Mickey Guyton’s ‘Black Like Me’: 2020’s powerful — and unlikely — racial anthem

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.

“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

Mickey Guyton performs during the Country Music Association's CMA Songwriters Series on August 21, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona.
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.

Guyton and the Black roots of country music

Guyton’s powerhouse voice was slightly hoarse as she spoke to CNN on a recent afternoon about her sudden success. The 37-year-old Texas native has kept a punishing schedule since her breakthrough over the summer.

She performed at the Academy of Country Music Awards in September, making history as the first Black female solo artist to sing her own song at the show. She’s been featured in the Washington Post, on CBS This Morning, in Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone.
Then there are the changes in her personal life. She and her husband, Grant Savoy, are expecting their first child — a boy — in February. In interviews, she says her baby is an “absolute miracle,” but she worries about their child facing racism one day.
Keith Urban and Mickey Guyton perform during the 55th Academy of Country Music Awards at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville on September 16, 2020.

Her husband encouraged her to record “Black Like Me,” even though she felt the song had little future.

“He said even if something never happens to you, you’re opening the door for other people of color who might be passionate about country music,” she says.

That door to country music has long been closed to many Black artists, with just a handful of exceptions. Record labels starting in the 1920s deliberately marketed what was once called “hillbilly music” as the music of the rural White South, historians say.

But the thumbprints of African American culture are stamped on virtually every facet of country music, including its vocal harmonies, instrumentations, and some of its most popular songs. Black artists helped build country music.

The banjo, for example, is a descendant of an instrument that was brought to America by enslaved West Africans. Many of the earliest ‘hillbilly” songs were adapted from slave spirituals, work songs, and Black songwriters. One of Johnny Cash’s mentors was Gus Cannon, a Black blues musician and bandleader who was the son of slaves.

A Black man plays a banjo for White listeners in the 1880s United States.
“One of the biggest triumphs of African-American music is the banjo,” Rhiannon Giddens, one of today’s few Black country music stars, told an interviewer last summer. “The banjo took over the world. That means we helped create America’s music. Not blues. Not jazz. America’s music, period.”
As White country music grew more popular, the contributions of Black artists were gradually erased. There have since been a few Black country stars — Giddens, the late Charley Pride, Darius Rucker — but the genre is now primarily dominated by blue-collar White singers in faded jeans and pickup trucks.

Guyton didn’t care about those odds at first. She decided she was going to be a singer at age 8 when she heard country star LeAnn Rimes perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a Texas Rangers game.

A native of Arlington, Texas, she had already heard country music through a grandmother, who loved Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. Guyton says she grew up singing gospel in church and listening to R&B, but country music touched her in ways that other music didn’t because of its emphasis on lyrics.

“It’s the storytelling aspect of it. That’s the bottom line,” she says. “R&B artists tell their own stories but it’s just different with country. There’s a song by this artist Miranda Lambert called ‘The House That Built Me.” To this day I can’t listen to it without sobbing my heart out.”

A tough conversation leads to a breakthrough

Guyton’s attempts to build a country music career led to another type of heartbreak.

She signed with Capitol Records Nashville in 2011, and in 2015 she released a self-titled mini-album. She was nominated for her first Academy of Country Music Award in the New Female Vocalist category and appeared at a concert at the White House that was filmed by PBS.

But her career stalled. As one critic said, her songs “lingered on the long end of the country music charts” as she tried to fit into whatever trend was popular in country music at the time.

Guyton’s frustration grew as the years passed. By her own account, she grew depressed and lonely and drifted into drinking.

Mabe, whose UMG Nashville owns Capitol Records Nashville, tried to encourage Guyton. She’s seen what rejection does to artists.

“It kills more than your confidence,” Mabe says. “It kills a piece of your soul.”

Singer-songwriters Tara Thompson, Mickey Guyton and Maggie Rose perform during CMT's "Next Women of Country" event on November 1, 2016 in Nashville.

At one point, Guyton came to Mabe with some alarming news.

“I don’t know if I can go on,” she told her. She was thinking of quitting music.

“Mickey, it’s there,” Mabe told her. “It’s right in front of you. You gotta stick with it. Let’s go figure this out.”

They had a conversation with Guyton’s husband, an attorney. That talk has since become a touchstone for Guyton’s fans and proof of the adage that “It’s never too late to become what you’re meant to be.”

Guyton asked her husband a simple question: “Why don’t you think country music isn’t working for me?”

“Because you’re running away from anything that makes you different,” he said.

Guyton said her husband’s words felt like a punch to the gut.

Guyton took an inventory of her career: her lyrics, her videos, even how she presented herself in photographs. She noticed that she was always trying to fit in, to not offend anyone. So she purged her social media accounts of anything that didn’t seem authentic.

“I started looking back at these pictures and videos and I was trying to be this girl next door that everyone could relate to, that everyone could feel safe and comfortable around,” she says. “I was hiding a side of myself in plain sight.”

The inspiration for ‘Black Like Me’

It didn’t take long for Guyton’s authentic self to claim ground in her lyrics. She was at a writer’s retreat in the summer of 2019 when she thought of a book that could be the basis for a song.

It’s called “Black Like Me,” and it was published by the White journalist John Howard Griffin in 1961. Griffin darkened his skin to look Black and traveled throughout the segregated South to experience life as a racial minority. It became an unexpected bestseller and was later made into a movie.
Guyton got together with three other songwriters — Nathan Chapman, Fraser Churchill and Emma Davidson-Dillon — for “Black Like Me” and they channeled much of the discrimination she had experienced as a Black woman, such as being called the N-word by other people in the music industry. Together, they wrote a song challenging White listeners to walk in her shoes.

The song begins with plaintive, gospel-tinged piano and Guyton singing in a near whisper — “Little kid in a small town, I did my best to fit in” — before segueing into a soaring power ballad.

Guyton thought she had something special and played the song to country music insiders. She received the same response: Wow, this is powerful. This is special. I needed to sit with it for a minute.

That minute would last for a year. Nothing happened with the song. Mabe championed it, but many country music gatekeepers didn’t want to release a song from a Black woman lamenting racism.

“It just kind of sat there,” Guyton says. “I didn’t know if it was ever going to see the light of day.”

The song broke a country music taboo

The gatekeepers had reason to be cautious. Their fears could be summed up in three words: The Dixie Chicks. The all-female country trio, which recently changed its name to the Chicks, was ostracized in 2003 after they criticized President George W. Bush for the impending invasion of Iraq. Country radio stations stopped playing their songs, and once-loyal fans boycotted their concerts.

Their rejection was so brutal that it became a verb — Dixie Chicked — signifying what happens to country music stars who even hint that they hold progressive political views.

Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines and Emily Robison, from left, of the Dixie Chicks in 2014. In 2020 they shortened the band's name to the Chicks.

Then came the spring of 2020. As the racial protests over Floyd’s death spread, Guyton posted the song on social media and dedicated it to Floyd and other unarmed Black men and women who had been killed by White police officers and White vigilantes. Spotify, the streaming music platform, heard about the song and decided to release it.

The song suddenly took off. It was streamed on Spotify more than 6 million times. Guyton’s social media accounts were flooded with tearful messages from fans thanking her for her courage. One critic called Guyton “the best pure singer to emerge in Nashville since Carrie Underwood,” and said her song “will be remembered as a milestone in the genre’s evolution.”

A Black country artist had written a protest song about the most incendiary issue in American history — and it had become a hit. The “don’t get too political” taboo had been broken.

Guyton was stunned. At one point she was so unnerved by the song’s popularity she had to take CBD oil to calm her nerves.

“It was just such an overwhelming, beautiful feeling,” she says.

She took another risk in writing “What are You Gonna Tell Her?,” a pointed song about sexism and women being excluded from country music.

Success, though, can bring new pressures for an artist.

Guyton and Jonathan Sosin perform for the livestreamed 45th Gracie Awards on September 10, 2020.

Some worry that Guyton could be labeled a protest singer, a label she doesn’t embrace.

“I wrote all of these social conscience songs without any intention of getting the attention that they’ve gotten. Now that they’ve gotten their attention, I guess I’m a ‘singer-activist’ now,” she says with a wry chuckle.

But one of her collaborators says the fact that success came late for Guyton should help her cope with whatever career challenges she’ll face.

“She’s spent a lot of years being an underdog,” says Karen Kosowski, who produced many of the songs on Guyton’s latest album, “Bridges,” and co-wrote “What are You Gonna Tell Her?” with Guyton. “She’s seen a lot of artists come and go. As hard as that can be, one upside is that you have a very grounded, realistic idea about how fickle success can be.”

Guyton is embracing her new outspokenness

The new boldness in Guyton’s lyrics has filtered into her public life.

She is unabashedly speaking up on political issues and pushing for more diversity in country music. When Pride, the Black country icon, died from Covid-19 this month after performing at the Country Music Association’s Awards ceremony, Guyton publicly demanded that someone explain how Pride got the virus.
Charley Pride performs during the 54th Annual CMA Awards at Nashville's Music City Center on November 11, 2020.
Her Twitter bio has a Black Power emoji and now reads, “I’m a Grammy-nominated baby mama who won’t just shut up and sing.”

When asked now about career pressure, Guyton mentions something else:

“The pressure I feel is that there are people on the front lines that are fighting for racial justice and against the oppression of women who don’t get any attention whatsoever,” she says.

The woman who once moaned about her career struggles now talks about gratitude.

“I’m way more blessed than so many people,” she says. “I don’t deserve this. This is a blessing.”

Mabe, the record label executive, says the success of “Black Like Me” has transformed Guyton from a singer to an artist.

Guyton performs in Arrington, Tennessee for the 2020 CMT Awards broadcast on October 21, 2020.

“A singer can sing any song,” she says. “But there have been singers who don’t evolve past the song. An artist has something to say. They have a fan base based on what they represent and who they are.”

It would be naïve, though, to say the type of backlash that almost destroyed the Chicks is no longer possible. The county is as divided racially and politically as ever, and country music remains overwhelmingly White and conservative.

It will be revealing to see how Guyton navigates her future.

But she’s no longer the person she wrote about in “Black Like Me” — the “little girl from the small town who tried to fit in.”

“Country music is supposed to be ‘three chords and the truth,'” she says. “I started writing my truth.”