In the wake of the death of George Floyd, country music—like many American institutions—has been experiencing a reckoning and re-evaluation of certain moments in the past that are being characterized as racist or racially insensitive in a host of reports, think pieces, and social media posts from prominent individuals. But as instances and examples are dredged up from sometimes 70 years or more in the past to prove these accusations of systemic racism in country music, a situation involving current artists in the present tense excluding a black artist is unfolding, and very curiously, no explanations are being called for, no reprimand is occurring, and the media is being curiously silent on the matter.
– – – – – – – – – – – –
It was January 9th, 2019, and while talking with 91.9 WFPK ahead of a performance at the radio station’s Winter Wednesday presentation in Louisville, Kentucky, fiddle player and songwriter Amanda Shires let slip a seductive piece of information that was taken as a bombshell in country music and beyond. Amanda Shires was starting an all-female country music supergroup with Brandi Carlile.
“We’ve got a new group called the Highwomen coming up—as in exalted, not stoned. I mean I’m sure being stoned is fine depending on where you are and all of that. I’m not advocating anything, or un-advocating anything. Anyway, we’re recording it in March,” Amanda Shires said.
Shires tried to stop herself in the interview from sharing the information, playing out an internal dialogue publicly that it was probably too early to be talking about the upcoming project. She also misspoke initially, saying that Margo Price was to be part of the group, when the eventual lineup didn’t include Price, but country pop superstar Maren Morris, and renown songwriter Natalie Hemby. Shires explained how she had met Brandi Carlile on the annual Americana-themed Cayamo Cruise, and launched the idea hanging out at The Basement in Nashville.
Within hours, and without any press release or media push, the news was all over the place, with outlets running breathless stories, and fans from Americana to country and beyond salivating over the possibilities of what The Highwomen may have in store. Without even hearing a single piece of music, The Highwomen had become a phenomenon.
The group recorded their debut, self-titled album in March with producer Dave Cobb in Nashville, and made their first public appearance on April 1st at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena as part of a tribute to Loretta Lynn. This is where Natalie Hemby was officially introduced as the band’s fourth member. But from the very beginning, even during that first revelation by Amanda Shires, the principle members of The Highwomen made it known that this wasn’t just about them. It was about all the women of country music who had been systemically downgraded and overlooked in country in recent history due to the rise of Bro-Country, and the fall of representation for women on radio.
This idea of inclusivity was underscored when the foursome set out to record the video for their first single “Redesigning Women” in early July of 2019. The concept of the video was to have the four Highwomen arrive in the middle of a field on a fire truck, dressed in full firemen regalia, and after piling together items symbolic of female gender roles and domesticity, they set them ablaze, emblematically incinerating female norms and stereotypes.
Right before the bonfire ensues, a second truck shows up with a wide representation of women from country music, once again emphasizing how The Highwomen is not just about the supergroup’s principle members, but all country women. The second group included Lauren Alaina, Kassi Ashton, Cam, Lilly Hiatt, Wynonna Judd, Catie Offerman, Cassadee Pope, Erin Rae, RaeLynn, Natalie Stovall, Tanya Tucker, Anna Vaus, and Hailey Whitters.
This was a fairly wide ranging group of country music women, including a couple of legends, some performers from the mainstream, and some from the independent country/Americana realm. However what it didn’t include was any artists of color. As these women were “redesigining” what it meant to be a woman in country music, minority representation was completely left out of the recipe.
Granted, there is no reason to believe this decision was made on purpose to be exclusionary to minorities. The simple truth is that when you go looking for minority women in country music, they’re quite hard to find, which is a problem in itself, and not one The Highwomen deserve to shoulder exclusively. However there are a few black women who do make a living in country music, and one who was originally scheduled to be there. But for a still unexplained reason, she was disinvited from the video shoot last minute, even after flying across the country from Los Angeles to be a part of the production.
In the wake of the George Floyd murder and the impending riots and protests, country artist Mickey Guyton became a focal point of media coverage as one of the few black women in the mainstream of country. She was subsequently asked to write an op/ed for Billboard about her experiences in country music, and how the country music community could improve to help artists of color. In the column, the most shocking revelation was not some systemic racism she had experienced in the country genre at some point. It was how she had been excluded and snubbed by her fellow women in the genre.
“I’ve gone to all the girl parties full of wine, ring light selfie booths, white female country singers and writers talking about ongoing projects and music they are putting out,” Mickey Guyton wrote. “On one occasion, I left my ailing husband, who almost died from sepsis, in California just four days after his life-saving surgery because I had been invited to be a part of a female empowerment music video full of these same women. I arrived at the airport exhausted but excited. I checked my itinerary only to find that the entry had been deleted; I had been disinvited. The song was about supporting women in country, yet they disinvited the only charting African American woman in country music. Do they know? Don’t they see that I support them? Do they care? Do they want to see me? The answer is no. Let that sink in.”
Though Mickey Guyton didn’t name The Highwomen or the “Redesigning Women” video shoot as the offending party at the time, it soon became evident this is what she was referring to. However even though Mickey Guyton’s column was posted now over a week ago, no public explanation from The Highwomen or anyone else has been made as to why Mickey Guyton was disinvited, or what specifically happened to where she didn’t feel welcome to attend a video shoot she had flown across the country to be a part of. And if Mickey Guyton wasn’t there, why no women of color were involved.
To the credit of Maren Morris, she has addressed the situation indirectly on Twitter, and confirmed that Guyton was supposed to be part of the video shoot, but only as a response to a fan’s question, and with little detail about what happened.
“I’ve known Mickey Guyton since I moved to Nashville and she’s always had a heart of gold and a voice with such conviction,” Maren Morris first said on Twitter. “She released her single ‘Black Like Me’ recently and I hope our friends at country radio give it the air time it deserves.”
Then when Maren was asked by a fan to comment about the Mickey Guyton situation specifically, Morris responded, “We were notified of this yesterday + were completely mortified that such a giant miscommunication occurred under our watch at the shoot that day & have each reached out to Mickey privately with the utmost respect & apologies. It shouldn’t have happened & isn’t what we stand for.”
However neither Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, nor The Highwomen collectively have addressed the issue publicly, or directly. We still don’t know why Mickey Guyton felt she was “disinvited” from the shoot, whether it was the fault of “a giant miscommunication” or otherwise. If there is a simple explanation such as a logistical snafu made by a staffer, that’s fine and forgivable. But if this is the case, why haven’t they shared it? Saving Country Music has reached out to The Highwomen camp for an explanation or statement, and those requests have gone unanswered. Requests were also sent to the Mickey Guyton camp for clarification, and they’ve also not been returned.
Even just as concerning as the situation Mickey Guyton experienced is how the media seems to be giving The Highwomen and this story a pass. Billboard’s Melinda Newman is the only other journalist to cover this story, while any other perceived slight against black performers in country music is being dredged up by a wide swath of reporters and outlets in the wake of the George Floyd killing, and performers are being being commanded to pledge support for Black Lives Matter, or risk being ostracized, with a spreadsheet being circulated with the names of performers who haven’t complied.
The author of the spreadsheet, journalist and publicist Lorie Liebig, has said nothing on the matter. Nor have any of the other blue-checkmarked journalists who have created a an environment of fear and compliance surrounding thought and dialogue in country media recently, directly tied to political ideology where you will be ostracized if you do not hold prevailing views. The members of The Highwomen are marked as compliant on the spreadsheet, while artists who may have not posted a black square to social media on June 2nd’s “Blackout Tuesday,” but have collaborated with black artists or released anti-racists songs are somehow seen to be delinquent—artists such as Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Eric Church, and Garth Brooks. Brooks just released another song in the response to the George Floyd killing calling for unity and acceptance titled “We Belong To Each Other.”
Amanda Shires was one of the performers who shared the “Accountability” spreadsheet. She’s also been emphatically denouncing anyone for not speaking out for black performers. As has Maren Morris, and Brandi Carlile. Shires posted on Twitter on June 5th, “Wtf? How have I missed Mickey Guyton? Oh, because country music is a white boy club.” This means that despite all the rhetoric for inclusivity for women and minorities in country music, Amanda Shires didn’t even know who Mikey Guyton was until last week.
What makes this situation surrounding The Highwomen and the Mickey Guyton disinvitation so disturbing is that The Highwomen are regularly heralded as the top example of the type of progressive values country music needs, and are regularly praised and receive favorable press specifically for their progressive ideology. Meanwhile other performers are regularly criticized for not doing enough when it comes to addressing social issues.
Since the release of The Highwomen’s self-titled debut album on September 6th, the supergroup has become one of the most critically-acclaimed and highly-covered acts in country music. The record debuted at #1 on the country charts. The Highwomen opened the 2019 CMA Awards in November. They’ve been nominated for Group of the Year by the 2020 ACM Awards. Just this week, they were nominated in three categories for the Americana Music Awards, including Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Duo/Group of the Year. They will also be clear frontrunners for the 2021 Grammy Awards in all country and roots categories.
But does anyone question that if a similar accusation of exuding a black artist from a video shoot after they had flown across the country to participate had been made against most any other country artist it would be considered one of the biggest stories in country music at the moment? This is what happened when Lil Nas X was removed from the country charts. And unlike Lil Nas X, Mickey Guyton is country, and has been working within the genre for half a decade. When the Lil Nas X controversy was raging, one of the concerns was how the emphasis on “Old Town Road” was overshadowing artists such as Mickey Guyton. Amanda Shires had no idea who Mickey Guyton was, and neither did most of the media. Instead, Lil Nas X was portrayed as one of the only hopes to integrate the country genre, while Mickey Guyton and others mired in obscurity.
Most any other artist that isn’t The Highwomen would be ostracized, forced to make a public apology, and risk being cancelled altogether if a similar accusation had been made against them, regardless of what the explanation was, while racism would be the only real explanation in the minds of many of why the offense occurred, fair or not.
The Highwomen are not racist. They collaborated with black British singer Yola on their “Highwomen” theme song, and Yola also performed with them at Newport Folk Fest in 2019. The Highwomen don’t deserve to be cancelled over this matter. But the public does deserve a detailed explanation of what happened to Mickey Guyton, and the media should stop being complicit, and giving them a pass, while impugning other artists who’ve done much more to be inclusive, and to raise voices of color in country, and make up for the mistakes of the genre’s past.
The Highwomen are very popular for the public stances they take on social media for progressive values. But actions speak louder. And the continued silence by The Highwomen and their allies in the media speaks volumes about the hypocrisy permeating the Nashville intellectual set of journalists and performers who believe they are insulated from criticism or accountability simply because of their political beliefs.