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MICKEY GUYTON’S HARD-EARNED BREAKTHROUGH

In country music, as with other areas in which the majority operates in a microcosm, the onus is on the minority to educate and justify their presence. Thus, Mickey Guyton’s rise to prominence in the country scene has largely involved the need to explain the significance of being a black female country artist. Guyton isn’t the first black female to perform at the Grand Ole Opry—that distinction belongs to Linda Martell, who graced the Opry stage in 1969—and country music’s origins derive in part from the African and African American communities, who brought the banjo over from West Africa and popularized it in America. Nonetheless, the industry throughout the years has stratified itself as a bastion for white artists. Musicians and songwriters of color are rarely acknowledged or celebrated for making great art.

Guyton’s voice was so powerful and riveting and her potential so great that she was signed on the spot in 2011. Universal Nashville chief Mike Dungan remembers the first day he heard her. “She sat there on my sofa and sang an a cappella version of the Patty Loveless song “Blame It on Your Heart” and just blew me away. I looked at her and [her manager] Gary Borman and said, ‘Let’s do this.’”

After becoming part of the Capitol Nashville roster, Guyton continued working a day job as she cut her teeth in the Nashville scene while figuring out with her label what her sound and positioning would be.

In 2014, the label released Guyton’s Unbreakable EP, a solid country-pop effort that showcased her potential. The following year, she released her debut single, “Better Than You Left Me,” co-written with Jennifer Hanson, Jenn Schott, and Nathan Chapman, from her self-titled second EP, and performed at the Grand Ole Opry. In 2016, she got an ACM Awards nomination for New Female Vocalist of the Year.

For most artists, these early successes would signify a career on the rise, but in recent years country music has struggled with its own racism and sexism, as women artists have struggled to gain radio play. In 2019, Professor Jada Watson of the University of Ottawa released a study titled Gender Representation on Country Format Radio showing that songs by male country artists were being programmed 90% more than women in 2018, with women capturing only 13-15% of daily spins. Guyton, as one of the few well-known black female artists in country music, explained the uphill battle female country artists face on Samantha Bee’s show in 2019.

A few years ago, recognizing that her audience wasn’t connecting completely with her music, Guyton started writing more personal songs. In 2019, she released “Sister,” an ode to sisterhood and its necessity in combating the ills of a male-dominated world that doesn’t allow women to prosper. Early this year, she followed up that bold statement with “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” further confronting sexism.

Recently, in the midst of the racial reckoning happening in America, Guyton released the timely “Black Like Me,” harkening to her childhood and how early on she recognized how different her experience as a black person in this country was from that of others. In an industry that traditionally turns away from controversy and overt political statements, Guyton and her team were understandably apprehensive about a potential backlash. Instead, the record was acclaimed, and Guyton has received widespread accolades for her courageous act of speaking her truth, and for her growth as a songwriter.

Now, at long last, Guyton appears to be on the cusp of her breakthrough moment. An honest storyteller with an amazing voice, she’s paid her dues over a decade in Nashville while building an impressive catalog. Hopefully, Guyton and the country-music business are finally nearing the point at which she’s no longer viewed through a racial and gender-leaning lens, and that she’ll be appreciated  purely in terms of her artistry.

Ashley Lyle is an entrepreneur, writer and founder of Lyfe of Lyle, a media and services company that focuses on the advancement and advocacy of young business and creative professionals in entertainment and media. The Stanford grad is currently based in L.A.

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