by Marcus K. Dowling
Achieving “Nashville is a ten-year town” type superstardom while amid a global pandemic, personally unsettling social unrest, pregnancy, and recording your very long-awaited debut album is unprecedented. However, undaunted Mickey Guyton still rose and excelled through and past the pressure of an astounding occasion. Her honor as CMT’s 2021 Breakout Artist of the Year is as much a celebration of her year as it is to her determination to succeed.
Guyton’s calendar year begins as a trio of singles — “What Are You Gonna Tell Her,” “Black Like Me,” and “Heaven Down Here” — had been released between March and July of pandemic-stricken 2020. The tracks highlighted a greater focus, passion, and purpose than Guyton had shown in her decade-plus in Music City. “I wanted every word of every song that I wrote to reflect me honestly. Until , I’d done my music career everyone’s way except for my way,” noted the vocalist to CMT.
The Black Lives Matter movement that emerged in the summer of 2020 profoundly impacted the Arlington, Texas-born vocalist. Her single “Black Like Me” — taken from the 1961 novel of the same name by John Howard Griffin — came from a place of what she tells Rolling Stone was the “guilt when I see the pain other people are feeling as their eyes open and see the oppression that I’ve experienced, having to see that pain in them as I’m talking about it. It’s all so heavy.” The track claimed the power from the pain many Black artists have felt while being underrepresented and ostracized in country music in the genre’s century long history, and keyed a movement in the genre rekindling feelings of empowerment and togetherness by all generations of Black artists in country music.
“Black Like Me” was nominated for a Best Country Solo Performance Grammy at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards, making Guyton the first black woman to receive a Grammy nomination in that category. As well, her performance of the song at the January 2021-broadcast was a superstar-making moment.
As well, Guyton and her husband Grant welcomed their first son, Grayson, into the world on February 8, 2021. Her first pregnancy coincided with the recording of her debut album Remember Her Name. In regards to this momentous occasion occurring during an incredible moment in her career, Guyton told CMT, “God gives you exactly what you need at the exact moment. So now, I know that I needed this beautiful boy to take my mind off the industry’s pressure and put that energy [that I used to use to worry about that] into this precious human.”
Regarding next steps, her performances at three events: the 2021 Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards, the 2021 CMT Music Awards and CMT’s GIANTS: Charley Pride event, furthered her “breakout artist” appeal.
Guyton and Keith Urban’s show-stopping rendition of her 2020 single “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” from the Grand Ole Opry House at the 2020 ACM Awards spurred the ACM to unite the duo as co-hosts of April 2021’s 56th annual ACM Awards. Regarding the moment, first-time host Guyton noted to The Tennessean, “I [was] so terrified, But at the same time, Keith told me ’just be yourself,’ so that’s what I tried to do.”
At June’s 2021 CMT Music Awards, Guyton performed her duet with rising country star BRELAND for his track “Cross Country.” As well, she also performed “Freedom Train” with soul legend Gladys Knight and BRELAND too. Also noteworthy in regards to her CMT Music Awards appearance is that she noted that the title of her album, Remember Her Name, was also a tribute to Breonna Taylor, the Black medical worker shot and killed by Louisville police officers in March 2020. Button noted, “seeing inaction regarding her murder, I thought, ’I need to bring justice to her life.’ I was writing these types of [thoughtful] songs long before America’s racial reckoning. The frustration that I’ve felt as an African-American has been a part of my process for a while. So the album is dedicated to [Breonna Taylor] and giving her the justice that she deserves.”
As well, Guyton appeared — alongside a who’s who of country past and present including Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Wynonna, Jimmie Allen and more — on the August-aired CMT’s GIANTS: Charley Pride event. At that event, her choice of song was the groundbreaking “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” singer’s 1971 hit “I’m Just Me.” Before her performance, she stated, Charley Pride impacted almost every space that I occupy as an artist and as a person. He made space for people like me.”
September 24’s release of Remember Her Name capped off what is an impressive run for Guyton. Critical acclaim from outlets including Rolling Stone, coupled with a summer leading in highlighted by an appearance on PBS’ A Capital Fourth event to truly finish a year of arduous work that saw her “breakout” potential being realized. In relation to her many achievements and next steps, Guyton adds to CMT a poignant, empowered note. “God felt that [leadership] was something that I could handle because if I don’t do this, who will?”