Mickey Guyton became the first Black female country artist to perform on music’s highest-profile awards show when she sang her “Black Like Me” at the 63rd Grammy Awards ceremony on Sunday.
“It’s a hard life on Easy Street / Just white-painted picket fences far as you can see,” she sang, backed by a churchy choir, in the midtempo cut built on stately piano and yearning steel guitar, “If you think we live in the land of the free / You should try to be Black like me.”
Released last summer amid the nationwide protests sparked by George Floyd’s killing, the song offers a vivid reality check from an artist who’s spoken frankly about the challenges faced by Black artists in the overwhelmingly white world of country music.
Guyton, 37, was nominated with “Black Like Me” for the Grammys’ country solo performance award — as Trevor Noah pointed out in his intro, she was the first Black female solo artist to receive a nod in a country category — but lost to Vince Gill, who took the prize with “When My Amy Prays.” The remaining artists in the category were Miranda Lambert, Brandy Clark and Eric Church. Last year Willie Nelson won with “Ride Me Back Home.”
The award for country solo performance dates back only to the 54th Grammys in 2012, when the category was created to combine the trophies for female vocal country performance, male vocal country performance and country instrumental performance. No Black woman ever won (or was nominated for) female vocal country performance.
Ray Charles, who famously took up country music on his classic 1962 album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” was nominated for male vocal country performance with “Born to Love Me” in 1984. (He lost to Lee Greenwood’s “I.O.U.”) And the Pointer Sisters won a Grammy for country vocal performance by a duo or group in 1975 with “Fairytale.”
In 2016, Beyoncé reportedly submitted her song “Daddy Lessons” — which she performed that year with the Dixie Chicks on the CMA Awards — for Grammys consideration in the country solo performance category, but the song was said to be rejected by the Recording Academy committee overseeing country submissions.
Guyton grew up in Texas, where her grandmother introduced her to country music. After high school, she moved to Los Angeles and eventually made the connections that led to her being signed by her label, Capitol Nashville, in 2011.
As Jewly Hight wrote last year in a Times profile, Guyton envisioned a smooth progression. “I thought I was going to come to Nashville, write all these songs and put a record out two years later,” the singer told Hight.
Instead, Capitol waited until 2015 to release Guyton’s debut single, “Better Than You Left Me,” which failed to attract much interest from radio programmers. Since then the singer has continued to struggle in a country-radio environment notorious for marginalizing songs by women and people of color.
Yet Guyton’s songs, including “Black Like Me,” have found an enthusiastic audience online, with tens of millions of streams on Spotify and YouTube. And she’s set to cohost next month’s ACM Awards with Keith Urban.
“There have been times where even my manager has been like, ‘Maybe we should just go and try something else if they don’t get you,’” she told The Times last year. “I said, ‘Like what? Like pop music? No. Like R&B music? No.’ I am not that. This is where I’m supposed to be. That’s why I’m still here.”