Until this year if Mickey Guyton’s struggles had been turned into a country music song, its title could have been “Almost Famous.”
Guyton was the Black country music singer who almost broke through when she sang at an all-star concert at the White House; almost became a star after she was nominated for an Academy of Country Music Award; and almost went big-time after music critics compared her gospel-inflected, church-honed vocals to everyone from Whitney Houston to Carrie Underwood.
Yet for years she hovered on the edges of stardom. “I always felt like I was almost there,” she says.
She got plenty of advice on how to be a Black country music star: Make sure your songs sound really country because listeners might think you’re being disingenuous. Don’t make your songs sound too R&B. You need to be more authentic.
“I was in this ‘woe is me’ kind of space where I asked myself, ‘Why do you have to be out in Nashville?’ Why did you have to be a Black woman in country music, knowing that you’ll never be accepted?’”
Guyton’s breakthrough came this summer after she decided to listen to herself. She released “Black Like Me,” a three-and-a-half-minute song that flipped the good ol’ boy patriotism of country music on its side and forced listeners to consider a different perspective with its chorus:
It’s a hard life on easy street
Just white painted picket fences far as you can see
If you think we live in the land of the free
You should try to be black like me
The song came out a week after George Floyd’s death as racial protests were spreading across the country. It quickly got noticed. National Public Radio named it one of the top 4 songs of 2020. And Guyton recently became the first Black female solo artist to be nominated for a Grammy in the Best Country Solo Performance category for “Black Like Me.”
“For so many people 2020 has been a devastating year,” says Cindy Mabe, president of Universal Music Group Nashville, which owns Guyton’s record label. “Somehow through the devastation, Mickey has found her voice.”
But Guyton owes her success to more than just good timing. Before she could give voice to the anguish that so many Black and brown people were feeling in 2020, she had to confront her own pain.
Guyton and the Black roots of country music
Guyton’s powerhouse voice was slightly hoarse as she spoke to CNN on a recent afternoon about her sudden success. The 37-year-old Texas native has kept a punishing schedule since her breakthrough over the summer.
She performed at the Academy of Country Music Awards in September, making history as the first Black female solo artist to sing her own song at the show. She’s been featured in the Washington Post, on CBS This Morning, in Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone.
Then there are the changes in her personal life. She and her husband, Grant Savoy, are expecting their first child – a boy – in February. In interviews, she says her baby is an “absolute miracle,” but she worries about their child facing racism one day.
Her husband encouraged her to record “Black Like Me,” even though she felt the song had little future.
“He said even if something never happens to you, you’re opening the door for other people of color who might be passionate about country music,” she says.
That door to country music has long been closed to many Black artists, with just a handful of exceptions. Record labels starting in the 1920s deliberately marketed what was once called “hillbilly music” as the music of the rural White South, historians say.
But the thumbprints of African American culture are stamped on virtually every facet of country music, including its vocal harmonies, instrumentations, and some of its most popular songs. Black artists helped build country music.
The banjo, for example, is a descendant of an instrument that was brought to America by enslaved West Africans. Many of the earliest ‘hillbilly” songs were adapted from slave spirituals, work songs, and Black songwriters. One of Johnny Cash’s mentors was Gus Cannon, a Black blues musician and bandleader who was the son of slaves.
“One of the biggest triumphs of African-American music is the banjo,” Rhiannon Giddens, one of today’s few Black country music stars, told an interviewer last summer. “The banjo took over the world. That means we helped create America’s music. Not blues. Not jazz. America’s music, period.”
As White country music grew more popular, the contributions of Black artists were gradually erased. There have since been a few Black country stars – Giddens, the late Charley Pride, Darius Rucker – but the genre is now primarily dominated by blue-collar White singers in faded jeans and pickup trucks.
Read more from John Blake:
Guyton didn’t care about those odds at first. She decided she was going to be a singer at age 8 when she heard country star LeAnn Rimes perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a Texas Rangers game.
A native of Arlington, Texas, she had already heard country music through a grandmother, who loved Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. Guyton says she grew up singing gospel in church and listening to R&B, but country music touched her in ways that other music didn’t because of its emphasis on lyrics.
“It’s the storytelling aspect of it. That’s the bottom line,” she says. “R&B artists tell their own stories but it’s just different with country. There’s a song by this artist Miranda Lambert called ‘The House That Built Me.” To this day I can’t listen to it without sobbing my heart out.”
A tough conversation leads to a breakthrough
Guyton’s attempts to build a country music career led to another type of heartbreak.
She signed with Capitol Records Nashville in 2011, and in 2015 she released a self-titled mini-album. She was nominated for her first Academy of Country Music Award in the New Female Vocalist category and appeared at a concert at the White House that was filmed by PBS.
But her career stalled. As one critic said, her songs “lingered on the long end of the country music charts” as she tried to fit into whatever trend was popular in country music at the time.