Last week, Mickey Guyton made history as the first Black woman to perform solo at the Academy of Country Music Awards. She sang to an empty Grand Ole Opry house where lights lined the pews instead of people. The audience watching from home was largely unfamiliar with Guyton or her music — her debut “Better Than You Left Me” peaked at #34 on the Billboard Country Airplay Chart in 2015, her highest-charting single to date. Nonetheless, Guyton made the most of the moment. Her performance of “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” unflinchingly addressed why it’s taken so long to break the double-layered race and gender barrier in country music.
“What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” is one of six songs on Guyton’s latest EP Bridges, and it pulls no punches. The piano ballad is a stark contrast to the sparkly girl-power anthems that are typically enlisted to address inequality. Instead, Guyton zeroes in on these anthems’ aftermath, asserting that the belief that “dreams” and “hard work” will be enough just isn’t the truth. The topics she touches on include racism and homophobia and reflect the same harsh reality.
But Guyton doesn’t stop there — the majority of Bridges addresses social justice issues. Her current single, “Heaven Down Here” was written after Guyton watched the video of George Floyd’s murder. “Black Like Me,” which has gained some traction on TikTok, was written long before this summer’s protests, but hadn’t had much of a chance of being released. It challenges what so many country songs take for granted: Americans’ freedom. “If you think we live in the land of the free you should try to be Black like me,” Guyton contends on the piano-driven track.
Even Guyton’s lighthearted songs are meant to flip the script. The playfully woozy “Rosé” finds Guyton unabashedly singing the praises of her drink of choice — something that’s old hat for the men of country music but far less common in songs by women. “Salt” is a twist on Carrie Underwood’s “Cowboy Casanova.” This time the girl in the “look-at-me dress” is the “snake” and the star of the slide-guitar-laden Wild West show she’s been written into. Despite these playful asides, Bridges is overwhelmingly a call to action. Contrary to many country artists’ responses to the social justice movement, the title track asserts that “We’re gonna need more than prayers and wishes.”
In its own way, Apple Music has attempted to rise to these challenges Guyton points to in the industry. The streaming platform launched the “Apple Music Country” radio station this August — simultaneously recognizing that “radio is part of the fabric of country music culture” and that the way people listen to music is changing. The station boasts five daily on-air hosts, including a show by Black country singer-songwriter Tiera.
It’s also home to shows curated by a diverse array of artists. BRELAND, Willie Jones and Rissi Palmer have all been tapped to contribute. While terrestrial radio has embraced the sounds and stylings of hip hop for years (hello Sam Hunt), it’s only been considered “country” if the “inspiration” shows up in music by white people (hello “Old Town Road” controversy). “Apple Music Country” is a step toward changing that. By acknowledging country music’s increasing diversity and reaffirming Black artists’ place in the genre, Apple Music is providing opportunities for Black artists to gain a foothold.
Again and again, the country music industry at large has shirked this same responsibility. While plenty of listeners hadn’t heard from Guyton’s perspective before “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” on the ACMs, industry insiders have. In fact, when Guyton debuted the song in February to an auditorium full of radio executives, she got a standing ovation. But nothing changed — the song wasn’t picked up by enough radio stations to start charting. Guyton has been signed to Capitol Nashville since 2011 and was nominated for an ACM in 2016, but she still hasn’t been able to release a full-length album. Unless more country music decision-makers start telling Black women “yes” instead of “no,” Guyton may have been the last Black woman to perform on the ACMs too.
Daily Arts Writer Katie Beekman can be reached at email@example.com.
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