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Is country music finally ready for Mickey Guyton?

Jewly Hight
Mickey Guyton, photographed at the Stateside Kitchen at Dream Nashville, is releasing her debut album at age 36: "I just started speaking my truth," she says.  (William DeShazer / For The Times)

Arriving for a writing appointment on a late February afternoon, Mickey Guyton is barely through the door of collaborator Karen Kosowski’s small studio, situated in the back of a converted cottage in the Berry Hill neighborhood, when she asks, “What happened yesterday?” in more colorful language. It’s not an accusatory question; she’s trying to make sense of an unexpected triumph.

The day before, Guyton, a polished country-pop singer who’s largely been ignored by radio and, as an African American woman, falls into a demographic vastly underrepresented in the format — though not, it should be noted, in country music’s historical, pre-commercial lineage — had performed at her label’s showcase at the hallowed Ryman Auditorium during an annual convention for the country radio industry. All but the final act, Keith Urban, had sung one song each while radio decision-makers munched on sandwiches.

Guyton used her slot to debut a ballad called “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” that Kosowski, Victoria Banks and a third songwriter, Emma-Lee, had helped her write. Its lyrics demand reflection on the intimate effects of gender inequality. Guyton delivered them with grieved urgency, accompanied by Kosowski on piano: “She thinks that 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 gon' believe her when she tells.” The chorus spun the focus around: “But what are you gonna tell her when she's wrong?”

The room stayed silent for a beat when Guyton finished singing, then everyone rose to their feet applauding. A militant protest song this was not, but introducing it in front of an audience that’s displayed considerable indifference to women’s concerns was something of a radical act, and also a glimpse of Guyton’s new approach.

"I literally just started speaking my truth," she says.

At today’s studio session, Guyton and Banks perch on opposite ends of a sofa, Banks ready to strum her acoustic guitar or enter lyric snippets into her laptop. Kosowski, in a rolling chair, alternates between facing them and the computer behind her, a guitar perched in her lap. Guyton, casually put together in a gray cowl neck sweater, pale blue jeans and platform Puma sneakers whose pink stripes match her purse, steers the brainstorming toward lighthearted social commentary. She’d like to poke fun at the human tendency to respond to tragedies with canned displays of social media concern.

“Oh my gosh, do you wanna go there Mickey?” Banks asks, laughing.

“I mean, we’ve been going there,” Guyton reassures.

The three toss out lines and toy with what tone they should strike, arriving at tongue-in-cheek.

Kosowski checks with Guyton again: “Does that sound too self-aware, though?”

“This whole album is self-aware,” the singer responds.

The completed track, whose improvised vamps are a reminder of Guyton’s ability to execute agile, Whitney Houston-style runs, may or may not make it onto the debut album Guyton is preparing to release this year at age 36. “By industry standards, I’m like a grandma,” she quips.

Nashville is often referred to as a 10-year town for the grinding perseverance it can take to get from newcomer status to landing a publishing or record deal or getting plum gigs. Guyton, though, has spent the last decade already signed to a major label, with a small discography to show for it. Yet there’s not a whiff of desperation about her. In the current country mainstream, with its aversion to political controversy, there’s no real precedent for what Guyton means to accomplish: highlighting the harm of marginalization, hers and others', while using the heartfelt vocabulary of her genre and its most broadly pleasing musical sensibilities, worlds away from any fixation on iconoclastic cool.

Country performers are often measured by the realness of their roots. Guyton’s, robust by contemporary standards, have been scrutinized more closely than most. “It's so weird because I grew up in Texas,” she remarks. “I grew up on gravel roads. I grew up on acres of land.”

A 10-year-old Mickey Guyton and her grandmother Mary Lee Roddy, who introduced her to country music.  (From the Guyton Family)

Her upbringing revolved around Baptist church life, and she absorbed its soaring gospel soundtrack. On a church trip to a Texas Rangers baseball game, she was enthralled by the sight of country prodigy LeAnn Rimes performing the national anthem. At her grandmother’s house, Guyton pored over VHS tapes featuring ‘80s country-pop archetypes Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. In her bedroom at home, Guyton conducted informal vocal studies, popping CDs by singers she admired — Parton, Houston, CeCe Winans, Faith Hill, Brandy — into the boombox. “I had a canopy bed,” Guyton recalls, “so I took the little top part of the canopy off and that's what I would hold as my microphone. I would sing over and over again, listening and mimicking what other artists did. That's how I developed my voice."

Her father’s job as an electrical company engineer took the family of six to midsize cities and minuscule towns across northeast and central Texas. “Black Like Me,” a song destined for her album, acknowledges how he strived to provide middle-class stability. “Daddy worked day and night for an old house and a used car,” she testifies. Then comes the appraisal: “Just to live that good life, it shouldn’t be twice as hard.”

When the family settled in a rural area, Guyton’s parents caught wind that their children were unwelcome at the predominately white, local public school, so they enrolled them in a private Christian academy. Had their mother not taken a job there as a teacher’s aide, the tuition for four kids would have been out of reach.

After high school, Guyton headed to Los Angeles. While studying business and working two jobs, she spent a while hustling on the fringes of the entertainment industry, which led to backup singing and a bit part in a Nick Cannon movie called “Underclassman.” That’s how she met a DJ who introduced her to a writer-producer who connected her to managers who helped her get an audience with the top brass at Capitol Nashville. An informal 2011 showcase at the label’s headquarters sold its leadership on the lean, radiant strength of her voice.

“We never offer somebody a deal on the spot, but she came in and sang a Patty Loveless [song] and just floored us,” says Cindy Mabe, now president of Universal Music Group Nashville (which includes Capitol). “She was as country as could be, but that voice could do anything.”

Guyton envisioned a smooth progression from there. “I thought I was going to come to Nashville, write all these songs and put a record out two years later,” she says.

But the rules were changing. The era of standout singers achieving country stardom as song interpreters had given way to humdrum hit-makers, primarily male, who sat back and let beat-driven production create a party vibe, a phenomenon dismissively dubbed “bro country.” Radio playlists had less and less room for big voices, heavy sentiments or womento the point that, as researcher Jada Watson has shown, songs performed by women made up a mere 7.3% of the titles on 2014’s year-end airplay report. The stylistic trend of borrowing rhythmic cadences and production techniques from hip-hop and R&B created further barriers for Guyton. “I was hearing trap beats in country songs, and here I was stressing out about whether I sounded country enough,” she says. “It was such a weird double standard.”

It was a double standard indeed, considering that the music now known as country is indebted to the black banjo tradition and a host of subsequent African American innovations. Over generations, the most visible country performers of color have been men, from foundational Grand Ole Opry star DeFord Bailey, through Charley Pride, O.B. McClinton, Darius Rucker and Kane Brown, right up to Lil Nas X, who hipped the world to the Yeehaw Agenda. Among those who had briefer tenures in the Nashville spotlight are two women whom Guyton views as predecessors, Linda Martell, who recorded in the late ‘60s, and Rissi Palmer, who emerged in the mid-2000s.

It took several years for Capitol to settle on the single that was meant to be Guyton’s breakthrough. In the meantime, she took shifts in the Nordstrom lingerie department to supplement her music income and focused on mastering co-writing and proving herself in the music-making community. "I respect what Nashville is and what Nashville does,” she explains.

Guyton says she understands why her label would fret over how to present her music. “They were trying to protect me because the world was different then than it is right now,” she allows. “But it ended up messing with my artistry because I was trying to fit into this mold I thought that they wanted.”

In 2015, the label finally went with “Better Than You Left Me,” a song Guyton had co-written and pitched early in her Nashville tenure but seen repeatedly turned down. A power ballad whose naturalistic production swells to glossy peaks and whose lyrics rub newfound contentment in the face of a thoughtless ex, it’s not hard to imagine the tune burning up the charts in the 1990s or 2000s.

But even with promotional fanfare, it barely got enough airplay to make the country top 40. “The system failed me a little bit,” Guyton says, correcting herself: “A lot bit. It was a very, very, very humbling experience.” She deploys her favorite curse as punctuation: “I think I've been humbled enough, goshdammit.”

Guyton held her tongue publicly out of savvy self-preservation but came to Mabe ready to call it quits more than once, only to be reassured that the label remained behind her. Still, Guyton lay awake at night contemplating how to put her voice to better use. She decided she was due for “the scariest conversation I have ever had” with the ultimate boss at her label, Universal Music Group Nashville's chairman and chief executive, Mike Dungan. “I just kind of, in the nicest way possible, asked him to trust me and let me be an artist, let me be a woman,” she recounts. “And [told him] that the music I'm writing is not for him.” She got her point across.

Equally pivotal was a discussion Guyton had with her attorney husband, Grant Savoy. She’d helped him stay afloat while he studied for the California bar exam, after which he launched a Los Angeles-based law firm. They have a mutual understanding. “He doesn't tell me what to do with my career and I don't tell him what to do with his,” she summarizes. One night on the West Coast — cross-country travel is their norm — she came right out and asked why he thought her music wasn’t landing. His response? "Because you're running away from everything that makes you different.”

“So my whole frame of thinking went from me just singing about my relationships to then just singing about being a black woman in country music,” she says. “And then being a woman in country music. I want to fight for all of us."

Evidence of her shift in priorities arrived in last summer's song “Sister." It had the billowy breathlessness of a pop message anthem, a predictable enough construction that you might miss the most convincing thing about it: Its vision of solidarity is idealistic without being too abstract. The chorus begins with a judgment-free promise of safe-keeping from late-night threats (“Sister, I got your back on the long-drunk stumble home”) and concludes with a vow that’s uplifting despite its ominous forecast (“Sister, you're gonna hurt, but you ain't gotta hurt alone”).

There are those in the industry, like Country Music Television executive Leslie Fram, who took notice of the genre’s gross gender imbalance and are in a position to address it. Fram’s Next Women of Country campaign, which launched at CMT in 2013 and quickly highlighted Guyton, began as a genial nudge to radio and, when the situation didn’t improve, led to more assertive measures: a women-only edition of the annual CMT awards show and a pledge to achieve gender parity in the station’s video programming. “I go back to why we started Next Women of Country — the disparity, and the lack of equal playing field. It's been heartbreaking for me,” Fram reflects. “Mickey's one of the ones who fell through the cracks.”

Last year, Guyton finally got a publishing deal, a symbol of being taken seriously as a songwriter. “I work with a lot of different artists,” Kosowski says, “and Mickey always comes in with something she wants to say.”

As poised and personable as Guyton is, she’s relishing the mission of altering expectations. Her social media accounts have been scrubbed of what struck her as falsely cheery posts, and she’s instead sharing clips of black singers, songwriters and fans of country, Americana and folk-pop to draw attention to their existence. Her expanding repertoire of songs contains familiar country tropes and treatments — “Rosé,” a breezy party number; “Time Machine,” a nostalgic look back at the dewy, teenage origins of a lasting love — along with some that put country sensibilities to new use. “Black Like Me” carries forward the country tradition of resisting classist condescension and connects it to her life experience.

How radio will factor in, alongside the streaming outlets that have ascended since Guyton was signed, remains to be seen when “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” is officially released as a single in June. Mabe has grander ambitions. “My biggest hope is that she'll expand what this town's about and who we are and the artists we represent and the sounds that we put out and the perspectives offered in country music,” she says.

Arriving at a juncture like this, even belatedly, brings its own small sense of vindication for Guyton. Just before she leaves the room to have her hair and makeup done by a stylist she trusts to cater to her needs — which hasn’t always been the case — she reflects, “There have been times where even my manager has been like, ‘Maybe we should just go and try something else if they don’t get you.’ I said, ‘Like what? Like pop music? No. Like R&B music? No.' I am not that. This is where I’m supposed to be. That’s why I’m still here.”