When Mickey Guyton signed a Nashville record deal nearly a decade ago, after growing up in Texas on Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston and doing a bit of work in the LA entertainment industry, she approached the country music scene with tremendous respect. Cognizant of her newbie status, she showed how serious she was about becoming a part of that professional community by learning its culture and customs and taking its conventional wisdom to heart. Soon, she came to see what she was actually up against. She was a stirring, sumptuous singer, the sort of pop-embellished voice that was celebrated in a slightly earlier era, but undistinguished male vocalists with swaggering affect were now having their day, and women had little hope of radio airplay at all. What's more, Guyton was a black woman in a format whose association with whiteness, though a distortion of the historical narrative, remained entrenched in the popular imagination and reinforced by market biases.
But, after many demoralizing years, Guyton started to create a role for herself where none had existed; within and beyond her music, she would accentuate the differences she embodied in identity, experience and perspective, while persisting in her warmhearted drive and artistic inclination to please a popular audience. Committing to that course, she's emerging as a poised and galvanizing country-pop conscience, at once consummate pro, steadfast optimist and truth-teller.
On Tuesday, while much of the music industry paused in recognition of unjust threats to black survival, Guyton's song "Black Like Me" appeared, without promotional fanfare, on her Instagram account and Spotify's marquee Hot Country playlist. The track encapsulates her vision on many levels. It builds like a pop anthem, piano chords supplying a pensive pulse until the hook lifts above handclap backbeats, shadings of subterranean bass and ribbons of steel guitar. Vocally, she moves through country, pop and gospel modes: intimate narration, commanding plea and, at the song's emotional climax, imperial belting, agile, octave leaps and flaring, improvisational runs. In the lyrics, she applies familiar tools of country storytelling — a small-town backdrop; poignantly down-to-earth scenes of class disparity; admiration for a parent's hard work — to aim her anguish at dehumanizing encounters with racism toward sparking broad empathy.
While self-quarantining with her attorney husband in LA, Guyton's zeal — for acknowledging marginalized peoples' contributions to and shared ownership of her genre, and furthering a sense of connection to the Black Lives Matter movement among country peers and audiences — has only grown. She checked in with NPR over the phone, and before hanging up, took care to emphasize that, even now, she persists in believing, "There is more love than hate."
Jewly Hight, NPR Music: What have the last couple of days and weeks and months been like for you?
Mickey Guyton: Girl, I've been crying every single day. Honestly, I haven't stopped crying since I saw Ahmaud Arbery. I imagined if that were my nephew, running for their lives.
Why was it important to you to insert "Black Like Me" into the conversation this week the way that you did?
I have been watching all the things happening in the world. When I saw the video of George [Floyd], I couldn't even watch it, because just seeing him gasping for air that long made it hard for me to breathe.
How are you measuring the impact it's having?
Well, my inbox on my Instagram has never looked like this before. I've never seen that type of viewership, and people reaching out. I'm trying to get [back] to everybody, because everybody matters to me, even the ones that don't agree with me — besides racist people. Obviously, I have no time for that, because racists do not have a place in this country and need to go back to their cubbyhole. But people that don't understand, those are the ones I want to reach, so that they can see the perspective. Because for some reason, it's taboo to say, "I support black lives," and people are scared of it. But if you care about animal cruelty, you should care about human cruelty.
"What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" was your contribution to an already unfolding body of