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Mickey Guyton On Navigating Country Music As A Black Woman: "My Professional Journey Has Been Very Difficult"

Mickey Guyton

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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Mickey Guyton On Navigating Country Music As A Black Woman: "My Professional Journey Has Been Very Difficult"

"The country music community can contribute to creating change by showing their fans that racism has no space in this country, as well as within the country music community," the "Black Like Me" singer tells GRAMMY.com

GRAMMYs/Jul 16, 2020 - 01:09 am

Country performer Mickey Guyton is a self-acknowledged rarity in the predominantly white, male-dominated Nashville music scene. To that end, the Texas native, who grew up loving Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston in equal measure, recently released the piano-driven "Black Like Me" on the music industry's Black Out Tuesday. The song details her experiences as a black woman working toward a life and a career in country music.

With Black Lives Matter protests being staged across the nation in response to the deaths of George FloydBreonna TaylorDavid McAtee and many other Black people at the hands of police, GRAMMY.com checked in with Guyton to get her perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, being a Black woman in country music and how the music industry at large can contribute to real change.

How would you describe our current situation?   

Our current situation feels extremely chaotic. It seems like there is so much confusion for everyone.

How do you feel we got to the current state of affairs in our country ?

I believe our country got used to complacency. We got too comfortable. What we don’t know doesn’t hurt us. But it actually hurt us a lot. We just didn’t realize it until now. 

As a Black woman in country music, how would you describe your professional journey?

My professional journey has been very difficult. It was hard trying to find my footing in a predominately white male-dominated industry. I had to really become comfortable with who I am and find my own voice and way in an industry that seemed to have a specific path that you had to follow in order to make it. 

How can the music community at large contribute to creating change?

The country music community can first contribute to creating change by showing their fans that racism has no space in this country, as well as within the country music community.

What are you doing to activate/advocate?

First, I am speaking truth in love. I am openly talking about the issues I’ve seen and experienced within the industry. I am actively advocating not only for women of color but white women in this industry as well. I am on the ACM's diversity task force working to diversify the ACM Awards. I am also mentoring young Black and brown talent. I didn’t really have a mentor in this industry coming up and I believe it is important to lift up other women even as I strive for my own success.

How are you coping?

There are good days and there are bad days. It’s hard getting constantly attacked for fighting for what is right. Because Covid-19 has us all inside, I have spent time with my husband and two cats and two dogs. I'd be lying if I said I was OK all the time. This has all been heavy. I just pray a lot. Because I have had so much down time, I have really taken the time to write as much as I can and focus on music to heal my heart and hopefully yours as well.

In your opinion, what should non-Black people be doing to support the Black community?

Support Black-owned businesses during this time. 

The COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly rocked the music industry as a whole. How has it affected you personally?

When Covid-19 first hit the U.S., I had just released a new song ["What Are You Gonna Tell Her?"]. And when the lockdown happened, all the plans for that single abruptly halted. It has honestly been pretty devastating. How do you promote music when people have lost their jobs or don’t know how they are going to buy food? It just doesn’t seem right. There doesn’t seem to be any end in sight and there are still so many unanswered questions. I’m also asthmatic, so I’m honestly really scared. I’m not always OK, as I’m sure most people aren’t really OK. 

What has this moment taught you?  

This moment has taught me that family and human relationships are the most important, tangible thing that we have and we should cherish that with all of our hearts. 

Moments like this can be a springboard for creativity or innovation. Has that been your experience?  

Actually, it has been my experience. I have gotten more done and made more progress stuck in my home, than the eight years I spent living in Nashville full-time. I guess I have been so afraid of being left behind that I have worked that much harder to establish my place here in the industry.

Want To Support Protesters And Black Lives Matter Groups? Here’s How

Fight The Power: 11 Powerful Protest Songs Advocating For Racial Justice

Photo: Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

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Fight The Power: 11 Powerful Protest Songs Advocating For Racial Justice

From Childish Gambino's "This Is America" to James Brown's "Say It Loud," these racial justice protest anthems demonstrate the ongoing—and still deeply relevant—sound of activism

GRAMMYs/Jun 19, 2020 - 08:00 pm

From the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to the streets of Ferguson, activism certainly has a sound. Whether it’s the slow hum of Pete Seeger's "We Shall Overcome" or the energetic repetition of YG’s "FTP," when the chants of freedom slow, we often hear an emotional outcry about political issues through music. The current state of unrest in the United States surrounding the violent treatment of Black people and people of color at the hands of police has caused a resurgence of music addressing the current state of affairs directly in lyrics and tone.

As we celebrate Juneteenth (not to mention Black Music Month), a date that signifies liberation for African American people as Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, TX that the enslaved people there were free in 1865, we have to recognize the importance of music when it comes to freedom, protest, survival and celebration in Black culture. 

Music has always been deeply rooted in African culture. It only continued after men and women were captured and enslaved in the U.S through the Middle Passage. For slaves, it was a form of communication and later became so much more. That tradition of music has continued over centuries as each new movement—specifically involving the fight for self-love, equality, and fair treatment for Black Americans—creates its own soundtrack.

2020 will see its own host of songs that highlight the times, from Meek Mill’s "The Otherside of America" to H.E.R.'s "I Can’t Breathe," which she recently premiered in her performance for IHeartRadio’s Living Room Concert Series. But before this moment, there were a few of the songs that have been at the center of protest, revolution, and radical political change over the years.

"Say It Loud," James Brown (1968)

Being proud to be Black was almost a foreign concept commercially during this time and James Brown took the lead on empowering Black people all across the world. "Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud," became an affirmation recited far and wide specifically in such a turbulent year as 1968. This was at the height of the Civil Rights movement and the same year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.


 

"Comment #1," Gil Scott-Heron (1970)

A poem featured on his debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, Heron was challenging the white left-wing student movement. In his estimation, there was no common ground based on what Black people had endured for centuries that college-educated students from the suburbs would understand. The song was later sampled by Kanye West in "Lost In The World" featuring Bon Iver.


 

"What’s Going On," Marvin Gaye (1971)

Based on the real-life experience of Gaye’s brother who returned from Vietnam with a much different outlook on life, this song asked what was happening in America. This was a turbulent time where Black soldiers were not receiving the same benefits as their white GI counterparts when returning home from the same fight. And much like Scott-Heron, Gaye was exploring the hippie era clash that, to many Black people, didn’t have a real grasp on poverty and systematic racism plaguing the community.


 

"Fk Tha Police," N.W.A. (1988)

A song met with much discourse including the arrest of N.W.A. members in Detroit during a 1989 tour stop. The group was apprehended following their show after being told by the DPD not to play the song in their set. Unfortunately, not much has changed and streams have skyrocketed amidst global protests for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor more than 20 years later


 

"Fight The Power," Public Enemy (1989)

The song originally appeared in Spike Lee's "Do The Right" thing, which explored racial tension in a Brooklyn neighborhood and would become Public Enemy’s most popular song to date. Later released on their album Fear of a Black Planet, the song was received with high acclaim including a GRAMMY nomination for Best Rap Performance.


 

"Changes," 2Pac featuring Talent (1998)

2Pac was seen as both an activist and a young man wise beyond his years, though his career was also marred by controversy and rap beefs. Songs like "Changes" are more representative of the former. Here, Pac was chronicling the fact that things have been the same in Black communities over the years. When listening back, you can hear how poignant his words were over 20 years later.


 

"Glory," John Legend and Common (2014)

The Oscar-winning song from the original motion picture soundtrack to "Selma" directed by Ava Duvernay came at the epicenter of the country’s most recent unrest. Two years after the death of Trayvon Martin, the song was the perfect bridge from the Civil Rights movement of the '60s depicted in the film into today's current fight for equality. 


 

"Alright," Kendrick Lamar (2015)

To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar’s sophomore release, was a sharp contrast to the cinematic good kid, m.A.A.d. City but yielded the freedom song of a generation. Crowds at protests and university auditoriums across the country erupted into the song's potent lyrics, "But if God got us then we gon be alright!" The GRAMMY-winning song became the unofficial anthem to the Black Lives Matter movement after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mich., and Sandra Bland in Waller County, TX at the hands of police.  


 

"F.U.B.U.," Solange (2016)

A nod to the 90s hip hop apparel company, the acronym stands for For Us, By Us. The song appeared on her third studio album A Seat at the Table, her most critically acclaimed and political album to date. Both the song and album highlight Black entrepreneurship, culture, and trauma.


 

"Freedom," Beyoncé ft. Kendrick Lamar (2016)

This hard-hitting track samples "Let Me Try" by Frank Tirado and comes as a reprieve in the album sequencing but packs a powerful message. The ending also features audio from Jay-Z’s grandmother Hattie White. At her 90th birthday party she explains, "I was served lemons, but I made lemonade"—apropos in the discussion of the American Black experience.


 

"This is America," Childish Gambino (2018)

Accompanied by a captivating visual directed by Hiro Murai that paired dancing with African influence, and violent yet thought-provoking imagery, Gambino's effort made everyone pay attention. The song garnered the multi-disciplined artist a GRAMMY for "Song Of The Year," and his first No. 1 single while leaving both critics and fans alike in deep conversations about its political symbolism.

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'Her Country' Author Marissa R. Moss Reckons With Country Music's Gender Inequalities Through Three Of Its Biggest Female Stars
Kacey Musgraves

Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images

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'Her Country' Author Marissa R. Moss Reckons With Country Music's Gender Inequalities Through Three Of Its Biggest Female Stars

The journalist offers an in-depth look at her new book, 'Her Country' — which features Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris and Mickey Guyton — and details why it's more important than ever to give women artists a voice.

GRAMMYs/May 17, 2022 - 06:19 pm

After a decade immersed in Nashville's country music scene, Marissa R. Moss has seen firsthand how pervasive gender inequalities affect female artists from all corners of the genre. Now, she's helping take control of the narrative — literally — with her new book, Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be.

Moss follows the trajectories of Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris and Mickey Guyton as touch points for country's current climate, as all three have navigated the choppy waters of radio bias and helped broaden the genre's limitations. Looking back at the '90s — an era where, at least from the outside, country radio seemed dominated by women like Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire — provides context to the narrative, but Her Country is powerfully of-the-moment. 

As Moss suggests, country music is, and always has been, a lens through which to examine broader cultural narratives in the U.S. at large. "To be able to weave in some cultural and political narratives — which, in my opinion, you always should, because you can't remove them from these conversations — that made [the book] extra timely," she tells GRAMMY.com.

Guyton saw her star rise after she released 2020's "Black Like Me," which chronicles her experience as a Black woman in America and in country music. Later that year, Morris delivered "Better Than We Found It," her reflection on the importance of making the world a more equal, welcoming place. (Both songs earned GRAMMY nominations, Guyton in 2021 and Morris in 2022.) Musgraves has long weaved advocacy for equality and acceptance into her musical narrative, with her 2013 hit "Follow Your Arrow" and Golden Hour single "Rainbow" becoming unofficial LGBTQ anthems. 

While the Her Country women are at the forefront of purveying change in the genre, they're not alone. Countless artists spoke out against racial injustice after the death of George Floyd in May 2020; a month later, the Chicks dropped "Dixie" from their name as a move toward equality. The women of country have publicly supported each other, too, from Carrie Underwood's all-female roster on her 2019 Cry Pretty 360 Tour to Jennifer Nettles' 2019 CMA cape that read "Play Our F*@#!N Records, Please & Thank You." 

Still, the lack of women representation within the format remains. As Moss highlights in Her Country, women make up only 16% of country radio airplay — a far cry from the heyday of the '90s. But that percentage doesn't square with the crowds they've commanded, or the diverse (and fiercely loyal) fan bases they've amassed.

To help understand the genre's complicated, often divisive trajectory toward equality and change — and to offer a look towards where it's going next — Moss discusses the themes and discoveries behind Her Country.

Moss will be moderating An Evening With LeAnn Rimes, the opening program of GRAMMY Museum’s The Power Of Women In Country Music exhibit, on May 31. The event will be held at the Clive Davis Theater in Los Angeles starting at 7:30 p.m. PT. For tickets and more information, click here.

Thinking about the current state of country music, or the broader cultural climate of the U.S., what made the topic of this book a pressing conversation for right now?

It was one of those things that was so obvious to me that I hadn't even quite necessarily thought, "I should write this book." And that's how so many really important things are. You think everyone knows these big stories, but basically, that wasn't the case. The radio charts show one story of the genre, but I knew that wasn't gonna be the story that I know, or the story I wanted to tell — [the story] that felt important to document.

If you view country music as a microcosm of what's going on in our country at any given moment right now, in so many ways, that made it extra interesting. To be able to weave in some cultural and political narratives — which, in my opinion, you always should, because you can't remove them from these conversations. To look at country music and our country's narrative at the same time — that made it extra timely. 

The three focal points in Her Country are Kacey Musgraves, Mickey Guyton and Maren Morris — three artists whose careers are still relatively young, compared to '90s-era female country stars, or even current veterans Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood. What did it feel like writing about these women in real time, as important moments in their careers were unfolding?

You can read entire books about Miranda and Carrie, and that could have been one route. Or you could have chosen Shania or Reba — really, whoever — but I wanted women who were a couple of albums in each, but had been following this career since they were teeny tiny kids. 

Obviously, Carrie and Miranda are still very much of the moment, and make modern albums, but to some degree they've moved into a little bit of a legacy status, at this point. I wanted to look at women who were right in that moment of everything exploding and unfolding. That was the best way to tell the story that I thought was important to tell. 

Did you ever write a section and then have to later revisit it because a major development had happened in an artist's career?

Yeah, especially for Mickey. That was really challenging. I chose to end the book as their current albums were coming out, and leave the next phase up in the air, a little bit. Otherwise you could keep writing forever and the book would never end! 

So much of what was happening was happening in real time. And at the same time, it was COVID, so I couldn't be out on the road. I was at my house giving virtual school to my two kids under seven. It was a very interesting period, because history was happening as I was writing it.  But I was also writing in a very different way than I thought I would be before COVID, because I was stuck at home and I couldn't, like, pick up and move to Texas for a month. So it was all very different than I imagined, but for the best in some ways — just not the COVID part.

Read More: 5 Women Essential To Country Music: Dolly Parton, Mickey Guyton, Jo Walker-Meador, The Love Junkies & Mother Maybelle Carter

Did the research you did for this book shift your perspective on your subject matter?

It never stopped amazing me — as I dug back into the story of Mickey and Kacey and Maren — how truly, they were on this path from so early. People say "I've wanted to do this since I was a kid," but, you know, Maren was playing in honky tonks at, like, 11. And then on the flip side, reading back about the Chicks, and even old Kacey stuff, I found so many new things to make me mad, make me angry. Early coverage of Mickey, and the way she was written about. There was never a shortage of that, either. 

There's no shortage of things to get angry about in country music's recent history, either. Maren talking about her feelings on the Morgan Wallen scandal in early 2021 is a particularly powerful passage.

I even feel that, and I'm just a regular person, not a famous musician. I had times where I just felt so discouraged, and disappointed and angry. But, you know, as Maren said, you're not going to make a difference by leaving. 

I think that applies to so many things. It's a powerful idea in politics, even here in Tennessee, where politically, it feels unsafe for a lot of people — more so than before. Sometimes I wake up and I'm like, "Okay, I can't stay here." But then I understand that that's a huge privilege, and there's a lot more that can be done by staying and making a better place for people who don't have the privileges you do.

One thing that makes me hopeful about the genre is how tirelessly Mickey has worked to help carve out a space for Black artists in the genre, and how artists like Breland, Brittney Spencer, Blanco Brown, Amethyst Kiah and so many others are finding a home in the genre over the past couple of years. What makes you hopeful about country music right now?

That's so true. And those artists were always there, but they either were not supported or not heard. There's a lot of inspiring things going on with Black Opry, and amazing coalitions of artists creating their own spaces. 

At the same time, I go back and forth. I see-saw between inspiration and desolation. Both of those things exist. It's hopeful and it's inspiring, but it's not candy-coated — and it couldn't be, because that's not the truth. 

What grounds me is just listening to music. I know it sounds so simple. And being reminded of how much I love it and how much good music is out there, and how much more good music is going to have an opportunity to get to your ears now. 

Read More: 5 Takeaways From Miranda Lambert's 'Palomino'

What music have you found most grounding recently?

I've spent a lot of time with the new Leyla McCalla album, which I think is really brilliant. Miranda [Lambert]'s new album is great. I love Maren's new record — not to shill the women I'm writing about! [Laughs.]

I love Morgan Wade. A lot of times I go back to the favorites: Tyler Childers' Purgatory, [Sturgill Simpson]'s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and [Margo Price]'s Midwestern Farmer's Daughter. Kelsey Waldon. I listen to [her album, White Noise/White Lines] in my car, in the CD player. I never took it out because it never got old.

In the dedication for your book, you write "For anyone who needs to be reminded that it's your country music, too." Did you have any particular type of reader in mind when you were writing Her Country?

Over the years, as someone who you wouldn't think would be a country fan on paper, I guess — a Jewish kid growing up in New York — I've met a lot of people who fall into the category of being a country fan who you wouldn't stereotypically assume is a country fan. And then you realize that person doesn't exist. There's not just one [kind of] person who has a right to listen to country music. 

I feel weird saying that, because the artists are really the ones doing the work — it goes an especially long way with Mickey, Kacey or Maren, with their fans saying they had never felt welcomed in the genre until they started listening to Kacey Musgraves. And then that opened up a different world to them. Or Black artists who hadn't seen a Black woman country artist at an awards show in modern times — until they saw Mickey, and that opened up a new world to them. Those are the fans that I hope will feel welcomed back in, or welcomed in for the first time, through a lot of these stories. 

You describe yourself as the country fan who people might not assume is a country fan — who made you feel that country music was your genre?

I got into country music in a funny way. I was listening to the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan, but my dad lived in Texas for a while and loved country radio. At the time I was a young kid with, you know, opinions — anything that your parents did was not cool. I didn't appreciate the '90s country thing, in the back of the car. But it must've gotten through there somehow. 

I moved to Nashville in 2011, 2012. I was listening to country music before then, obviously, but I really fell in love with what was going on at the time. Caitlin Rose, Nikki Lane and Andrew Combs — all of their first records were hitting around that time. And I really fell in love with Jason Isbell. The way that they were interpreting country music and celebrating it in this different way — that still felt very traditional, but spoke to me directly — is part of the reason that I fell so hard for Nashville when I moved here. That was the soundtrack to what was happening back then. And I just loved it.

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2021 In Review: 8 Trends That Defined Country Music

Kacey Musgraves

Photo: John Shearer/MTV VMAs 2021/Getty Images for MTV/ViacomCBS

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2021 In Review: 8 Trends That Defined Country Music

Powerful narratives fueled country music in 2021, between vulnerable heartbreak-driven albums, Nashville veterans getting their spotlight, and Black voices finally being heard

GRAMMYs/Dec 23, 2021 - 07:10 pm

The genre known for three chords and the truth reached new heights of authenticity and storytelling in 2021. After a year of doubt, confusion and isolation in 2020, many country artists returned to the road and their careers with rejuvenated passion, releasing some of their most ambitious projects to date.

Grassroots ways of finding success emerged, with several artists — both established and up-and-coming — unlocking whole new fan bases thanks to social media. The result? Some unlikely hits made it up to the very top of the country radio charts, artists were able to release more music than ever before, and unprecedented cross-genre collaborations came out of quarantine connections.

Read on to learn more about some of the trends, both musical and cultural, that dominated country music in 2021.

Double and Triple Albums

During their pandemic-induced time off the road, many artists found that the one thing they could still do was write songs. By 2021, the plethora of music created in those sessions was recorded and ready for release, resulting in longer track lists and beefier projects.

One such trendsetter was Eric Church, who released a massive, 24-track Heart & Soul album spread out over three discs. Morgan Wallen dropped his 30-track — or 33-track, if you're counting the Target-exclusive and bonus editions — Dangerous: The Double Album in January. The latter made history, becoming the first country album to spend its first 10 weeks at No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard 200; it also spent 43 weeks in the chart's top 10, more than any other album in 2021. (Amid the album’s success, Wallen sparked major controversy when a video surfaced of the singer using a racial slur. He issued an apology and claimed to make donations to Black-led groups, but was promptly shut out from country radio and streaming services, as well as several events and awards shows.)

Thomas Rhett and Jason Aldean also created multiple albums worth of music in 2021. Rhett released Country Again: Side A in April, announcing in November that Side B will arrive in fall 2022 following another album, titled Where We Started, which the star revealed will be out in "early 2022." Aldean had a similar release strategy, dropping Macon, the first half of his double album Macon, Georgia, in November and setting Georgia for April 22, 2022.

Success Stories Years in the Making

Longtime B-Listers finally got their country radio propers in 2021, due to ever-increasing opportunities for artists to create grassroots hits on social media. Walker Hayes' ubiquitous "Fancy Like" went viral on TikTok (particularly thanks to a family-friendly dance craze) and became a No. 1 hit on both Billboard's Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs charts. The song gave the singer — who moved to Nashville in 2005 — his first crossover hit, getting airplay on pop radio and climbing all the way to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Parmalee also took country radio by surprise this year. The band hadn't had a No. 1 since 2013, and their two most recent singles fizzled without ever cracking the charts. But "Just the Way," an unlikely team-up with "The Git Up" star Blanco Brown, saw them cruising back into the top spot.

One more success story came from Lainey Wilson, another Nashville veteran who got her big break with the insightful hit "Things a Man Oughta Know." The song became her first No. 1 on country radio after nearly 10 years of releasing music. Her latest single, a collaboration with resident chart-topper Cole Swindell titled "Never Say Never," is currently climbing the charts.

Classic Hits Found New Life on TikTok

While TikTok was instrumental in creating new hits such as "Fancy Like" in 2021, it was also responsible for revitalizing a few old ones. Reba McEntire's 2001 hit, "I'm a Survivor" went viral thanks to a TikTok spoof trend, with users setting the song to video footage of themselves melodramatically doing everyday chores. McEntire herself got in on the fun, posting a clip of her attempt to feed a pair of ungrateful donkeys.

Shania Twain also reached brand-new audiences with her TikTok presence. She posts snippets of iconic selections from her discography, as well as her hilarious commentary on French fries, sneak peeks at her Las Vegas residency, and the occasional trend trade-off with Taylor Swift.

Career-Defining Divorce Albums

Breakups aren't exactly a new topic for country, but some country artists have gone through very public heartbreaks over the past couple of years. Carly Pearce split from fellow artist Michael Ray after just eight months of marriage, and Kacey Musgraves called it quits with her husband of two years, singer/songwriter Ruston Kelly.

But rather than go through these difficult times privately, both Pearce and Musgraves spun their heartache into gold, with each singer putting out her most revealing, personal and intricately-crafted record to date. Pearce leaned heavily into her country roots to make 29: Written in Stone, while Musgraves expertly defied genre boundaries to release star-crossed, a project so vulnerable that she performed one of its songs on Saturday Night Live wearing nothing but a strategically placed acoustic guitar.

Black Country Stars Broke Through

After the country world said goodbye to the legendary Charley Pride in December 2020, his trailblazing legacy lived on in 2021. Black country stars made waves in several ways this year, from winning awards, to launching business ventures, to making statements on stage and in song.

Hitmakers Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen — the latter of whom is the only country artist up for Best New Artist at the 2022 GRAMMYS — made history with their wins at the ACM Awards (Brown was the first Black artist to win Video of the Year; Allen was the first Black solo artist to win the New Male Artist of the Year). Both of them started their own businesses in 2021 as well: Brown started his own label, 1021 Entertainment (in partnership with his home label, Sony Music Nashville), and Allen launched both a publishing company, Bettie James Music Publishing, and a full-service management and production company, JAB Entertainment.

Mickey Guyton, who first caught attention outside of the genre for her GRAMMY-nominated single "Black Like Me" last year, continued making an impact with her powerful album, Remember Her Name. The album features several vignettes of her experience as a Black woman, including a bouncy anthem "Different" and a poignant ballad "Love My Hair." She delivered a moving performance of the latter track at the 2021 CMA Awards alongside rising stars Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards, two of the many promising Black voices in the genre, which also includes Yola, Breland, Willie Jones, and Shy Carter, among others.

Artists Lived Their Truth

Amid the challenges country music faced this year, there were also moments of personal authenticity and joy. Brothers Osborne's TJ Osborne came out as gay in a Time feature, and the sibling duo subsequently released "Younger Me," a compassionate, timely ode to the obstacles they overcame to become who they are today.

Osborne was one of two country acts signed to a major label to come out as gay: The other was Brooke Eden, who came out in January, and later in the year got engaged to her partner Hilary Hoover. She put out the first new songs she’d released in years, and in a Grand Ole Opry performance, she and Trisha Yearwood duetted on Yearwood's classic "She's in Love With the Boy," changing the lyrics to "She’s in love with the girl."

Eden and Osborne are two of a very small — but growing — list of publicly gay country music major players, also including hit songwriter Shane McAnally and Americana star Brandi Carlile.

Dolly Parton Retained Her Reign as Country Queen

Dolly Parton was a major bright spot in the dark year that was 2020. Not only did she lift spirits by releasing her third Christmas album, A Holly Dolly Christmas, but she also made a $1 million donation to fund the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

It’s hard to top that, but this year, Parton continued to trend for her uplifting acts of kindness and legendary musical feats. She sent social media into a frenzy when she celebrated "hot girl summer" — and the birthday of her husband of 57 years, Carl Dean — by recreating the iconic outfit she wore for her Playboy cover shoot back in 1978. She also duetted with Reba McEntire for the first time, landed on the list of Forbes' richest self-made women, and capped off 2021 by setting two brand-new Guinness World Records (and breaking a third record that she already held) for her long-standing chart accomplishments.

Full-Length Collaborations Albums

What’s better than one duet? An album full of them, apparently. Collaborations were hot in country music in 2021, but lots of artists took that one step further, putting out full-length projects featuring a cast of duet partners.

The Hardy-curated Hixtape Vol. 2 dug deep into country lifestyle and party songs, courtesy of some of the biggest names from every corner of the genre. Brantley Gilbert, Brothers Osborne, Jon Pardi, Dierks Bentley and Jake Owen are just a few of the acts who lent their voices to the track list, which features a total of 33 guest artists across 14 songs.

While the Hixtape went ultra-country, other duets albums were genre-spanning. Rapper Nelly put out his Heartland project, featuring Darius Rucker, Breland and Florida Georgia Line. Jimmie Allen went even broader for his Bettie James Gold Edition, which featured everyone from rapper Pitbull to R&B/soul singer Monica and pop star Noah Cyrus.

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5 Women Essential To Country Music: Dolly Parton, Mickey Guyton, Jo Walker-Meador, The Love Junkies & Mother Maybelle Carter
(L-R) Jo Walker Meador, The Love Junkies, "Mother" Maybelle Carter, Dolly Parton, Mickey Guyton

Source Photos (L-R): Rick Diamond/Getty Images; Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage; GAB Archive/Redferns; Terry Wyatt/Getty Images; Erika Goldring/Getty Images for CMT

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5 Women Essential To Country Music: Dolly Parton, Mickey Guyton, Jo Walker-Meador, The Love Junkies & Mother Maybelle Carter

In honor of Women’s History Month, GRAMMY.com highlights some of the pioneering women who have changed the sounds, structure and look of country music — and how their contributions are finally moving the needle

GRAMMYs/Mar 10, 2022 - 08:08 pm

Commercially, country music can appear to be a male-dominated genre. Trends like "bro-country" and controversies like 2015's "Tomato-gate" painted a picture of a format with women as rare outliers amid a sea of male voices and perspectives.

Though the gender imbalance on radio and in festival lineups remains glaring, women in the genre have flourished and diversified in recent years. Artists like Carly Pearce, Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini have found a variety of paths to the top of their fields, both with and without the support of country radio. 

But women's position as change-makers in country music is not a new phenomenon. From its earliest iteration, country music has seen the impact of powerful female figures who helped lay the groundwork for the positive change we're seeing today. 

Through the years, the artists who push country music's boundaries, braid it with other genres, or reimagine what a country song can look like have often been women. And it's not just the women on stage who are changing the game: Country music has also benefited from women visionaries behind the scenes, who helped establish some of Music City's most beloved traditions and wrote some of its most canonical songs. 

In honor of Women's History Month, GRAMMY.com highlights some of country music's pioneering women who have left — and continue to leave — their mark on the genre. 

"Mother" Maybelle Carter: Carter Family matriarch who invented the "Carter scratch" and became known as the "Mother of Country Music"

A member of the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame, the late "Mother" Maybelle Carter is best known as the matriarch of country music's renowned Carter Family.

Born Maybelle Addington, she was already a skilled guitarist by age 12. At age 18, she and her husband E.J. Carter began performing as the Carter Family. In various iterations, the family band won recognition through the 1940s and '50s. A mother of three daughters, Carter's middle child, June, became a star in her own right with her husband Johnny Cash; together, they became one of the best-loved country duos of the '60s and beyond.

Early in her career, Maybelle Carter achieved acclaim for her patented "Carter Scratch" guitar style, a method which used the guitar to create multiple instrumental lines at once, instead of using it solely as a rhythm instrument. Earl Scruggs, Chet Akins and Johnny Cash all emulated her finger-picking style.  

Until her death in 1978, Carter was an active living legend in country music. More than four decades later, her songs like "Wabash Cannonball" and "Wildwood Flower" have become classics of the genre. 

Dolly Parton: A seven-decade country veteran who broke boundaries with empowering lyrics and a feminist mentality

Born the fourth of 12 children to a poor farming family in rural Tennessee, Dolly Parton showed musical promise from an early age. After graduating from high school and moving to Nashville, she landed a slot as the "girl singer" on country star Porter Wagoner's variety show — a role that eventually resulted in her iconic hit "I Will Always Love You," which she wrote as a farewell to Wagoner upon embarking on a solo career.

In the years since, Parton has become one of country music's most prolific veterans and beloved stars. In addition to releasing 50 studio albums — many of which she wrote almost entirely on her own — Parton has won numerous awards (including 10 GRAMMYs) and holds the record for most No. 1 hits on the U.S. Hot Country Songs chart by a female artist with 25. 

Along with those country hits, Parton's crossover into pop radio with songs like "Jolene" and "Here You Come Again" was historic for her time, inspiring genre-bending country artists such as Shania Twain, Taylor Swift, Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves, and a slew of others. 

Her impact has spanned far beyond the genre, too. Parton has starred in several films, earning Golden Globe nominations for her acting in 9 To 5 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. (She also received Best Original Song nods at both the Oscars and Golden Globes for 9 To 5 and Transamerica.) 

What's more, Parton has proven to be one of country's most powerful businesswomen thanks to her entertainment venture, The Dollywood Company. She's also one of the genre's most giving artists: Parton has founded a number of charitable and philanthropic organizations, including the Dollywood Foundation, which aids poverty and education in her hometown in east Tennessee. She has also made considerable contributions to various causes, including $1 million to fund research for the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and $700,000 to help Tennessee flood victims in 2021.

At 76 years old, Parton's popularity today is as fervent as ever. She remains a pillar of traditional country music, and is a member of the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. 

Jo Walker-Meador: Country Music Association's longest-serving executive director 

Visionary music executive Jo Walker-Meador helped transform Nashville from a mid-size music hub into the capital of country music. She served as the executive director of the Country Music Association from 1962 to 1991, the organization's longest-standing director.

A year before she assumed office, the CMA had created the Country Music Hall of Fame, and Walker-Meador helped build and expand the Hall through a national fundraising campaign. The initiative also helped establish the CMA's annual country music awards show, the CMA Awards. 

Another program that flourished under her tenure was Fan Fair, a festival that launched in 1972 and is now known as the CMA Music Festival. Though she retired in the early '90s, Walker-Meador remained closely involved in the music business, serving as a mentor for young music scholars who were assembling books about Nashville, the music industry and the CMA. She became a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame in '95, and died in 2017. 

The Love Junkies: A songwriting team who together (and separately) have written many of the genre's beloved songs

Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and Lori McKenna — collectively known as songwriter trio the Love Junkies — have together (and separately) written some of country music's greatest modern hits. As a team, they've written for and with stars like Miranda Lambert and Lady A. One of their most notable contributions is Little Big Town's "Girl Crush," a chart-topping hit that won two GRAMMY Awards (including Best Country Song) in 2016.

Independently, the three women are also influential Nashville songwriters: Lori McKenna penned Tim McGraw's CMA Song of the Year-winning "Humble and Kind"; Liz Rose is a co-writer on 17 of Taylor Swift's songs, including "You Belong With Me," "All Too Well" and "Teardrops on My Guitar"; and Lindsey is known as the pen behind Carrie Underwood's GRAMMY-winning "Jesus, Take the Wheel."

Mickey Guyton: A rising star who fights for equal representation in country

An artist who toiled at the fringes of the Nashville music community for years before ever seeing major recognition, Mickey Guyton finally saw her star rise in 2020 when she began to release songs that detailed her experience as a Black woman in country music and in America.

Inspired in part by the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd, Guyton released "Black Like Me" in 2020. The GRAMMY-nominated song was featured on Guyton's powerful debut album, 2021's Remember Her Name, which features several tracks that speak specifically to her experience as a Black woman in country music and in the world at large. 

As Guyton's profile grew, her message-forward music — including the thought-provoking "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" and the bouncy anthem "Different" — began to spur a conversation about the dramatic lack of representation of Black and other minorities in the format. She gave a moving performance of her Remember Her Name track "Love My Hair" at the 2021 CMA Awards, where she was joined onstage by two more rising stars, Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards. 

Guyton's growing presence in the country world has opened up doors for a host of new Black voices, like Spencer and Edwards, as well as Breland and Blanco Brown. She received nominations in three of the four country categories at the 2022 Grammy Awards, including Best Country Album for Remember Her Name.

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