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Musicians on Musicians: Miley Cyrus & Mickey Guyton

On breaking down historic barriers — and why being the first person to do something is not enough
John Shearer/Getty Images; Vijat Mohindra/Peacock/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

W elcome to Rolling Stone’s 2021 Musicians on Musicians package, the annual franchise where two great artists come together for a free, open conversation about life and music. Each story in this year’s series will appear in our November 2021 print issue, hitting stands on November 2nd.

Even by her standards, Miley Cyrus did something unexpected when she taped her Pride Month concert special earlier this summer. Instead of enlisting her fellow pop stars on the coasts, she headed to her hometown of Nashville, in the middle of the Bible Belt, and rounded up a group of country singers unafraid to challenge the status quo. Mickey Guyton was one of them, joining Cyrus onstage at the Ryman Auditorium to deliver a musical message of love, acceptance, and gay pride.

“It was a hella crazy week in country music,” Cyrus says as she Zoom-calls Guyton from her home in L.A.

Cyrus’s duet with Guyton — a twangy version of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” — became an anthem of perseverance at the Ryman. Cyrus is kicking her way into traditionally male-dominated rock, while Guyton, who is one of very few Black women signed to a major label in Nashville, is banging on the door of a genre that has systematically tried to keep her out.

“I want to bring so many Black women into country music that country music doesn’t know what to do with it,” says Guyton, who released her debut album, Remember Her Name, in September. “I’m trying to burn this good-ol’-boy system down to the ground.”

Miley Cyrus: The most frustrating part of getting interviewed is you rarely get to actually talk about your project, especially when you are someone where what you represent could end up becoming bigger than your gifts, in a way. Because I talk about my trailblazing, my brazenness, my courageousness, my fucking freak flag that I shamelessly wave, every day. I wanted to talk mostly about your record. Tell me about it, what’s most important?

Mickey Guyton: And I really wanted to focus on giving you your flowers. The way you are to people, and your voice. Let us talk about the voice! You’re a chameleon.

Cyrus: Thank you. And that’s what I mean by focusing on your record and your sound. My dad always says, “Don’t think outside the box, because there is no box.” The conscious awareness of the box that you’re not in just keeps the box living and breathing. For me, especially being someone that’s kind of known for being controversial, when there’s a line and I cross it, I don’t even really focus on that — because now we’re focusing more on the line than the action.

Guyton: What is the line? It’s true.

Cyrus: Exactly. The line is drawn by other people.

Guyton: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over again expecting different results. And I was insane for a long freaking time, because there’s this box that women in country music are supposed to fit in, but then add on a Black woman in that box and that box is even smaller. I was given this little tiny box that was allotted to me to make some noise, but not too much noise. And it was suffocating. Just watching artists like you, like Kacey Musgraves, that unapologetically were like, “Eff you guys, this is what I’m going to do, this is what’s going to happen, and that’s it. You’re going to accept me or not.”

Cyrus: “Or not” is really important too.

Guyton: Yeah. At that point, I had absolutely nothing to lose, because I never had the acceptance of [Nashville] in the first place. I had a really honest conversation with my husband, and I asked him why country music wasn’t working for me. He said because I’m running away from everything that makes me different. He called me out so hard. It was a gut punch. I was wearing my hair and trying to dress and act like these women in country music, and it was so toxic for me. And that’s what this record is: It’s literally me just releasing all of the chains that I put upon myself. I didn’t care where this music landed. People were like, “Well, do you want it to get on country radio?” I’m like, “I’m not going to bank on something that never supported me to begin with.”

Cyrus: That’s making you very vulnerable, relying on radio or on loyalty or people doing the right thing. Never bet on anyone doing the right thing. That’s my best advice.

Guyton: Never.

Cyrus: I would always rather someone underpromise me and overdeliver, not the opposite. Because [with] radio, you’ll go play them your song, and they’re going to say, “This is so interesting, what you’re doing is amazing,” and then they’re never pushing “play.” Your relying on radio already puts you in a vulnerable position.

Guyton: Absolutely. My goal was to write music that was true to me and to write country music from a Black person’s perspective. And my country music is so different than somebody else’s. Billie Jean King told me, “Stop accepting the crumbs.” And there were barely any crumbs to even accept. When did you stop?

Cyrus: Yesterday. I’m figuring it out every day. I’m still insecure as fuck sometimes.

Guyton: Me too.

Cyrus: I’m very confident and very, very steadfast in my fate and my destiny. But I’m human too. There are still days after 15 years of doing this that I lay my head on the pillow at night and go, “What, I accepted that?” I did stand up for myself the other day at a session that was going poorly, and I felt like a billion dollars. I don’t put myself in vulnerable positions as much anymore. The most I’ll put myself in a vulnerable position is allowing myself to fall in love, because that comes with pain, and it’s worth it. But the other shit is not.

Guyton: Yes. Preach.

Cyrus: Artists at different stages of their career than I am go, “You still get bullied?” But there’s still asshole dudes. After [I played] Lollapalooza, I had an epiphany. I think not being in front of 200,000 people for a year and a half and then seeing it again, I realized my impact and my power. It’s like you don’t know what you got until it’s gone. And I had forgotten who I was.

Guyton: Your power, girl, just watching what you’ve done in your career. I remember when I started seeing this different Miley come into her power. I saw this tall model-looking girl walk across the stage with Juicy J and twerking. I was like, “What the hell?”

Cyrus: You and everybody else.

Guyton: You knocked me out. I was so upset because I was like, “How is this girl able to make her booty do that?” Your performances are fucking insane, Miley. One of my favorite quotes is by Maya Angelou, and she says that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. And you, Miley, are the epitome of all of that. And the way that you make people feel is you give people hope.

Cyrus: Thank you so much.

Guyton: I feel like what you’ve done over time and in your career — and the fact that you’re still getting people who try to bully you in the studio, which I will never get over — I just think that you are an incredibly important artist … not only as an artist, but as a vocalist. The way that you can completely change your voice to anything that you decide you want to do. Like what’s next, are you going to be a jazz singer?

Cyrus: Honestly, kind of. I can do more, I know I can. And so that’s what’s going to make me make my next record. I don’t even feel that it’s enough for me to be considered one of the best rock singers of this generation, because there’s not enough of them and I want more competition. And for you too, you don’t want to be the one female Black singer that they’ll allow in country music. Not only do I want to share my light, but I love competition. I want other people that are like me around, so I know that I deserve my place because I’m fighting for it all the time. That’s the way I think. I have no desire to be the best, because I want to get better. And you don’t want to be the best because you’re the only.

Guyton: Absolutely. Especially for me, in country music, there was Charley Pride. And then there was nobody until Darius Rucker, and then a couple of Black dudes here and there. There was Linda Martell, there was Rissi Palmer, and then there was me. I realized that in order to break any of these doors down, it is not enough for it to just be you. That will never work.

Cyrus: That was the thing about playing the Ryman with you that I thought was really important. It was about people being who they are, it was about authenticity. I’m going to be me, you are going to be you. Be yourself, wear literally anything that you feel represents you. My dad got shit on so hard in the Nineties for wearing Reeboks because if you’re a country singer, you’re supposed to wear cowboy boots.

Guyton: Well, that’s changed. Now every dude has got some Air Force 1’s and a gold chain. And cowboy boots are pretty uncomfortable.

Cyrus: When I go to an award show, I’m really bored by “That’s the good singer. That’s the one openly gay singer.” There’s just one of everyone. A lot of the time, I feel that I wasn’t put in positions because of my gifts, but because of my ratings power — which does not make me feel good — because it’s about getting people to turn on the TVs to see not what she’s going to sing but what she’s going to do. At some point I was like, “Well, if you’re all going to tune in to see what I’m going to do, I’m going to sing now.” I feel like sometimes you have to be this one texture. And that’s what you were saying, about hiding yourself.

Guyton: Absolutely.

Cyrus: You’re opening a door and you want to let people in. One is the loneliest number. We need to be stronger together. Open the door, but open the ring, too.