A few weeks ago, there was actually a decent song playing on country radio during my drive for the first time in what might have been years. I didn't recognize the track, but I quickly pulled up Shazam on my phone in the middle of traffic to save it for later. When I found the song, "Better Than You Left Me" by Mickey Guyton, in the app later that day, I had a whole new kind of optimism about the future of pop-country. I was apparently late to the party.
According to her Facebook page, Guyton grew up in Waco, Texas, and used to call Arlington, Dallas and Fort Worth home before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. There, she linked up with producer Julian Raymond, who has albums by Glen Campbell and the Wallflowers under his belt, and he recognized her immense talent. Guyton would later sign with Capitol Nashville and work with the king-makers that made acts like Lady Antebellum and Faith Hill household names.
The success of "Better Than You Left Me" has helped build the buzz as Guyton made her debut onto the national country music scene. Last week, Mickey Guyton made country music history as "Better Than You Left Me," as became country music's strongest radio debut ever. 79 reporting stations added the song in its first week of release, making it one of the most buzzed-about songs of the year. Rolling Stone Country added Guyton to their list of artists to watch in 2015, and the hype has built from there.
And for good reason. If this first single is any indication, Guyton has a bright future in country music. In terms of sound, Guyton fits squarely into the Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood school of feisty pop-country princesses. "Better Than You Left Me" is Guyton's debut, a catchy ballad about coming out on the other side of a break-up. She's got a strong, confident timbre, full of country twang and drawl. It is somewhat difficult to judge her songwriting ability with so few released tracks, but there are far worse freshman debuts than hers and little reason to doubt her abilities based on the available sample size.
There is just one more thing that sets Guyton apart from the rest of country music's crop of women who are good singers, decent songwriters, and excellent performers. She's African American, something that virtually no other woman in this current generation of country singers can say. Country music is among music's whitest genres, outdone only by weird subsets of death metal and white supremacist bands. That makes Guyton's potential star power all the more facsinating.
Country music is more popular than ever in the United States, but the charts indicate that there has been little room for diversity in the mainstream. The unrelenting popularity of bro-country in the last few years has meant that most of country's most successful artists have all been white men, like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean. Darius Rucker is admittedly one of pop-country's best and most popular artists, but you'd be hard-pressed to find many other artists of color.
A recent profile in The Guardian notes that Mickey Guyton is not the only woman of color to have influenced the country charts. Black women have always been involved in country music, they just haven't always been recognized for their contributions. Linda Martell played the Grand Ole Opry and scored a top-25 hit in a cover of "Color Him Father." Tina Turner scored a Grammy nomination for an album of country covers, including Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson tracks in 1974, but it failed to chart and was considered a commercial failure.
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But it seems as if country music is finally ready for diversity, however belated their arrival may be. Mickey Guyton's success is largely dependent on radio airplay, and she's already demonstrated a pretty solid path to navigating the airwaves. She is currently making the rounds on the country festival circuit, before launching a tour later this year. As an added bonus, she's also got major label Nashville support, which is a particularly encouraging sign. For the past few years, record execs have spent their war chests on one of the the most homogenous crop of artists in music right now, both demographically and musically.
In a vacuum, you might be able to cast Guyton away as Nashville's attempt at a diversity gimmick. There have been other flash-in-the-pan women of color in country music, which says more about racism in the genre than it does about the talent of the women that preceded her. This time, though, it looks like Guyton will be sticking around, and that can only mean good things for a genre that all signs are currently pointing toward a significant change for the better.
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