Mickey Guyton Gets Off the 'Nashville Hamster Wheel'

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Phylicia J. L. Munn

Mickey Guyton is proof that good things come to those who wait. After years of going through what she describes now as the "Nashville hamster wheel," the Texas-born country music singer has become a breakout star following the 2020 release of her much-talked-about single "Black Like Me," a powerful commentary about being a Black person in America. For that song, Guyton became the first Black female artist to be nominated in the Grammy category of Best Country Solo Performance; she also performed "Black Like Me" at the ceremony this March. A month later, she co-hosted the Academy of Country Music Awards with Keith Urban. Most recently, Guyton received a nomination for New Artist of the Year from the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards, which will be held on November 10 in Nashville. That nomination is ironic given how Guyton has been on a record label for a decade now.

"It's so crazy because it's all amazing," Guyton, 38, tells Newsweek about the belated attention. "But we're still kind of stuck inside. You get on these highs and then it's over and you're like, 'Okay, back into my cubby hole now.' That's why I'm able to keep such a chill approach to it because the pandemic has been so interesting. And I have a baby who kind of tops everything that I've done. It's very humbling."

This September, Guyton finally released her much-anticipated debut full-length record Remember Her Name (Capitol Nashville)—something that the singer herself never thought would happen. Her initial doubt is justified after the obstacles she experienced as one of the few female singers of color in country music, a group that also includes performers Yola, Linda Martell and Rhiannon Giddens.

"This album was in the making for years," Guyton explains, "but I just got so derailed and pulled in all of these different directions trying to get on country radio. Finally I was like, 'I can't do this. Leave me, everybody and your opinions, and let me figure this out on my own and what I want to say on my own.'"

Guyton's personal and professional struggles informed the lyrics on Remember Her Name, a moving work that both showcases her powerhouse vocals and radio-friendly merger of country, pop and R&B music. Both the album's name and anthemic title track took inspiration from Breonna Taylor, the young Black woman who was fatally shot in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment last year by police. Taylor's death, along with George Floyd's and Ahmaud Arbery's, galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement as the country saw protests over racial injustice and police brutality.

"To think about this woman, Breonna Taylor, was somebody's daughter," says Guyton, "I just thought about what her mother must be feeling. And so when I started writing the song, she was absolutely who I thought about. Not only was it her story, it turned into my story of self-discovery. No matter what career that you're in, we all start out with such high hopes and excitement. And then life happens and all of that luster goes away. You lose confidence in yourself. But it's important to remember the fire that was in you back then­—that person actually never left. That's why I felt I should title it my album because the album really is about finding my voice."

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Bonnie Nichoalds

Alongside such album tracks as "Words" and a cover of Beyoncé's "If I Were a Boy," the dramatic ballad "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" echoes Guyton's own experiences in the music business. It's a sobering song about when young girls' dreams and hopes are dashed by reality ("What are you gonna tell her when she figures out/That all this time you built her up just so the world can let her down?" Guyton sings). In writing that song, she recalls attending a Grammy afterparty that included a number of famous and successful women like the actress Hailee Steinfeld and the singer Billie Eilish.

"I'm looking and seeing some of the most beautiful women in one room," Gutyon says. "But then there were all these men in suits surrounding all of us. It made me think, 'Man, I'm still trying to pursue my career. But imagine these girls that have actually made it. What did they have to go through? How many times do they have to keep their mouths shut because something is uncomfortable? What do they have to go through to get to where they are?' And so I got on a flight at 5 a.m. the next morning, flew to Nashville, and wrote "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?"

Not all of the material, however, on Remember Her Name consists of serious social commentary. The album has some upbeat tracks like the playful "Rosé," the soulful and spiritual "Higher" and the romantic "Lay it on Me" and "Dancing in the Living Room." The song "Love my Hair" speaks of being proud of who you are regardless of skin color or appearance. "I'm always the type of person who's like, "Let's address the issue and then let's get past it and be better for it.' That's how I always approach things. It's okay to have hard conversations, but it's also important for people to see the other side of me. As many polarizing songs as there are on this album, it's actually a very inclusive album. I want people to feel hopeful."

Born in Arlington, Texas, Guyton was raised on country music and gospel. As a kid, she witnessed a then-emerging country star performing at a Texas Rangers game, a moment that changed her life. "I heard LeAnn Rimes sing the national anthem before her hit single "Blue" came out [in 1996]. I was completely blown away by her. That was when I was like, "That's what I want to do.'"

In 2011, Guyton signed to Capitol Nashville, which made her the only Black female country artist on a major label roster. Although her single "Better Than You Left Me" became a minor hit in 2015, her career didn't take off. The phone calls stopped coming in and the opportunities dried up. In an interview last year with Newsweek, Guyton said she was told to stick to making traditional country music. "I was always told you've got to make sure your songs are super country even though I was hearing trap beats and R&B melodies in country music and they were shooting up the charts and getting No. 1 songs. But I wasn't country enough. And so I was spending all of this time trying to be country enough."

Guyton's career crossroads forced her to figure out what exactly went wrong. That came when she had a conversation with her husband. "I asked him, '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.' That just blew me away. I was trying so hard to be this girl next door for people to relate to in country music And then I had to think to myself, 'So what is a girl next door? What if the girl next door is this little Black girl from Texas?' I just really dug within and started writing like I was telling a story. I quit trying to make it commercially successful and sing about beer. Instead I just sing about my life and what country music looks like from my perspective."

A prime example of Guyton's revised songwriting approach is "Black Like Me." Released in June 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, the song powerfully juxtaposes the romanticized view of smalltown America with the present-day racial inequality Guyton experienced ("If you think we live in the land of the free/ You should try to be, oh, Black like me," goes the chorus). Guyton composed the song in 2018 at a writers' retreat. "When I wrote the song," she says, "I didn't think that anybody was ever going to hear it and I was okay with that. I was like, 'There's no home for this record. Nobody's going to play this.' So I would send it to people in town. Some people would get back to me [and] some people wouldn't because it's a really hard subject matter."

Guyton posted "Black Like Me" on her Instagram. She intentionally did not want any record company promotion of the song, not even a press release. "This is not a time to be like, 'Hey guys, I got new songs out,'" she remembers. "This is a moment to make it about what is going on and give people a message of hope." The popularity of the song soared after Spotify added it to its Hot Country playlist. "My DMs are still full of messages from that," she says. "I remember I sat in bed terrified. I stayed in my room for an entire day. I didn't even leave the room because I was so scared. It was such a personal song that exposed me so much. It was crazy."

With the attention that her music and story have gotten, Guyton has become a prominent figure to make country music more welcoming to artists of color. It's a role that she has embraced. "I think there is change," she says. "There are a lot of people that want to make this genre more inclusive, not only to Black people but also to any marginalized group of people. It's a slow process. I see people trying to make change."

"There were so many times that I wanted to quit," she adds. "My husband would be like, 'If you quit, you're taking away your presence from that little 7-year-old Black girl that may have a dream of singing country music. You have to be there.' So yes, it has turned into a responsibility."

In the last year, Guyton has appeared on TV programs such as The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Tonight Show and been profiled in The New York Times and The New Yorker. The opportunities also started coming in: Guyton covered Metallica's song "Nothing Else Matters" for the band's The Metallica Blacklist project, and she voiced the character of Wanda Warbler on the Disney Junior animated program Mickey Mouse Funhouse.

At the moment she is working on her second album and eyeing such goals as her own tour, a musical, a children's book and film and television projects. "I would love to have a song on country radio," Guyton says. "I'm not sure that will ever happen, but one can only hope."