Mickey Guyton on Finding (and Keeping) the Faith in Dark Times
The year 2020 has been an emotional roller coaster for pretty much everyone, but Mickey Guyton's (metaphorical) ride has included a few more drops, loops and thrills.
A decade ago, Guyton signed her record deal with Capitol Nashville. It wasn't until 2015 that she released her debut single, the soaring breakup anthem "Better Than You Left Me," which climbed into the Top 40 at country radio. But when her sophomore single, "Heartbreak Song," only peaked at No. 45, and Guyton found her career stalling, she felt unable to create something that both she and her label believed in.
Then, in February 2020, she walked onstage at the Ryman Auditorium during the Country Radio Seminar and debuted her song "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" — a heart-wrenching, but honest look at marginalization — to a crowd of radio programmers and country music industry members. A few weeks later, she officially released the song, just days before the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic and life in the United States grinded to a halt.
Three months later, Guyton had the eyes of the country community on her — as one of only a few Black country artists signed to major labels in the genre — as the conversation around racism and inequality in America grew louder following the death of George Floyd. On June 2, when the music industry observed a day-long blackout to reflect on and start conversations about its shortcomings, she dropped "Black Like Me," asking listeners to check their privilege and recognize the disparities in how people of different races are treated.
High-profile interviews, must-watch TV performances (including a stunning, history-making one during the 2020 ACM Awards, during which Guyton was accompanied on piano by show host Keith Urban) and panel appearances followed. So, too, did plans for a six-song EP, Bridges, released on Sept. 11. The reception has blown Guyton away.
"I've heard people calling my EP a masterpiece, and that is just such an honor," she reflects during a recent phone call, "because I really have put my heart and soul into this body of work."
There's some blood, sweat and tears in there, too, both figuratively and literally. Guyton ha not been shy about how frustrating her journey in Nashville has been; she admits, too, that she thought about quitting music. "I think about it, and I'm like, 'Am I crazy?' Yes, I actually am, that I stuck around for so long," she says. "I guess I'd been in survival mode for so long that I didn't realize how crazy I looked to still be at it. Like, I'm sure people were like, 'You're still here?' I was like, 'Yeah, I'm surprised too' ..."
"Part of me feels crazy," she continues, "but part of me is like, 'Thank god I didn't give up.'"
If ever there was a perfect moment for Guyton to take her place in the spotlight, it's now. This exact period in time feels, in a way, tailor-made for her.
"I hate to get preachy or religious on people, but God really does have a plan," the singer reflects, "and it may not be on your time, but whenever the plan does unfold, it's honestly overwhelming how — I don't wanna say easy ... but there's a sense of ease. There's a crazy sense of peace that has come over me."
And yet, "there's still sadness," Guyton says. Our interview took place one week to the day after her triumphant ACM Awards performance, in the wake of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death and mere hours after an unsatisfying verdict in the case of the death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman in Louisville, Ky., who was fatally shot by police as she slept.
"The only way we can get better is if we talk about the issue. We can't just brush it under a rug like so often we do — that's so detrimental to your heart. You've gotta face it."
"I celebrate these victories," notes Guyton, "but at the same time, there's still so much work to be done."
In discussing 2020's contentious climate, Guyton confesses that she's "very, very sad;" she's been on the couch all day, dealing with pregnancy pains and taking note of the week's news. Nonetheless, as she speaks, she is largely positive, optimistic and happy; her voice is calm — soothing, even — and measuredly joyful.
"I definitely feel that pain ... and it hurts. It hurts tremendously, 'cause i know there's so many people hurting," Guyton muses, "but I can only stay in these trenches for so long. I have to get back up and find some glimpse of hope somewhere, and a lot of it happens through music."
The Bridges project expresses that duality: Openers "Heaven Down Here" and "Bridges" are faith-filled and unifying, before "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" "Salt" and "Black Like Me" offer doses of unpleasant realities.
"Music is supposed to be hopeful, and that's the kind of music that I've been trying to write: Talk about the issues that have been happening and then hopefully bring people a little hope after I talk about it," the singer-songwriter explains. "The only way we can get better is if we talk about the issue. We can't just brush it under a rug like so often we do — that's so detrimental to your heart. You've gotta face it."
There's a message in every song, Guyton notes, even the flat-out fun "Rosé." A drinking song for the women, it's also a protest song, in a way.
"Guys claim tequila. Guys claim whiskey. Guys claim beer — that's all their drinks," Guyton says. "[Rosé] is a women's drink ... and that's where that song came from. We deserve our own song, too."
During this intensely emotional period, Guyton has also been growing a human being — her and husband Grant Savoy's first child. "Imagine being newly pregnant and nauseous and having to recall your own racist experiences that you had to experience as a child. That's really hard to do," she says, admitting with a chuckle that she's "terrified, absolutely" about motherhood.
"But I also feel hopeful ... It does feel like the veil has been lifted, whether some people want to receive it or not ... and eyes are starting to open," she says. "And also, this new generation — oh my gosh ... Watching how fearless young people are about their beliefs and who they are and what's important to them ... I have faith that that is going to carry my child, and that is what my child has to look up to."
And, of course, he or she will have an incredibly fierce, groundbreaking mother, too.