Mickey Guyton never set out to become the conscience of country music, but that’s just the role she’s stepped into.
The 37-year-old Arlington, Tex., singer-songwriter, has been toiling in the trenches for several years now without a lot of commercial success. Although she signed with Capitol Nashville in 2011, released her first single in 2015 and was nominated for an Academy of Country Music award for New Female Vocalist in 2016, the success she so longed for was always elusive.
But as a Black artist in a genre where people of color — especially women — have never gained a foothold, everything changed a few months ago when the protests over the treatments of Blacks in America came to a head.
Guyton released a song she wrote last year, “Black Like Me,” that describes how it felt to grow up “different” from the other kids on the playground and the challenges that remain today. “It’s a hard life on easy street, just white painted picket fences as far as you can see. If you think we live in the land of the free, you should try to be Black like me,” she sings.
That song and five others are on Guyton’s EP, “Bridges,” which was released on Sept. 11. The album also features “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” another sobering and thought-provoking song that tackles the topic of sexual abuse and other tough topics.
Although there are a couple of upbeat and more lighthearted numbers on the album, it’s these raw message songs that resonate after the music stops.
“I didn’t plan on writing polarizing songs about world events,” Guyton says. “I really wanted to put out fun country songs like everybody else.” But using songwriting as her outlet, she couldn’t turn her back on what was happening outside the country music community.
“Writing songs is therapy for me,” she says, pointing to “Black Like Me” as a prime example. Country music is best known for relating life’s messages through “three chords and the truth,” and for Guyton, “this is my truth,” she says.
After completing the song, she “didn’t know what to do with it,” but after the uprising following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, Guyton knew this was the right time to release it.
Although Guyton says it was never her plan to be an activist, it’s a role she’s come to embrace. “Nobody ever says anything,” she says. “It’s not natural for country artists to speak out on political issues. And this is not necessarily a political issue, but a human rights issue.”
In fact, others who have dared to speak out in the past such as the Dixie Chicks — who famously said that following the invasion of Iraq they were ashamed that then-President Bush was from Texas — were quickly ostracized. That led to a culture of fear within the artist community, Guyton says. “Cancel culture started with that and it scared artists from having a voice,” she says.
Even though some singers such as Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and other “outlaw” artists did sing about pertinent issues of the day, “now you’re not allowed to say anything.”
But that was before 2020 changed everything. “I dare you to tell a Black woman to keep her mouth shut,” Guyton says. And since she has always struggled to find her place in country music anyway, “I don’t have that much to lose. I will be completely honest and say it because no one else will.”
Her outspokenness is garnering a lot attention outside the country music community these days as well. She’s been featured in Rolling Stone, Billboard, the Los Angeles Times, People magazine and all the morning shows.
And she has been added to the list of performers at the ACM Awards on Sept. 16, where she’ll sing “What Are Your Gonna Tell Her?” to raise awareness of the issue of hunger during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Guyton, who is pregnant, will be wearing a custom-made dress that was created by her stylist Erica Cloud and made by a seamstress in L.A. “It’s all white, off the shoulder with a slit and a train in the back,” Guyton says.
It speaks to her “sophisticated bohemian” style, although she admits that she’s generally a rabid “online bargain shopper.” She’s also partial to United Apparel Liquidators, a store in Nashville where she’s able to pick up pieces for up to 80 percent off, as well as Revolve. She opts for “whatever speaks to me,” and especially likes “flowy tops,” although she says it’s been a challenge to find things because she’s pregnant. “I have boobs that I never had before,” she says with a laugh.
And while the pandemic definitely put a damper on her plans to promote her album, it’s actually worked out OK because of her pregnancy.
“That changes everything,” she says. “What I thought would be the worst thing has actually worked out well. My husband and I had a long-distance relationship for years so I’ve been able to spend time with him.” And she was also able to write most of the music on the album during the pandemic. “I was really inspired by that,” she says.
In addition, the early part of her pregnancy was hardly easy. The baby is due in February and the first trimester was especially rough for Guyton. “They say you get morning sickness, well I had all-day sickness,” she says. “I feel much better now, but I don’t know how I would have been able to travel. The exhaustion is the worst — I was just tired all the time.”
Motherhood is just the next challenge that Guyton will need to address in a life that has been filled with challenges. In addition to struggling to gain recognition in country music, she also auditioned for “American Idol,” but was cut just before the live shows.
“It was very frustrating,” she says of her continually trying to launch her music career. “Many times I thought, maybe this isn’t for me. I was questioning myself and my talent. I would see men just pop up like weeds and have multiple number-ones and full-on careers, and I couldn’t even get a label to record my songs.”
But things are brighter now and Guyton is hopeful her career will continue to gain momentum.
“My goal is to have a career like Carrie Underwood,” she says, “and sell out arenas, write a book, have a fashion line — and open the doors for other women of color. So often artists are put in boxes: if you’re Black, you should sing R&B, if you’re Latina, you should do salsa and pop. But everyone should just be able to have their own dreams.”