It hits different when Mickey Guyton says "if you can see it, you can be it."
After all, Guyton ascends to heights this weekend never before seen by a Black woman in country music.
Grammy-nominated Guyton co-hosts the 56th annual ACM Awards alongside mainstay entertainer Keith Urban, becoming the first woman of color to lead the prime time network broadcast, and the first Black artist to co-host since late legend Charley Pride took the reins 35 years ago.
She steps into hosting after a year that saw Guyton reach a critical breakthrough by singing songs rich in her perspective as the foremost woman of color in a format dominated by stories from white men.
And now Guyton hopes others see her spotlight as an invitation to tell their truth in country music.
"As the world moves forward, I'm seeing so many people from all nationalities wanting to sing country music," Guyton told The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network. "Me standing on that stage with Keith Urban is going to show all of these other people that they can do it, too. And it's just so cool."
'The perfect fit'
Guyton, a 37-year-old Texas native, earns her debut hosting gig on the heels of a year that saw floodgates open for a career that should've been bursting long before now. Signed to a record deal since 2011, her label has sporadically released music with teases of a full-length album "coming soon." She earned modest attention beyond Nashville circles — including an ACM nomination in 2016 — but remained largely ostracized from widespread success.
Then, last year, Guyton lent her booming voice to a pair of singles — "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" and "Black Like Me" — that cut through with vital storytelling of her experience as a Black woman.
Terrestrial radio balked at Guyton's undeniable truth-telling; the songs barely gained rotation.
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But her music nonetheless reached underrepresented listeners hungry to feel heard in country music. "Black Like Me" — released during the height of protests against police brutality last summer — flew as high as the Grammy Awards; it earned Guyton a broadcast performance and nomination, making her the first solo Black woman in Grammys history to receive a country category nod.
"I was terrified," Guyton said of releasing the song. "And then to see it take on this life and it's still taking on life, I can't even put into words what it is. ... It has made people angry. But it's made a lot of people happy and made people feel understood and encouraged."
And a watershed moment for Guyton arguably came months before the Grammys, at the ACM Awards last September. She and Urban performed a show-stopping rendition of "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" that caught producers' attention.
After the performance, showrunners floated the idea to enlist Guyton to host, said Damon Whiteside, Academy of Country Music CEO.
"We were so, so impressed with her chemistry," Whiteside said, adding: "She just felt like the perfect fit because of her personality. We can shine a light on a future superstar."
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Urban, who played piano during the rendition despite "not being a piano player," said Guyton made him feel at ease on stage. Guyton said he returns the favor this year by reminding her to "be yourself" at the upcoming show.
"She's got a very, very collaborative heart, genuinely," Urban told The Tennessean. "I knew this was [going to] be a great experience."
'How can I help?'
Now, Guyton's voice helps illuminate a path for artists who might've previously felt left in the dark.
In a year of new heights, she said what stands out most is seeing a new class of diverse artists — such as singer Reyna Roberts and duo Kat & Alex — "shining and getting opportunities" in country music.
"To this day I get so many messages in my inbox from Black and brown girls being like, 'You're giving me the courage to want to sing country music,' " Guyton said. "And I'm like, 'Yes. How can I help?' I think that's so important."
The messages can be daunting, Guyton said. The idea she might be giving aspiring artists false hope keeps her up at night.
Instead of dwelling, though, she helps.
"I try to make sure any girl — whether they're white or Black or brown, whatever color they are — I try to check in," Guyton said. "I just wanna check in and be like, 'How're you doing? Are you feeling encouraged? How can I use a little bit of platform that I have to lift and help you?' That's all I can really do."
And Guyton sees ugliness in her inbox, too. She has received messages from some who tell her not to "ghetto up" country music, and to "take your Black a**" out of the genre.
Her worst experience may have been in February when Guyton stood her ground against systemic racism after video footage surfaced of Morgan Wallen shouting a racial slur in Nashville.
Backlash — hundreds of hate messages, she said — nearly led her to quit. She felt so devastated that getting out of bed proved challenging. Guyton entered early labor with her first son days after the incident.
In those days, Guyton said she leaned on her mother and husband for support.
"I was scared," Guyton said. "I was scared to stand up before any of these people. I was scared of what they would do. Scared of what they would say. I just have to be honest, I really thought about quitting. Why do I want to be around people that literally hate me? They were hate messages."
She continued, "It makes me teary-eyed to even think about it. I can't imagine ... if somebody said something to their family member or their daughter — that horrible — how they would feel."
'Focus on the love'
But Guyton didn't quit. She instead steps into one of the biggest moments of her career Sunday night with hopes of a reception that tells others they can be "free" in country music.
Her focus? Showcasing that "this is who I am," Guyton said. "I stand for love and acceptance and for what is right."
She continued, "There is so much more good out there than there is hate. That's what I try to focus on. Focus on the love. Standing for myself and for the industry — to push it forward."
And she'll perform "Hold On," a song from 2019 faith film "Breakthrough" that reminds listeners to "Hold on, hold on/ I'll be your hope/ I'll be your lifeline."
"It' uplifting, it's empowering," Guyton said. "It's about love and light and coming together."
A debut album
As for her album that's been "coming soon?" Listeners can expect to hear a full-length debut later this year, Guyton said.
The record follows her 2020 EP "Bridges" that featured "Black Like Me" and "... Tell Her," and she's, of course, still writing about her experience — from motherhood to therapy and quitting alcohol, plus a "fun side that is so important," Guyton said.
"I'm a Gemini so it's all over the place, but it's also so cohesive to what I've been going through in my life," Guyton said.
And, after years of tribulation, Guyton's more than ready to see her first country album on shelves. Like she said — "if you can see it, you can be it."
"I'm opening more of that window into my world," Guyton said. "It's very honest. I'll tell you that. Everything I write is very honest."
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Mickey Guyton's groundbreaking journey to host ACM Awards