Mickey Guyton Takes On the Overwhelming Whiteness of Country Music | The New Yorker

Mickey Guyton Takes On the Overwhelming Whiteness of Country Music | The New Yorker

Guyton had her laptop set up in front of a dark-gray wall with posters for the Black Keys and Jack White. She was wearing a tan spaghetti-strap dress, a gold bracelet, and no makeup. Guyton has deep-brown, wide-set eyes and an easy, open smile. In conversation, she is affable and attentive. Midway through our talk, Savoy brought their two-month-old son, Grayson, into the room. Guyton picked him up from his stroller and sniffed his diaper.

“I think he might have pooped,” she said to Savoy.

“Did he?”

Guyton took another whiff and briefly pondered the results. “He might have just farted.”

I told her that they made parenthood look sweet, almost peaceful. “Well, when you’re both helping—” she started.

“The prophecy!”
Cartoon by Benjamin Schwartz

“Or when you have Superdad, who is also Supernanny,” Savoy cut in.

Guyton laughed. “He’s calling himself Supernanny!”

A dinner conversation with Savoy a few years earlier had helped Guyton clarify her creative vision: “I remember asking, ‘Why do you think country music isn’t working for me?’ And he said, ‘Because you’re running away from everything that makes you different. Why aren’t you writing country songs from the perspective of a Black woman? Not from the perspective of what you think country music looks like for other people, but what country music is for you?’ That just blew my mind.”

There is no pristine road to stardom—mainstream success is nearly always dependent on capitulating to the whims of the marketplace—but Guyton’s rise has been convenient for Nashville, temporarily obfuscating the overwhelming whiteness and maleness within the country-music scene. Guyton is a skillful performer by any metric—her work is imbued with benevolence, grace, and power—but I nonetheless wondered if she worried that her music was being embraced and leveraged for other reasons. “One hundred per cent,” Guyton said. “I look back in my career, and I was a token in so many different ways. I remember there would be corporate events where—in order to make the company look good—who did they have front and center as one of the artists they’re excited about?”

Guyton is not the first Black person to sing country music (she is preceded by dozens—if not hundreds—of remarkable prewar performers, including DeFord Bailey, the Mississippi Sheiks, and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops), nor is she the only contemporary artist of color to appear on the country charts. But commercially successful Black, female performers are startlingly rare in Nashville. In 2020, when Maren Morris, accepting the Country Music Association’s award for Female Vocalist of the Year, cited six Black women for their recent contributions to the genre—Guyton, Linda Martell, Yola, Rissi Palmer, Brittney Spencer, and Rhiannon Giddens—the list felt comprehensive.

When Guyton and I had our initial conversation, she was a new mother, and I was seven months pregnant with my first child. It did not take long for me to abandon my professional obligations and ask her several thousand questions about childbirth. “Every mother is different, but, I’m telling you, you’re gonna know exactly what to do,” Guyton said. She often began our conversations with recommendations for the daunting amount of gear (tiny pacifiers, wipes, a curious substance called gripe water) that newborns seem to require. Sometimes, after our interviews, I felt so relieved that I wanted to sob. By our third Zoom, I was referring to Guyton as my birth coach. “If you need me, you can text me,” she said, laughing.

At the 2020 A.C.M. Awards, Guyton had been visibly pregnant. Near the end of a performance of “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” she placed her palm on her baby bump and swallowed, as if pushing down tears. (The dress she wore that night, ivory-colored and sleeveless, was recently included in an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame titled “American Currents,” which this year considers the tumult and the social reckonings of 2020.) “When I found out I was pregnant, honestly, I was, like, ‘This is going to ruin my career,’ ” she told me. “But I’m determined to show working mothers that they can do this. Yes, it’s hard. But I always try to normalize it: I’m in this interview, I’m holding my baby. I have writing sessions where I say, ‘Sorry, guys, my baby’s gonna be here, and you’re gonna have to deal with it.’ ”

Guyton was born in Arlington, Texas, on June 17, 1983. Her father worked as an engineer and a district manager for the company that became Oncor Electric Delivery, which meant that her family—she has two younger sisters and an older brother—moved every three to five years. “My life centered around the church,” Guyton said. “That’s where I learned how to sing and how to harmonize. It wasn’t like I had a love for music—our parents made us sing in the choir, so we did.” Guyton recalled getting dressed each Sunday—“Stockings, little dress, and the bows in your hair”—and growing restless in the pews. “Oh, my God, church was so long,” she recalled, laughing. “In Black churches, we like to be in church all day. I don’t personally understand it—give me an hour Mass, yes, Lord, praise Him! On Sundays, my dad would make us oatmeal, because, in his mind, oatmeal would fill us up and keep us sustained.”

When Guyton was nine, and her family was living in Crawford, Texas, her church attended a Texas Rangers baseball game: “We were way up in the nosebleed section, and the announcer said, ‘Please rise while ten-year-old LeAnn Rimes sings the national anthem.’ ” Guyton had heard country music before (“When I went to see my grandma, I’d watch all of the Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers VHS tapes hanging on the back of her door,” she remembered), but Rimes made her dream of being a country singer: “Seeing someone who was young like me sound like a grown woman—I was, like, ‘I can do that!’ And I really could.”

Guyton’s parents enrolled her in a small private school in nearby Waco. The family had experienced racism within their community—Guyton’s mother recalled hearing racial slurs yelled out the window of a bus from the public school—and worried that the lack of Black students might make Guyton and her siblings feel conspicuous and unsafe. “This was not in the eighties,” Guyton said. “This was not in the seventies, not in the sixties—this was in the nineties. My parents couldn’t afford private school. So my mom became a substitute teacher for the elementary school and my dad coached the seventh- and eighth-grade basketball teams. That’s how we were all able to go.”

After Guyton graduated, she moved to Los Angeles, to attend Santa Monica College. “I just felt so stuck in the South,” she said. She started taking business classes and got a job at a cigar club in L.A. “That was a whole ’nother ballgame of sexual harassment and disgustingness,” she said. “But I was a hostess making thirteen dollars an hour, and I was, like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m really making it!’ ”

She was briefly a contestant on “American Idol”—she made the Top Fifty—but she was struggling to find a path into country music. “I had such a love for country,” she said. “It was something about that sound—with a good country ballad, there’s just something so beautiful about it.” She went on, “While everybody else was bumping whatever, I was bumping Rascal Flatts. But I didn’t know how to get to Nashville, and that’s where I felt I really needed to be.”

One afternoon, she was out shopping for a fiftieth-birthday present for her mother. “I ran into this d.j. I knew, DJ D-Wrek, who was Nick Cannon’s d.j. for ‘Wild ’n Out.’ He was, like, ‘You do music, right? What kind of music do you sing?’ And I was, like, ‘I sing country.’ It was the first time I’d said it. I was thinking I’d keep moving and that’d be it,” she said. “But a hip-hop guy got me in contact with a country guy.” D-Wrek ultimately introduced Guyton to a producer and songwriter named Julian Raymond, who connected her to her current management. In 2011, she moved to Nashville.

This year, the Academy of Country Music nominated four Black artists, the most ever, for major awards. They included Guyton, Kane Brown, John Legend (for a collaboration with Carrie Underwood), and Jimmie Allen; two won. (Allen became the first Black performer to win the A.C.M. New Artist award, and Brown became the first Black solo artist to win Video of the Year.)

Guyton took the stage in a feathered, one-shoulder white dress and matching boots festooned with what appeared to be hundreds of tiny crystals. She and Urban bantered cheerfully. “She’s a real artist, and she writes from real experience,” Urban told me later. “That’s a process for every artist, but I think we’re starting to see a connection taking place between her and her audience. The portals are starting to open up.”

At the beginning of the telecast, Urban took a moment to recount Guyton’s recent accomplishments: “It’s been a year of firsts for you. You had, let’s see—Grammy nominations, you got to play on the Grammys for the first time, first time hosting A.C.M.s. And you also—there’s one other thing I’m missing. . . . Oh, you had a baby for the first time.” Guyton beamed.

A few days after the awards aired, someone called Guyton a racial slur on Twitter. This was not an especially unusual occurrence. The user was responding to a tweet from the Academy of Country Music’s official account—a celebration of some of Guyton’s outfits from the broadcast. “Fuckin’ ” N-word, the person wrote. Perhaps this sort of unabashed bigotry should not be surprising—particularly online, particularly on Twitter—but it nonetheless made me gasp. Guyton saw it as an opportunity to expose and amplify the vitriol she has long been subject to in private. She retweeted the comment and wrote, “There are no words.”

“I’ve been called the N-word enough that it just kind of rolls off,” she said. “But when I do get racial slurs coming at me, I post them. My thinking is, if somebody wants to spew hate at me, I’ll gladly give them the platform to do it. You were brave enough to search out my name, say these words, send me that message—and now I have receipts.” Even before she saw the tweet, Guyton had been feeling vaguely melancholy. “When I got back from Nashville to L.A., I had a moment of sadness,” she said. “I know that sounds really weird. I’m getting ready to release an album, which is something I’ve anticipated for a very long time. But things like this bring me back to a space of ‘I’m not good enough, I’m not what those people want.’ ”

For the past year, country music has been entangled in a complex racial reckoning. The most high-profile examples have involved artists’ attempting to reconfigure their relationships to potentially hurtful language: the Dixie Chicks rebranded as the Chicks; Lady Antebellum became Lady A. Some listeners have been horrified by the notion that leftist, finger-wagging culture may be infecting a genre that has long been an ideological haven for conservative listeners. This panic—that country music could be forced to compromise or even denounce its right-wing bona fides—was on international display back in 2003, when, at a concert in London, Natalie Maines, the front woman for the Chicks, publicly criticized President George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq. The band was subsequently blacklisted by country radio, and the members received death threats so credible that the F.B.I. advised them to cancel a show in Dallas.

This February, the country singer Morgan Wallen was filmed getting out of an S.U.V. outside his house, in Nashville. Wallen, who is twenty-eight, has two and a half million followers on Instagram, where he routinely celebrates the rituals of rural Southern living; in one post, he’s wearing a sleeveless flannel shirt and camo pants, his hair in his signature mullet, holding an AR-15 in one hand and a dead boar in the other, and grinning deliriously.

That night, Wallen, referring to a friend, demanded that someone in his entourage “take care of this pussy-ass” N-word. He appeared drunk, and the slur sounded round and easy coming out of his mouth. Was it Wallen’s first time trying out this language? I don’t know. In an apology he posted on YouTube, he described the moment as hour seventy-two of a seventy-two-hour bender, and said that he was now nine days sober. He appeared genuinely remorseful, but he still deployed the grammar of victimhood: “The people I hurt, they had every right to step on my neck while I was down, to not show me any grace. But they did the exact opposite.”

The sort of generosity that Wallen was met with—he had already been rebooked as the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live” after blatantly flouting COVID protocols at a bar in Tuscaloosa, which resulted in the cancellation of his first scheduled appearance—is, of course, not available to everyone. Guyton told me she feels empathy for Wallen: “Living in Nashville would turn even the most sober person into an alcoholic if you let your guard down and don’t pay attention. It’s a drinking town.” (She and Savoy recently decided to get sober together. “There was so much clarity,” she said. “That inner voice telling me how horrible I am was so loud when I was drinking.”)

The N-word video was released by TMZ, and the Academy of Country Music announced that Wallen would not be eligible for any nominations or awards. The Country Music Association removed all digital content related to Wallen from its various platforms, promising to “continue to examine our industry’s inclusivity efforts.” Many people gathered protectively around Wallen, citing his drunkenness, his youth, his contrition, his self-reproach. Guyton reacted on Twitter. “The hate runs deep,” she wrote. “Promises to do better don’t mean sh*t.” Wallen’s fans launched a brutal counterattack. Guyton told me, “What was most appalling to me was not even him saying the word—that was wrong, it sickened me, it grossed me out—but the way some of the fans came after me for calling out racism. I’ve never been on the receiving end of that much hate before.”

I remarked on her resilience, weathering that kind of onslaught while nine months pregnant. Guyton told me, “I don’t like my mom to see me upset, because I don’t want to worry her, but she held me in bed, and I wept outward, open sobs. Over and over and over and over and over again. I was trying to not say anything, not to complain about it. But it got so bad. And then I started showing her the messages.” The next day, Guyton went into labor.

In April, when Guyton arrived in Nashville to begin rehearsals for the A.C.M. Awards, there were, she said, “all these Morgan Wallen billboards, fan-bought billboards, saying, ‘His FansChoice Entertainer of the Year,’ with a Bible verse at the bottom.” Wallen had asked his followers to stop advocating on his behalf. “I appreciate those who still see something in me and have defended me, but for today please don’t,” he said. Still, since the incident, digital sales of his music had risen more than a thousand per cent.

It’s not arcane knowledge that country music is fundamentally indebted to Black innovation; even the most oblivious accountings of the genre’s origins allow that its most formative players (A. P. Carter, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe) relied on the contributions of Black artists. More recently, scholars and critics have begun to acknowledge that these Black musicians weren’t merely influential—they pioneered the genre.

There are a few ways to make sense of contemporary country’s whiteness. The simplest is to consider the earliest days of the commercial recording industry, when executives marketed “race records” (usually by Black blues or gospel artists) to Black communities, and most everything else (including country and hillbilly artists) to white listeners. But country music itself has since come to perpetuate (if not establish) a racial divide. Its songs are often predicated on feelings of nostalgia for an imagined rural past, in which life moved more slowly and the continuation of tradition was paramount. This sort of longing for a bygone era is rarely a Black experience, in part because the myth of the “good old days” tends to predate the civil-rights movement.

In 2008, Geoff Mann, a professor of geography at Simon Fraser University, published a paper titled “Why Does Country Music Sound White?” He suggested that the overtly nostalgic lyrics to most country songs, in which white Southerners are invited to think of themselves as both innocent and perpetually in crisis, have come to define modern whiteness: “For if country sounds white, it is perhaps worth considering the possibility that something claiming the status of ‘white culture,’ something like a purportedly American whiteness—however historically baseless—is not reflected in country music, but is, rather, partially produced by it.” Perhaps country music isn’t simply reflecting the reality of what it means to be white and American; perhaps it is actively (and repeatedly) inventing it.

Mann believes that country music began pushing a particular vision of whiteness in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, an era that, he told me recently, “marked a fundamental rupture in the self-understanding of white Americans. Desegregation, Communism, the civil-rights movement, Vietnam, the economic rise of Japan and Germany and the declining relative competitiveness of the American economy—all of these forces seemed to belie the promises upon which so much of the post-World War II U.S. was supposed to be based.” He went on, “In the South, especially, from Brown v. Board of Education on, the whole kit and caboodle of American history appeared to be a story of increasingly besieged ‘average’ white folks and their families.”

In Mann’s view, country music shifted from mirroring white anxieties to seeding them. “It pretty quickly became a situation in which the music didn’t describe how white people felt, but instead described how whiteness felt,” he said. “And, in that sense, it is, or at least often is, a big cultural-reproduction machine, not only narrating the ongoing siege of simple, innocent white folks—this is why nostalgia is so absolutely central to the whole genre—but also performing a resistance to this siege in the experience of a supposedly simple, unrepentant white ‘normal’ that’s basically a big ‘fuck you’ to anyone who celebrates the forces behind that siege.” Mann sees a future in which country music challenges some of its own mythologies—he cites such younger artists as Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Maren Morris—but it is difficult to imagine that sort of change without the direct involvement of more Black artists.

This content was originally published here.