Back in 1992, a nine-year-old Mickey Guyton packed onto a bus with her church group to see the Texas Rangers play in Arlington. In the minutes before the game began, she watched in awe as a little girl about her age took to the field to sing the National Anthem. It was LeAnn Rimes, then just ten years old and four years shy of releasing her breakthrough album, Blue. As that voice rang out through Arlington Stadium, Guyton’s dreams came into focus: she wanted to be a singer. 

Thirty years later, Guyton is a country star in her own right, preparing to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a national stage at this year’s Super Bowl. After her history-making Grammy nomination in 2020 for her song “Black Like Me” and the release of her critically acclaimed album Remember Her Name the following year, this latest honor is all the more remarkable not just because of what a full-circle moment it is, but because of how close Guyton came to leaving it all behind. 

Read or listen to any interview with the Texas singer and the word “first” will likely make a frequent appearance. Along with “only,” it’s the word that’s often tacked onto her career milestones, and it’s nearly unavoidable when contextualizing Guyton’s experience in Nashville’s predominantly white country music scene. Being the “only” leaves you with two main options: fit in or stand out. 

For a while, Guyton chose the former. In 2011 when she signed with UMG Nashville, she became (and she still is) the only Black female artist on the label, and in an interview with Rolling Stone, she recalled trying to dress and act like her white peers. But it was deeper than that too. The country music industry has long been embroiled in debates over its racist and exclusionary history. It’s a genre so divorced from its Black roots that artists like Guyton are often treated as novelties—many of whom feel they can’t risk rocking the boat—while some of their counterparts cash in on white Southern nostalgia, referencing the Confederate South in their names, in their songs, and at their concerts

Guyton spent the better part of a decade trying to twist and contort herself into the kind of artist Nashville would embrace. She released two charting EPs and was constantly writing music that she hoped would be deemed “country enough,” but despite her best efforts, she was continually told that her voice—powerful, precise, and always with a Texas twang—leaned more toward pop. “For three or four years, I was writing songs that I loved for myself, and then writing songs that I thought my label would allow me to release,” she says. “I was ready to quit.” 

So in late February of 2020, Guyton says she was preparing for her “last hurrah.” She would take the stage at the annual Country Radio Seminar, where all of Nashville’s major labels put on events to showcase their artists. Guyton eschewed the songs UMG had suggested as potential singles and instead chose to perform a song she’d written just three weeks prior, “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?”—a raw ballad sung to devastating effect. 

It’s a song told from the perspective of someone who’s tired of fighting. And listening to it now, it’s hard not to hear Guyton addressing herself with each lyric. “Do you let her think the deck’s not stacked? / And gay or straight or white or black / You just dream and anything can happen / What are you gonna tell her when she’s wrong?” As the final note faded away, she received a standing ovation. 

Just a few weeks later, the world had effectively shut down in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and the singer finally had time to reassess her retirement. The old adage goes that country music is just “three chords and the truth,” and after a decade of trying to fit into Nashville, she realized how much of herself she’d been hiding. “Artistry is being one hundred percent yourself,” she says. “I wasn’t being an artist, I was being a pleaser, a trying-to-belong-er, I don’t know. I was suffocating myself.” 

She was sick of just trying to survive, so Guyton says she decided to try something new. A year prior, she had written “Black Like Me”—a song that flipped country music’s romanticized script of small-town life to address her experiences growing up in Texas and Nashville as a Black woman. “If you think we live in the land of the free / You should try to be Black like me / My daddy worked day and night / For an old house and a used car / Just to live that good life / It shouldn’t be twice as hard / Now I’m all grown up and nothing has changed.” The singer told the New Yorker that the song made people in Nashville “uncomfortable,” but in June 2020, just days after footage of George Floyd’s murder began to circulate online, she told her management that they needed to release the song. 

From its title to its lyrics, the ballad was a direct acknowledgement of the identity and the experiences Guyton had been trying to run from. Then pregnant with her first child, she watched the track rise up the charts, eventually making her the first Black woman to receive a Grammy nomination for Best Country Solo Performance. She didn’t just feel free, she finally felt seen. “I came from the country and I’d been living in Nashville for ten years—that was my home,” she says. “I needed people, Black women specifically, to see me here—to know that there is a space for them. So often Black women are put in a box. I wanted to show them that the box doesn’t exist.” 

The song’s success snowballed into so many opportunities—she became the first Black female artist to perform at the Academy of Country Music Awards, and the first Black woman to host the awards the following year—that it provided the impetus for her label to release her long-awaited debut album. That it took a decade after she was signed was just one indication of the challenges she’d faced, but Guyton was thrilled. “Once I let go of trying to please my label, trying to please my management, trying to please people, my real true self came out,” she says. “My music just got better and better and better. It was so easy to get in a writing session because I didn’t have any limitations on what I could and couldn’t say anymore.”

But as is often the case for women of color who dare to be vocal, Guyton’s increased visibility came with waves of online harassment. As recently as a month ago, Guyton shared a screenshot of a particularly heinous message she’d received on Twitter. “We don’t want your kind in country music!” it read. “All you people talk about is your god damn race and skin color! Don’t you effers have Rap, Hip Hop & R&B? … Get the F out of our country music!” This week, she shared another message, this one calling her “country music’s resident black woman,” suggesting that her race was the only reason she’d been chosen to perform at the Super Bowl. She captioned the screenshot, “This is what I see in my mentions on a daily basis. It never stops. But guess what. I will never stop.”

Though the messages are difficult for her to read, Guyton is intentional about sharing them. “When I get a tweet like that, I give it a platform so that people can see this stuff is being said,” she says. “I don’t think a lot of people understand what it does to me. It’s really, really hard.”

With Remember Her Name (titled in honor of Breonna Taylor), Guyton is up for awards in three categories, including Best Country Album, at this year’s Grammys. Looking back on her life just a few years ago, the star can hardly recognize herself. “I still have these internal battles constantly,” she says. “But if I could go back, I’d tell myself, ‘You’re doing the right thing. Trust your gut, and don’t ever let anybody tell you that you don’t belong because you do.’” 

She’s hopeful that the industry will change, that country’s executives and kingmakers will take stock of the wide group of voices that want to be a part of the genre. “I’m grateful that they’re starting to feature more Black artists [on the radio] and take them out on tour,” she says. “For me, mentally, it’s just taken me a minute to be okay.” 

Guyton has had to keep her upcoming Super Bowl gig quiet since October. And after months of wardrobe fittings and meetings with creative directors, and rehearsals with a choir, she can hardly contain her excitement about finally getting to share it with the world. “Our country is so divided right now that I wondered how I could perform this,” she says. “How could I make people proud and make them feel togetherness? That’s my intention, and I think what we have planned will make everyone feel seen.”