Their brief exchange revealed a bigger story—in a seemingly all-white genre, Guyton clearly stands out. But, as she diplomatically reminded us, she’s also the latest in a long line of black performers who’ve pushed country’s real and perceived color lines. What remains to be seen is whether she represents a blush of diversity or a genuine evolution in Nashville.
Country music has had a complicated relationship with African Americans since its first emergence. In our cultural imagination, the genre has long been perceived as a white space in the world of popular music—and it’s not hard to see why. From the earliest “hillbilly” records of the 1920s through the celebration of “redneck” culture in the 2000s, country recordings have been marketed and understood as authentic expressions of white identity—the “soul music” of white, working-class Americans—often in direct contrast to black musical styles. These expressions are rarely as blunt as Merle Haggard’s ‘70s-era tune, “I’m A White Boy,” but this racial association has been a central part of the music’s commercial success and cultural resonance. At times, country has even become the soundtrack of white resistance, with performers and fans championing racially reactionary causes like “Old South” nostalgia and backlash to the politics of the ‘60s. And those associations are still with us today, as evidenced by a recent controversy over the display of Confederate battle flags at a country music festival in Camden, New Jersey. Combined with its celebration of patriotic themes and rightward political turn, the idea that country is white (or even whites-only) has added to both its popularity and its notoriety.
But country’s reputation masks a more complex history. The music has always resonated with black audiences and musicians, who have embraced country as part of their musical mix; Mickey Guyton, for example, was influenced by her grandmother’s love for Kenny Rogers (who, it’s worth noting, partnered with Lionel Richie on the hit, “Lady”). Additionally, of course, country music has incorporated African-American musical influences from blues to hip-hop. And though opportunities in country have generally been limited, several black artists have achieved great success in the genre. In the 1930s, DeFord Bailey became the first star of the pivotal Grand Ole Opry radio show. In 1965, Ray Charles’ groundbreaking album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” was the first country LP to go “Gold” on the Billboard charts, a pivotal moment that demonstrated country’s national appeal. (But as historian Diane Pecknold notes in “Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music,” the album’s songs didn’t receive airplay on country radio.)
Most notable was Charley Pride, whose late-1960s and early-1970s success led Nashville record companies to begin signing other black artists, including Stoney Edwards and O.B. McClinton. But none duplicated Pride’s resume. “Many people looked on Charley Pride as an accident,” McClinton remarked, and some black artists felt country wasn’t ready for more than one major African-American star at a time. More recently, Darius Rucker, front man for ‘90s hit-makers Hootie & the Blowfish, shifted from rock to country and became the most successful black country singer since Pride. Guyton is poised to join Rucker on the top tier of country stardom and demonstrate that country fans are ready for two contemporaneous African-American stars—which would, itself, be groundbreaking, but Guyton will have to surpass an additional hurdle.
Black women have achieved far less success in country music than their male counterparts. In 1969, Linda Martell hit the country Top 25 with her version of the soul hit “Color Him Father” and became the first African-American woman to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. A few years later, R&B stars The Pointer Sisters wrote and performed “Fairytale,” which became one of the group’s first hits and won a Grammy for Best Country Vocal. Since then, though, only a few black women—most recently “Country Girl” Rissi Palmer—have grazed the lower reaches of the country charts, and none has achieved the lasting success of Pride, Rucker or other prominent men. Guyton’s early momentum suggests that she may break through this tenacious glass ceiling. “Better Than You Left Me” broke records when it was released to radio, and she’s received a major promotional push from her record label. Still, the singer recognizes that her success depends on breaking barriers that go beyond race. “You have to be so cautious because the standard is so different for women,” Guyton told Aircheck, an industry newsletter.
She’ll launch her first major tour this summer as the opening act for country superstar Brad Paisley—a pairing that might initially seem ironic, given the controversy over Paisley’s 2013 collaboration with LL Cool J, “Accidental Racist,” that served up a clumsy and simplistic discussion of American racial politics. Beyond that notorious misstep, though, Paisley has made a conscious and more effective effort to address race and diversity issues elsewhere in his catalogue. In songs like “Welcome to the Future,” he sings about Martin Luther King Jr. and the end of segregation while calling for more inclusion in country music and its worldview. In this respect, going on the road with Guyton seems like a logical step. But given the rarity of African-American country singers, in the short term, she risks becoming the public face of country music diversity that hasn’t yet materialized.
Guyton has occupied this space since her first major appearance, in 2011, as part of a country music tribute at the White House. Alongside a group of stars and legends that also included Rucker, Guyton delivered a memorable rendition of Patsy Cline’s jazz-influenced classic, “Crazy,” but her presence on the program as a virtual unknown—four years prior to “Better Than You Left Me”’s breakout success—was clearly designed to enhance a showcase of country’s diversity, with President Obama going as far as to quoting Charley Pride’s contention that “there is enough room in country music for everybody.”
As a black woman in a musical genre that remains dominated by white men, she occupies a liminal space, particularly given the way country is still viewed in the popular imagination. And it remains to be seen how influential she’ll be musically or commercially. But her presence doesn’t just challenge the popular conception of country as a bastion of pop-cultural whiteness—she exclaimed “Brought country music to BET y’all!” to her Facebook fans after performing at the United Negro College Fund’s “An Evening of Stars”—it also reminds us that black artists have long been woven into country’s fabric. It’s tempting to think of her as something brand new, but she isn’t blazing a trail as much as renewing a longstanding American tradition.