By John Blake, CNN | Until this year if Mickey Guyton’s struggles had been turned into a country music song, its title could have been “Almost Famous.” Guyton was the Black country music singer who almost broke through when she sang at an all-star concert at the White House; almost became a star after she was nominated for an Academy of Country Music Award; and almost went big-time after music critics compared her gospel-inflected, church-honed vocals to everyone from Whitney Houston to Carrie Underwood.
Yet for years she hovered on the edges of stardom. “I always felt like I was almost there,” she says.
She got plenty of advice on how to be a Black country music star: Make sure your songs sound really country because listeners might think you’re being disingenuous. Don’t make your songs sound too R&B. You need to be more authentic.
Guyton says she tried so hard to fit into other people’s expectations that she developed insomnia and turned to heavy drinking.
“I was in this ‘woe is me’ kind of space where I asked myself, ‘Why do you have to be out in Nashville?’ Why did you have to be a Black woman in country music, knowing that you’ll never be accepted?'”
Guyton’s breakthrough came this summer after she decided to listen to herself. She released “Black Like Me,” a three-and-a-half-minute song that flipped the good ol’ boy patriotism of country music on its side and forced listeners to consider a different perspective with its chorus:
It’s a hard life on easy street
Just white painted picket fences far as you can see
If you think we live in the land of the free
You should try to be black like me
The song came out a week after George Floyd’s death as racial protests were spreading across the country. It quickly got noticed. National Public Radio named it one of the top 4 songs of 2020. And Guyton recently became the first Black female solo artist to be nominated for a Grammy in the Best Country Solo Performance category for “Black Like Me.”
“For so many people 2020 has been a devastating year,” says Cindy Mabe, president of Universal Music Group Nashville, which owns Guyton’s record label. “Somehow through the devastation, Mickey has found her voice.”
But Guyton owes her success to more than just good timing. Before she could give voice to the anguish that so many Black and brown people were feeling in 2020, she had to confront her own pain.
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“Country music is supposed to be ‘three chords and the truth,'” she says. “I started writing my truth.”
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