper than most.
“I’m not trying to be a preacher, but I know we’re all reaching for this magical thing that doesn’t exist, trying to fit into a country music scene saturated with men and what they do and want. But as soon as I let go of, ‘I need to be on country radio,’ catering in a way that’s not your truth or sound, I found my voice. And now I’m trying to speak the truth in love so people can feel it and move towards something better.
“I don’t have a single answer, FYI. I just want to open discussions so people are thinking about the way the world really is, coming together and celebrating that!
“Most people aren’t looking at these numbers on a daily basis; they don’t realize who’s being played or not played. If I can give them a glimpse of hope, possibility, faith, they can share the message, discover Gabby Barrett, Ingrid Andress, Kalie Shorr, Caylee Hammack, Jillian Jacqueline…
“Women are all so afraid of each other, because we’ve been told there are only a few slots. I’m not knocking men, but this is where they need to speak up, too. It’s not just our job to fight this fight, but you can believe – whether you’ve been there for me or not – if you’re a woman, I’m gonna be fighting for you, too. It’s what the whole Black Girl Magic movement is, and I’ve learned so much from there.”