Mickey Guyton’s career strategy was born of humility. After juggling college with two part-time jobs in Los Angeles, she moved to Nashville in 2011 to pursue her country music dreams — just like practically half the city’s transplants. So the fact that she scored a record deal fairly quickly out of the gate is not lost on the singer-songwriter.
“I know how lucky I am to do this,” Guyton tells Rolling Stone Country, gushing over Music City’s largely undiscovered talent pool. “Living here in Nashville and seeing the sea of amazingly talented individuals, I understand that this doesn’t happen every day. So I make it a point to put it all out there and give 100 percent of what I’ve got.”
That includes her deepest secrets. The Texas native walked into her very first Nashville songwriting session with one rule in mind: No holding back. Even though she was collaborating with total strangers that day — Jennifer Hanson and Jenn Schott — she spilled intimate details of a recent, extremely painful breakup within minutes of saying, “Nice to meet you.”
“I had my final fight with my ex-boyfriend — he was trying to come back into my life after we’d been going back and forth for about four years,” Guyton says of recounting the story to her co-writers that day. “He said to me, ‘Don’t make me find someone else.’ I couldn’t believe he would say something like that! I was charged up from that conversation.”
Guyton credits Hansen with the “aha” moment: “Jennifer said, ‘But you know what? You’re better than he left you.'” And just about a half hour later, the trio had everything but the bridge to “Better Than You Left Me,” which would then go to producer-songwriter Nathan Chapman for the finishing touches, and finally on to country radio to become Guyton’s record-breaking debut single.
With 79 country radio stations in its first week — the highest one-week add total of a country artist’s debut in Country Aircheck history, “Better Than You Left Me” was country fans’ introduction to Guyton, though the she’d been generating buzz in the industry for a while. She received a standing ovation at Universal Music Group’s 2013 Country Radio Seminar show, mesmerizing an auditorium full of radio executives who were hearing her Carrie Underwood-meets-Patsy Cline-like voice for the first time. And before country radio discovered her, President Obama did. The same year Guyton moved to Nashville, and just months after inking a deal with Capitol Records, she scored a slot on Public Television’s In Performance at the White House series, performing for the Obamas and a ballroom full of other intimidatingly powerful people.
“I don’t think I ate in four days. My stomach couldn’t even handle ginger ale,” Guyton admits of her nerves leading up to the program, on which she sang a stirring rendition of her favorite country classic, Cline’s “Crazy.” “The day of the show, I really thought there was no way I could do it. But once I got up there, I looked around the room and everybody was so warm and so happy to be there, and my nerves just kind of lifted.”
Four years later, the singer still admits losing her appetite before a big performance, such as last week’s debut on ABC’s Good Morning America. In introducing Guyton, show host Amy Robach commended her out-of-the-box success and noted that she is one of very few African-American women in country music. Never breaking her thousand-watt smile, Guyton handled the praise with poise. “I’m changing that,” she agreed, but she continued on to make another point that’s arguably as big a part of her career success story: “There needs to be more girls!”
Look at any recent “artists to watch”-type critics’ lists (including ours), and you’ll see Guyton among a sea of mostly guys. She’s one of only a handful of new female acts to score major radio airplay in the past five years, joining the elite group of Kacey Musgraves, Maddie & Tae, Ashley Monroe, Jana Kramer, Cassadee Pope, Danielle Bradbery and Kelsea Ballerini. Guyton sees the gender imbalance problem within the genre as being cyclical.
“It’s so hard because all the songwriters are writing for what’s on the charts,” she says, “and when there are no women on the charts, you are not going to really write songs for women.”
So when looking for outside cuts for her debut LP, Guyton didn’t find a whole lot of songs that suited her style. She instead tried to put her own lyrics to melodies that fit in on commercial country radio, resulting in tunes like the flirtatious “Wish You Would” and tender “Safe,” which is the song that ultimately scored her a record deal. Whether she wrote them or not, the tracks on the album will be like musical diary entries from the past seven years — what Guyton calls her “quarter life crisis.”
“It tackles the insecurities that I experienced and overcoming them,” she says. “It tackles those times where you don’t like yourself and you don’t have that person to lift you up.”
For now, the petite singer with the larger than life voice is finding that her work is a tremendous part of her support system. When asked what has surprised her most about the country music industry, Guyton answers, “That people really want you to succeed!”
“It’s just really cool, the community of artists and writers who are excited for you and give such encouragement,” she continues. “You wouldn’t necessarily see that in other genres, I’m sure. Here, if you win, they all win.”