This year, the country singer Mickey Guyton represented America on its biggest stages, belting out the national anthem at the Super Bowl and hosting PBS’s July 4 celebration from the Capitol Lawn. She became the first Black nominee for Best Country Album at the Grammys in the award’s history.
Guyton also fulfilled a lifelong goal in collaborating with one of her idols, the country star LeAnn Rimes, on Rimes’ new song “the wild.” “Hearing her sing these powerful words with me and knowing her journey in this business as a Black woman, it’s just been incredible to see her overcome so much oppression…. it was deeply emotional for both of us,” Rimes told TIME in an email. “Mickey coming into her own authenticity as a country artist and writing about her personal heartaches and triumphs, speaking from her heart and spirit, and pushing against the tide of conventionality: that is what country music needs to always be about.”
But Guyton faced plenty of resistance: to her music being played on country radio; to conversations she tried to hold about race with industry leaders; to the representational gains that seemed to vanish two years after the racial reckoning in the summer of 2020. “I am seeing it very much going back to your regularly scheduled programming, and that’s something I’m scared about,” she says.
Guyton opened up to TIME about her year of growth and frustration.
When you walked into SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles to sing the national anthem for more than 110 million Super Bowl viewers, what was going through your head?
It was the most nervous I’ve ever been. I felt like I was about to give birth for the first time or walk down the aisle and get married to the wrong guy.
To be honest, it’s really hard right now with what’s going on in this country. I wanted to be proud of singing the national anthem. So if you had noticed the choir, it was really important to show what I saw America as. We chose someone with a disability, a Black trans woman, an Asian man.
You performed in many iconic spaces this year, including at A Capitol Fourth and onstage with Metallica and the Nashville Symphony. What does it mean to enter spaces that haven’t welcomed many people who look and sound like you?
It means so much to me. It’s a heavy weight. After 2020, I did receive a lot of pushback and hate all at once. That was scary for me. Part of me has a little bit of anxiety when I walk into these spaces. But so far it’s been completely lovely people.
In the summer of 2020, you released the song “Black Like Me,” a searing condemnation of racial inequality. How do you think it changed, or didn’t change, race dynamics in country music?
I had so many country artists behind the scenes reach out to me, wanting to have conversations on what they could do and how they could be more of an ally. A lot of them did start finding musicians of color for their bands. There’s a drummer named Elizabeth Chan who played with me, who you now see at every country-music award show. Also, there are a lot more Black country artists that have loved the genre but didn’t think there was a space for them that are migrating to Nashville and trying to have careers. But if you study the country-music charts, they’re against women and people of color.
All of the Nos. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart this year were performed by white men.
Yep. It’s f-cking frustrating. There are so many incredible singers out there and we’re just accepting the crumbs. I keep thinking to myself, I know some of you have daughters.
It’s a lot to digest, and part of the reason I stepped away from social media: I have to protect my inner peace. And people get really upset when you talk about it. They’re just tired of hearing it. But these are people’s livelihoods and careers that you’re deciding. You need to give your listeners a little more credit.
It does feel like many of the changes forged in the summer of 2020 around race were reversed, with Black books and histories being banned across the country. What do you make of those patterns?
I have seen it all completely wiped away, sometimes it feels like. Evidenced by looking at country-music awards shows: There was so much inclusion the year before. And there’s maybe one Black person on the CMAs nominated. [Breland was nominated for his collaboration “Beers on Me” with Dierks Bentley and HARDY.] And that’s just in one area.
How do you deal with it?
Behind the scenes, if there is an artist of color I think is exceptionally talented, I will straight up call my record label, A&R, whomever, and tell them about them. That’s all you can do–continue to mention people’s names that may have never gotten that chance. And creating the best music you can make in these moments.
What is the significance of your new song “I Still Pray”?
I wrote this song after the shooting at that grocery store in Buffalo in May. I was so affected by it. And with everything happening, with two shootings happening in the same week, this song has an importance right now because I literally don’t have the answers. I’ve spent so many years outraged by everything and I don’t have the ability to be outraged anymore because it’s so exhausting. The song is a message of, whoever you believe in, help us right now. Because we need it.
You collaborated with one of your idols, LeAnn Rimes, on her song “the wild.” What did you learn from her?
She is one of the kindest salt-of-the-earth people you will ever meet. She went through a lot, from her childhood, to the industry turning its back on her for her own decisions. A male in country music could engage in the same things and have viable careers. But there’s a fire in her that I thought was so beautiful. She comes in and puts a plate of amazing food in front of me. She feeds your soul.
How has motherhood informed your creative process?
I can sing about heartbreak—which I’m great at—but having a child really changes your whole perspective of everything. Our souls picked each other, and he is going to continue on when I’m going to be gone. I’m thinking a lot about that in my songwriting now. I’m singing about love, because that’s what I’m surrounded by in the end.