Kristina Bumphrey/Shutterstock Mickey Guyton
Asked which country artists might hypothetically inspire her to record full-blown tribute albums, the 39-year-old country artist, who's been riding high since her 2020 breakout hit "Black Like Me," tells PEOPLE who topped her list: "It'd be LeAnn Rimes and Dolly Parton for sure — absolutely, hands down!" Guyton went on to reveal the profound influence both singers had on her own path.
Guyton has frequently shared the story of how, at 8 years old, she saw the pre-famous 10-year-old Rimes sing the National Anthem at a Texas Rangers game and was instantly inspired by the future superstar's big voice to begin performing herself, singing in church and at school talent shows. This year, 25 years after Rimes' subsequent stardom took off and shortly after Guyton's big breakthrough, the two singers would perform on CMT Crossroads, dueting on Rimes' signature hit "I Need You."
David M. Russell/CBS via Getty Mickey Guyton and LeAnn Rimes
"LeAnn Rimes has become a friend of mine, which is crazy!" says Guyton. "Because she inspired me so long ago. She's been so instrumental in my career."
"What's been so fun about getting to know her is knowing what a kind-hearted, thoughtful, caring, loving, nurturing person that she is," Guyton continued, noting that during Rimes' rise during an earlier Internet era fans had less of a direct window into their favorite stars' lives. "You didn't get the social media of LeAnn when she was coming up in her career, and I've gotten to just be on the inside of that — and she is guarded because she has gone through a lot. And when you get to know her, she is like chef's kiss of a human being. Really."
And then there's bona fide country legend Parton, whose lasting legacy also loomed large in Guyton's young life. "My grandma was a huge Dolly Parton fan," says the singer who recalled her early exposure to the larger-than-life icon while visiting her grandmother's home in rural Riesel, Texas.
"She lived in the country, so she didn't have cable, and all she had were movies, VHS tapes," Guyton recalls. "When I would go into her room to watch movies, I would look on the back of her door and there was Dolly Parton; and there was Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers duet VHS tapes." Also in the collection were many of the films Parton appeared in as an actress, including Steel Magnolias. "So that's how I fell in love with Dolly Parton, was [by] watching those tapes."
Guyton got to meet Parton for the first time in 2016, when CBS This Morning host Gayle King arranged an on-camera surprise visit from the country legend during an interview segment with the still-rising singer, who greeted Parton with squeals of shock and joy.
"I mean, I screamed, I cried — it's a whole thing," Guyton laughed at the memory. "And she's so little! Her waist is, like, that small. I'm not kidding. She made me feel really good about myself — but my waist!"
"That touches me deep," Parton told the singer during their first meeting. "I'm just happy that I've been an inspiration of some sort to you. That means so much to me, really. Seeing how [you feel], I know why I do it."
Guyton also tells PEOPLE that along with inspiring others herself, she hopes to open up doors for musical artists who want to follow in her footsteps. "I think everyone, no matter where you're from, just wants to feel like they have a safe space, and I want to create that safe space for artists when they're coming up," she explains. "No matter who they are, but especially for artists of color. I want them to feel like they have a safe space in any genre that they pursue. And that's something that has given me a lot of purpose, is being that for people."
Meanwhile, Guyton's hard at work creating new music herself, following up her 2021 smash album Remember Her Name with a forthcoming new album. "I've developed a really amazing writing relationship with Tyler Hubbard from the group Florida Georgia Line and we've been coming up with some really awesome stuff," she says. "We're going to be releasing music this summer."
She says her upcoming collection of songs will both dig into traditional country music stylings and push the boundaries of the country genre. "I'm doing a little bit of both," she says. "I think it's all about balance, and I'm doing a little bit of pushing the boundaries and I'm also staying true to what it is."