DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. One of the biggest hits in country music right now is a song called "Black Like Me" by singer and songwriter Mickey Guyton. Its success is all the more notable because Guyton is a Black woman at a time when there are few people of color scoring major country hits. Rock critic Ken Tucker says Guyton's new EP called "Bridges" opens up conversations about race and gender in the context of country music and America in general.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVEN DOWN HERE")
MICKEY GUYTON: (Singing) Hey, God. It's me. I hate to be a bother, but I could use a minute or two. Yeah, I'm just so heartbroken, disappointed in the way this world is coming unglued. And I can't help but wonder, are you?
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Mickey Guyton is a 37-year-old Black woman who's been recording country music for over a decade and writing songs within the industry longer than that. But chances are you never heard of her until now because of a hit song she co-wrote called "Black Like Me." She co-wrote it over a year ago, the title inspired by her reading of the 1961 book of the same name by John Howard Griffin. But Guyton didn't release it until May of this year when, moved by the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, she posted a version of the song on her Instagram account. It caught the attention of the streaming platform Spotify, which began promoting the song, which now has millions of streams.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK LIKE ME")
GUYTON: (Singing) Little kid in a small town. I did my best just to fit in. Broke my heart on the playground when they said I was different. Oh, now - now I'm all grown up and nothing has changed. Yeah, it's still the same. It's a hard life on easy street, just white-painted picket fences far as you can see. If you think we live in the land of the free, you should try to be Black like me.
TUCKER: In the song, Guyton begins singing in a near whisper. She's confiding in you or perhaps talking to herself. Then it shifts into a billowing chorus that demonstrates her potency as a vocalist, with a voice that's easily as good as that of Nashville's current queen of bombast, Carrie Underwood. But the crucial part comes two minutes into the song, as Guyton reaches out beyond autobiography to something more universal - or at least universal among Black listeners - when she sings, I'm not the only one who feels like I don't belong.
Guyton is talking about the American Black experience of feeling like a stranger in one's own land, which is a big idea. And she's also talking about the notion of belonging in country music. She's been made to feel, until now, not worthy of a place within the industry, which is a smaller, more specific idea and one with enormous pain and power. It's in the way Guyton unites these two notions that gives "Black Like Me" its electrical charge.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK LIKE ME")
GUYTON: (Singing) No, I'm not the only one - oh, yeah - who feels like I - I don't belong. It's a hard life on easy street, just white-painted picket fences far as you can see. And if you think we live in the land of the free, you should try to be, oh, Black like me. Oh, and some day we'll all be free. And I'm proud to be, oh, Black like me. And I'm proud to be Black like me. Proud to be Black like me - Black like me.
TUCKER: Mickey Guyton's new EP "Bridges" contains a half-dozen songs. There's a lovely ballad called "Heaven Down Here" that I used at the start of this review and a novelty tune called "Rose," a comical answer to country songs by men about drinking beer and whiskey. More seriously, there's "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" - a message song to young women that reminds you that Guyton must always grapple with the double difficulty of race and gender.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT ARE YOU GONNA TELL HER?")
GUYTON: (Singing) She thinks life is fair and God hears every prayer and everyone gets their ever after. She thinks love is love and if you work hard, that's enough. Skin's just skin, and it doesn't matter. And that her friend's older brother's going to keep his hands to himself and that somebody's going to believe her when she tells. But what are you going to tell her when she's wrong? Will you just shrug and say, it's been that way all along? What are you going to tell her when she figures out that all this time you built her up just so the world could let her down? Yeah, what do you tell her? What are you going to tell her?
TUCKER: The very middle-of-the-road calmness of much of Guyton's music makes the racist denial of her entry into country music stardom until now all the more starkly obvious. If someone as assiduously by the book, commercially ambitious and extravagantly talented as Guyton cannot make it in the modern Nashville, what Black artist could? There have been a few major Black country stars, such as Charley Pride starting in the 1960s and Darius Rucker and Kane Brown today. But there have also been scores of Black country singers who've broken through only to be quickly cast aside. The industry may be paying attention to her now because of the cultural climate surrounding "Black Like Me," but the issues Mickey Guyton is raising in her songs and in the interviews she's giving are ones that pose new challenges not just to country music but to our country itself.
DAVIES: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed "Bridges," a new EP by Mickey Guyton.
On tomorrow's show, political meddling in the fight against COVID-19. Politico health reporter Dan Diamond describes efforts by a Donald Trump loyalist to alter weekly reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the course of the coronavirus pandemic. The moves prompted harsh criticism from public health experts. I hope you can join us.
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSE")
GUYTON: (Singing) Everybody's singing about whiskey. Everybody's talking about tequila. Moonshine dripping in the moonlight. Lips tasting like sangria. There's always a time for strawberry wine, but it ain't that time right now. Don't buy me a beer when I'm sitting here. Give me something that's sweet going down. Rose all day. I'm talking pretty in pink - pretty in pink. Baby, that's my kind of drink - my kind of drink. You can call it what you want... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.