“I remember thinking to myself, ‘We don’t own ourselves,’ ” Guyton said. “We are the change in these people’s pocketbooks, and we are sacrificing everything for this.”
With those thoughts swirling, Guyton flew to Nashville after this year’s Grammys for a songwriting session with three other women. They started sharing stories about the difficulty and sad truth of being a woman in the music industry and the world. The end result was “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” a ballad so raw — especially for modern country music, where the goal is to not make anyone too uncomfortable — that Guyton briefly wondered whether this was the end of her time in Nashville, where she has spent the past decade trying to figure out what the genre wants from her.
Instead, it did the opposite. Guyton, who will perform the ballad on the Academy of Country Music Awards on CBS on Sept. 16, is having a breakout moment with a pair of brutally honest songs: In addition to “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” she recently released “Black Like Me,” a searing track that says, “If you think we live in the land of the free, you should try to be Black like me.” Both appear on her EP “Bridges,” which drops Friday. It’s the first new collection of music she has released in five years.
Guyton, one of the few African American artists signed to a major country record label, wrote “Black Like Me” more than a year ago when she hit peak frustration at running into roadblocks in Nashville. At one point, she asked her husband, “Why do you think country music isn’t working for me?” He replied, “Because you’re running away from everything that makes you different.” It was a crystallizing moment.
“I was trying so hard to fit into the stereotype of what country music is, that I forgot why I fell in love with country music,” Guyton, 37, said. “We’ve been in this period where it’s all about having a good time and drinking and girls. It’s so heavily male-dominated that I don’t hear myself, and I don’t see myself within it anymore.”
“Country music is three chords and the truth,” she added. “So I wrote my truth.”
Nashville is filled with infuriating tales of supremely talented singer-songwriters whose careers, for myriad reasons, don't gain traction. Before this year, Guyton — a Texas native with a powerhouse voice who always dreamed about singing country music — feared she might be one of those stories.
When she signed a record deal with Capitol Records Nashville in 2011, Guyton did all the things everyone tells you to do: Find co-writers, play songwriters rounds, figure out who you want to be as an artist and, most importantly, find that breakout radio hit that will make your career. But Guyton’s launch coincided with the domination of “bro country,” the male-centric subgenre about beer, trucks, girls and dirt roads. Female singers were increasingly squeezed out of radio airplay; now, women make up only about 10 percent of songs on the air. Her 2015 debut single, the heartbreak ballad “Better Than You Left Me,” stalled because there was another ballad by a woman on the air, and programmers didn’t want two slow songs by women on the radio at the same time.
What followed were frustrating years of second-guessing as Guyton tried to swerve with the trends of the industry, suddenly all about heavily produced songs that mixed in pop, rock and hip-hop. Yet as Guyton watched stars such as Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line fly up the charts as they infused their tracks with multiple genres and started rapping lyrics, she was told her songs were “too pop” or “too R&B” or “not country enough.” She was held to a different standard, but no one could explain exactly what that was.
“I was aimlessly writing songs . . . and I was just getting nowhere,” Guyton said. “I was trying to write that country hit that every label is looking for, that magical unicorn.”
Finally, Guyton decided that she had nothing to lose — she was going to start writing from a remarkably candid place. She went back to one of her earliest collaborators, songwriter Victoria Banks. The two of them, along with Karen Kosowski and Emma-Lee, joined to write “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” which asks unanswerable questions about a sexist world: “She thinks love is love, and if you work hard that’s enough, skin’s just skin and it doesn’t matter / And that her friend’s older brother’s gonna keep his hands to himself, and that somebody’s gonna believe her when she tells / But what are you gonna tell her when she’s wrong?”
“I remember thinking ‘Oh man, radio is never going to play that.’ [Then] I was like, ‘I don’t care, because it’s more important to say it,” Banks said. She remembers the stunned reaction from programmers when Guyton debuted the song at Country Radio Seminar in Nashville this year; it has since been streamed a million times. “It was like she reached up and grabbed a giant elephant that we know is in the room, then pulled it down and showed it to everyone.”
In early 2019, around the time Guyton made it a goal to write honestly, she thought about a book she read in college that changed her perspective: John Howard Griffin's "Black Like Me," in which the White author darkened his skin to look like a Black person in the Jim Crow South. Along with Nathan Chapman, Fraser Churchill and Emma Davidson-Dillon, Guyton wrote a song by the same name about her own experience with people judging her by her skin color: "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."
In recent years, country radio has typically shied away from anything deemed a “message song,” or any potentially divisive lyrics that could cause a listener to change the station. As a result, even though Guyton’s label thought “Black Like Me” was incredible, they were nervous to release it. Guyton thought it would never see the light of day.
That is, until this year, when she was devastated and deeply shaken by the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Suddenly, Guyton didn’t feel like having long conversations about the “right” time to release a song that was so important to her. She simply uploaded it to social media and dedicated the track to Arbery, Taylor and Floyd. She hoped her followers could “hear that and hear some peace and feel that they’re seen and that they’re heard.”
Guyton had no intention of promoting the song further, but several days later, Spotify called. They wanted to release it on Blackout Tuesday, when the music industry shut down to raise awareness about racial inequality. The reaction was overwhelming; it has been streamed more than 5 million times.
Guyton’s music has become “a real force” with the release of “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” and “Black Like Me,” said Cindy Mabe, president of Universal Music Group Nashville. Her honesty has made waves in a way neither of them expected, especially in an era during which many artists stay away from anything too serious. “Mickey has absolutely risen to the challenge,” Mabe said. “History shows that Mickey aligns with the forebears who built country music.”
Although country music’s roots are in Black history, from the banjo originating in Africa to groundbreaking performers such as DeFord Bailey, Black singers were filtered out of the format early on and categorized as “race records.” Country music is still overwhelmingly White — and given America’s reckoning with racial injustice, Guyton has become the go-to person for guidance.
Guyton said that although she wants to help educate people, the last few months have been draining because these conversations have meant revisiting racism and discrimination she has faced in her personal and professional life. She found out right after “Black Like Me” was released that she was pregnant with her first child, which only added to the exhaustion.
“Nobody knew I was pregnant, so I was nauseous all day long — and I didn’t know if I was nauseous because of the baby or because of how emotional it was to relive all of these experiences,” Guyton said.
Although Guyton’s new EP “Bridges” has heavier subject matter overall than she initially planned, with tracks also inspired by the difficulty of the coronavirus pandemic, she is relieved that she is finally able to write and sing about the subjects that are the most truthful to her life — and people are ready to hear them.
“As awful as it was for her to go through so many years of working without being heard,” Banks said, “She needed to do that in order to get to a place where she is saying what she is now.”