“It has been such a struggle to get people to listen to me,” says the 37-year-old behind "Black Like Me." “I have been like, ‘I’m your huckleberry,’ for so many years.”

By Sarah Rodman
September 30, 2020 at 08:18 PM EDT
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Mickey Guyton
Credit: Universal Music

When Mickey Guyton released her first single, “Better Than You Left Me,” in 2015, she thought she was ready. Ready to combine the knowledge she’d gained from years of studying her musical heroes with the fire she had in her heart and the words swirling around in her head. It would all be channeled through her powerful voice: a touch of Texas twang, a smidge of smoke, a caressing croon, and a boffo belt. The pop-country music industry claimed it was also ready, for a smart, effusive Black woman to finally take center stage in the Nashville mainstream. Turns out both parties were wrong. After five frustrating years — of releasing songs in fits and starts; showing up to countless industry events, sometimes as a clear sop to diversity; opening for major artists like Brad Paisley and Alan Jackson; and compiling reams of critical plaudits and press that boiled down to “Why won’t they let Mickey make a record?” — it appears that her moment has finally arrived.

“It has been such a struggle to get people to listen to me,” says Guyton, 37, adding with a laugh, “I have been like, ‘I’m your huckleberry,’ for so many years.”

Indeed, Guyton was snapped up by a major label shortly after her arrival in Music City in 2011, and was nominated for her first Academy of Country Music award in 2016. Invariably, though, stories about Guyton would end with phrases like "she's putting the finishing touches on her debut album" — an album that has yet to arrive.

In early September, however, Guyton released a dynamite six-song EP titled Bridges, and she is feeling a new lease on life. (She also recently announced that she is pregnant with her first child.)  There is a sense of optimism about her artistry because she is allowing her true songwriting voice to shine through for perhaps the first time with some of the buzziest songs of her career. And, crucially, her record label, UMG Nashville, is supporting that. But it wasn't always thus.

“I’d say 60 percent of it was my label, and the other 40 percent was myself,” she says of the brick walls she’s hit over the past few years, even as an artist signed to a major. “We all have the ability to stand up for ourselves. But for some reason, I was completely debilitated because I felt like I didn’t know how to please these people." Guyton was torn as her advisors would tell her what she should and shouldn't do and say in the famously rigid format.  "Oh, don't speak your mind because if you speak your mind, then country radio won't play you.' 'Oh, make sure you're really country because you're Black. And if you seem like you're insincere, then they won't play you,'" she recalls being told.  "All of this nonsense was fed into my brain and I just felt like I was this court jester doing the whole song and dance trying to get them to clap for me, and it just didn't happen."

With Bridges, Guyton is dancing to new choreography of her own design and seeking only the approval of her own creative sensibilities. It has paid off magnificently.

In addition to the wistful, newly premiered track “Heaven Down Here,” the EP contains two of the strongest songs of Guyton's career and the country format overall in 2020:  “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” and “Black Like Me.”

The former, co-written by Emma Lee, Karen Kosowski, and Victoria Banks, is a heartrending piano ballad asking a difficult question about how we answer to girls when they find out the hard way that certain things we idealistically proclaim — about how society treats women and people of color — aren’t true. ″Do you just let her pretend/That she could be the president?' she asks at one point. ″Do you let her think the deck's not stacked?/And gay or straight or white or black/You just dream and anything can happen.″

Her recent performance of the tune on the Academy of Country Music awards, backed by host Keith Urban on piano, was universally praised as the highlight of the show. Ironically, part of the song's inspiration came from a different awards show, the Grammys. At her labels' after party, Guyton looked around and started sensing a common thread. ″I remember walking around this room, and seeing all of these beautiful, successful women,″ she says. ″Hailee Steinfeld was there. Billie Eilish was there. Some girls I didn't even know their names, but they were some of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. And the one common denominator was a whole bunch of white businessmen in suits. And I looked around and wondered,  What have these women gone through to get to this point?

Her frustration mounted as she recalled a recent meeting with the label to play some new songs and one of the radio promotion execs said: ″I don't know if this song is going to bring Mickey back.″  It was, says Guyton, ″the exact song that they had been asking for me to write for them for so long and they still rejected me.″

″So, I was walking into the after party just to show them, 'Hello, I'm still here.' And as I was walking over to them, I saw some big wig over at Spotify. And I instantly stood up straighter. I instantly batted my eyelashes and did all of the things that we do as women to try to just get our shot. And I felt so ashamed of myself, because I shouldn't have to do that to get opportunities. And that was on a Sunday night, and so I had all of these feelings of shame and frustrations from this industry, seeing that women don't own ourselves.  I got on a plane at 4:00 AM to fly to Nashville to write with three women. And we wrote this song that day."  There were a lot of tears, she says.

"Black Like Me," also a piano ballad — "There's something about my voice that loves a good piano"— addresses struggles Guyton, and many Black people, experience in their communities, from school to professional settings. “If you think we live in the land of the free/You should try to be Black like me,” she sings.

“I’ve been feeling this weight for a very long time,” she says of the song she co-wrote last year on a writer's retreat with Fraser Churchill, Emma Davidson Dillon, and producer Nathan Chapman. The song was penned prior to the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor but in the shadows of the many senseless deaths that preceded theirs. "It was around the time Botham Jean had been murdered in his own apartment. This is obviously after Philando Castile was murdered in his car in front of his girlfriend and daughter for no reason. I've had my own personal experiences as a black woman growing up in America as early as being a little girl and having to go to a private school because the public school I was supposed to go to didn’t want black kids.”

Prior to the retreat, Guyton had a long discussion with her husband, asking him "'Why do you think that country music isn't working for me?' and he said, 'Because you're running away from everything that makes you different.'" In that moment, she had an epiphany. "It was such a simple phrase, but it hurt to hear him say that," she says. "But it was so true. I was trying to make everybody feel comfortable with me being black, that I was hiding my blackness. So much so that I went through my Instagram and scrapped anything that I felt was being untrue to me. And I was the one suffering for it. Nobody else was suffering. Everybody else was going to bed at night, sleeping just fine. And here I was, having a drinking problem and not being able to sleep because I was trying to hide, in plain sight, who I am."

There is no more hiding and shame — and that freedom can be heard on Bridges. Guyton can be the reliable and entertaining narrator on everything from the searing "Black Like Me" to the joyful respite of the frothier "Rosé."

It is not lost on Guyton that she is finally gaining traction only after dropping an approval-seeking posture and writing songs that speak more specifically to her life. She is also well aware that speaking her truth may not help her in the notoriously fraught arena of country radio.  "They won't play me no matter what I do," she says, not with resignation but with the simple understanding of the rules of a game which she has already played and lost. "That is okay with me, because I am developing a fan base, and I am singing directly to those people: women, women of color, the LGBTQ community. It's really all people, it just depends on if they want to be on this train of singing the truth and being honest. If that's what they want, then they'll listen to me. If that's not what they want, they won't. And that's okay. And I had to learn to be okay knowing that I am not going to be everybody's cup of tea."

But Guyton knows that she’s on the right path and feels, at long last, the full support of her record label. She gives special credit to Cindy Mabe, president of Universal Music Group Nashville.  "Even as a top record executive, she still experiences oppression like we all do," says Guyton of Mabe and other women at the label who have been advocates.  "So many are coming forward and being like, 'Yes, this is what we have been waiting for.' And me letting go of all of these expectations and rules that country music put on us as artists, us as women, telling us what we can and cannot sing, shut up and sing, all of those things. I just quit worrying about what other people thought. I think that everybody is officially on board the Mickey train. And the reason why I say that is because I'm on my own damn train now and I didn't necessarily believe in myself either."

Given the tumult of the past few months, the elusive full-length album is still a 2021 proposition, and the road, as for all artists, a distant beacon. But, of the future, Guyton says she’s “very, very, very cautiously optimistic.”

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