After a decade of running into countless roadblocks trying to launch a career in country music, singer-songwriter Mickey Guyton has achieved a milestone that few musicians ever will: On Sunday, she will sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl in front of the biggest TV audience of the year.
To appreciate why Guyton’s moment in the spotlight is so significant, you must rewind to 2011, when Guyton moved to Nashville and signed a record deal. Guyton did everything that everyone advises new country singers to do (throw yourself into writing songs, impress radio programmers) and her label had high hopes. In 2013, she performed at Country Radio Seminar, an annual conference for radio staffers, impressing everyone with a soaring rendition of the lovelorn ballad “Better Than You Left Me.” She got a standing ovation.
When Capitol Records Nashville deemed the single ready to send to country radio in 2015, executives were hopeful that programmers, who can make or break a country singer’s career, would remember her talent and help drive the song up the charts. It started climbing, then stalled in the mid-30s. Years later, Guyton revealed she was told that another female artist had just released a ballad, and country programmers didn’t want to play two new slow songs from women in the same time frame.
Infuriating? Of course. But it was not unusual in country music, where the myth persists that women — radio’s target demographic — don’t like to listen to female artists. The single’s disappointing momentum delayed the release of her debut album indefinitely, and it would be years before she had another song that would spark her breakthrough success.
Guyton, 38, also faced challenges as a Black singer in a format where the majority of the performers and industry gatekeepers are White. (When Guyton was signed, she was the only Black woman on a major country label at the time.) As she searched for that coveted breakout song, she was repeatedly told her songs were “not country enough” or “too R&B” or “too pop,” even as acts such as Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt were celebrated and scored massive success with hip-hop-inspired tracks. Nothing was working, and she started to lose focus on what she even wanted to say with her music.
“I was aimlessly writing songs … and I was just getting nowhere,” Guyton told The Washington Post in an interview in 2020. “I was trying to write that country hit that every label is looking for, that magical unicorn.”
Things started to change around 2019, when she hit peak frustration. A conversation with her husband led to an important realization: “Why do you think country music isn’t working for me?” she asked.
“Because you’re running away from everything that makes you different,” he replied.
Guyton decided she was done trying to please an industry that couldn’t figure out what it wanted from her. Ignoring the conventional wisdom that modern country fans don’t like music that’s too heavy or introspective, she co-wrote two songs that would change her life: “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” about what women face navigating a misogynistic world, and “Black Like Me,” drawing from her experiences with racism and prejudice.
“Black Like Me” got raves internally from her record label, but Guyton assumed it would never be released. But in 2020, when she was devastated by the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, she uploaded it to social media herself and dedicated the track to the victims. Soon, she heard from Spotify, which wanted to release it on Blackout Tuesday, a music industry-wide day to raise awareness about racial inequality.
The song has since been streamed more than 8 million times on Spotify; “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” which Guyton performed at the 2020 Academy of Country Music Awards, has 4.5 million streams. Both tracks attracted attention in Nashville and beyond. Suddenly, Guyton was being booked on award shows and talk shows, and was tapped to co-host the ACM Awards with Keith Urban in 2021. She became a leading voice in the industry during a national reckoning on race; so many people who used to ignore her were suddenly clamoring for her advice and ready to hear about her past trauma. She wanted to educate people, but it could also be personally draining.
“Black Like Me” was nominated for a 2021 Grammy Award for best country solo performance, the first time a Black woman had ever been in the category. That fall, Guyton was finally able to release that debut album, “Remember Her Name.” It’s up for best country album at this year’s Grammys in April; the title track has two nods as well, for country solo performance and country song.
Now, she will reach her biggest audience yet, just before the Super Bowl kicks off at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif. Guyton, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and 1-year-old son, told the Los Angeles Times this week that she has been working with a creative director for the performance and hopes her take on the national anthem will help unite people in a divisive time.
“I want to be able to proudly wave my American flag and sometimes it’s really difficult to do, watching what’s going on in this country,” she said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t love it here, it just means we have a lot of work to do.”