Ten years after signing with her label, the "Black Like Me" singer finds her voice and her moment — all while finding new purpose as a mom to 7-month-old Grayson

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For far too many years in her career, Mickey Guyton confesses, she just grew used to hearing the word "no." Now, though, she has a different problem. She's having to get used to hearing the word "yes" — and she's being told yes a lot these days.

"I've been waiting for the catch for over a year now, and there hasn't been a catch," she tells PEOPLE. "It's a mind-frame that I really am trying to work on getting out of." But mostly, the 37-year-old artist adds, "I am just so grateful."

She has so many yeses to be grateful for. So far in 2021, she's celebrated a CMA nomination for new artist, a Grammy nomination for best country solo performance, high-profile appearances on the Grammys, the CMT awards, and as ACM awards co-host with Keith Urban — and on Thursday, CMT announced she will receive the breakout artist of the year award on Oct. 13.

mickey guyton
Mickey Guyton's Remember Her Name
| Credit: Bonnie Nichols

But without a doubt at the top of that yes list is the release, on Friday, of her debut album, Remember Her Name. Perhaps no project in country music history has been more "long anticipated." Indeed, it's taken Guyton 10 years since signing with her label to issue a full-length album.

What took so long? By now, her story of struggle as a Black female artist in an overwhelmingly white male genre is well known. Over and over again, she says, she felt prodded to suppress her differences and conform to conventions. "I was just in this freakin' hamster wheel, trying to write what I was thinking they wanted from me," Guyton says. "It was never gonna happen."

Weary and self-destructing, she finally reached a crossroads three years ago: quit or do things different. Feeling she had nothing left to lose, she chose the latter route and began writing songs just for herself. "I didn't think of the consequences," she says. "I didn't think of where these songs are going to land. I honestly didn't think I was going to ever release any music anyway. I started shifting to just being honest about where I was."

Perhaps her first inkling that she'd made the right decision occurred during the 2020 Country Radio Seminar, a national industry event held in Nashville, when she set the Ryman Auditorium stage afire with "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" her searing commentary on the realities of being female in a world run mostly by men. By song's end, the industry professionals who regularly put beer and truck songs at the top of the charts were on their feet, cheering.

"I knew something was different," Guyton says.

mickey guyton
Mickey Guyton
| Credit: Bonnie Nichols

Four months later, she felt emboldened to post a snippet of "Black Like Me," a frank — and overtly racial — anthem, on her Twitter account during the spike in deadly violence occurring against Black people. Within days, Guyton's label, Capitol Records, released the song as a single (with no hype, at Guyton's request), and it immediately rose to the top of Spotify's Hot Country List. More streaming services followed suit, and so did plenty of critical praise.

Almost overnight, Guyton was finding her moment. "I finally came into myself," she says, "and finally stood up for myself." It was her good fortune that the moment was coinciding with a confluence of current events — the heightened social awareness of racial and gender inequalities, the ever-widening boundaries of country music, and the growing list of Black country artists now beating down Nashville's door.

"I truly feel that people have been wanting this change," says Guyton. "I feel like that includes the industry, as well, and it feels incredibly good. It's not enough for just one black person to make it every 10, 25, 30, 40 years. It has to be consistently. The same with women in country music."

mickey guyton
Mickey Guyton
| Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty

As much as her lyrics are resonating now, this is also Guyton's moment for the sound of her music — and the distinctiveness of her voice. Strong, supple and soulful, it's just as able to lift hearts as to tug at them. She does both on all 16 tracks of Remember Her Name, 15 of which she has co-written.

Both "Black Like Me" and "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" find their home here, and Guyton steps up with even more soul-stirrers. The title track and "Words" are testaments of courage and defiance, and "Love My Hair" employs a profound metaphor for self-acceptance. In "Do You Really Wanna Know," Guyton offers a window into her darkest days, and then she finds the light in a joyous "Different."

Other sides to the artist emerge in the remaining cuts, whether it's the tipsy playfulness of "Rosé," the throbbing romance of "Higher" or the swaying sexiness of "Dancing in the Living Room." Another standout, "All American," which she performed on TV's recent CMA Summer Jam, has all the hallmarks of a national anthem — a "This Land Is Your Land" for the 21st century.

"I feel like there's a little bit of everybody in any of these songs," Guyton says. "I feel like anybody can hear themselves in these songs, and I want them to hear that. I want people to feel seen. I want people to feel hopeful at the end of this journey, because it's a long journey."

It's also a journey that comes with social relevance, which Guyton is still getting used to. "I never in a million years — little old me — thought I would ever be an advocate," she says. "That was not in my job description."

But whether she's addressing racism and sexism in her lyrics or her spoken and written statements, Guyton has been learning the power of her voice for change. Simultaneously, she's also been learning its power to attract controversy. She was among a handful of prominent country artists who criticized Morgan Wallen's use of a racial profanity, but as the sole Black woman, she seemed to bear most of the brunt of a vicious backlash, especially on her socials. She has since blamed her early labor on the resulting emotional trauma; her son was born on Feb. 7.

Today, Guyton offers a long, deep sigh when Wallen is brought up. "You know," she says, "I have said what I'm going to say about that." As passionate as she is about her causes, she admits to feeling a certain exhaustion from being "an issue."

"It's not 'an issue' — it's our lives," she says. "I was born Black, period. You can't do anything about it. That's who you are. I can't imagine that our mighty God designed us to be an issue."

Mickey Guyton
Mickey Guyton
| Credit: Chelsea Thompson

Now ready for her music to speak for itself, she's focused on nurturing this blossoming career, still without any expectation of help from country radio. She looks to genre-defying maverick Kacey Musgraves as a role model.

"She's able to have her opinion," Guyton says. "She's able to be exactly who she is and to push herself in incredible directions, and she has control of that. That, to me, is so much more important than to have a No. 1 on country radio. I don't even know what that means anymore."

So if she had to choose, would she rather have commercial success or career significance?

Guyton doesn't think twice: "Monetarily, it'd be amazing to be commercially successful. But I would much rather have my soul and be significant."

Facing into her next chapter, Guyton is attentive to self-care, already benefiting from an exercise regimen, therapy, an antidepressant and a feature she's recently discovered on Instagram that identifies and hides offensive DMs. "I still get the usual hate messages," she says, "but I just don't look at them anymore."

Mickey Guyton
Grayson and Mickey Guyton
| Credit: Mickey Guyton/Twitter

She also has a beautiful new preoccupation — her 7-month-old son, Grayson Clark — and a new ambition. "I want to be a great mother," she says, and "I want to have another baby. I can't believe I'm even saying that, but I said it as soon as I gave birth to my son. I literally said, 'Is it crazy that I'm thinking about doing this again?' And everybody in the delivery room was like, 'What is wrong with you, woman?'"

Her pregnancy, discovered just four days after the release of "Black Like Me," was a shock, she reveals.

"Before we got the pregnancy test," she says, "I remember telling my husband, 'I know my body. I know I'm not pregnant.' I'm telling him, 'It seems like 'Black Like Me' is really making some traction, so maybe this is God's plan, and we'll just address having a baby later and maybe go to the doctor and figure out what's going on.' Then, I looked at the pregnancy test, and there's the two lines. ... I could not believe it!"

Fearful that a baby would compromise her career, she says she had trouble celebrating the pregnancy initially. In hindsight, she says, "It was a horrible way of thinking. It was awful." She has since learned quickly that a career and family is a balancing act, not an either/or proposition.

"If anything, I hope this shows other women you can have your baby, you can have a family and have a career," she says. "Give yourself that permission!"

Guyton lights up when she talks about Grayson. "I have this beautiful son that I get to look at every day," she says. "He is such a sweet baby, just the sweetest little angel — loves on people, loves everybody, just smiles. He's just special ... Everything that I went through in my life led me to him."

His presence, she says, has also brought a new "calmness" to her marriage to Grant Savoy, a Los Angeles attorney. "We are so much closer, and we were already really, really, really close," says Guyton, who also is based in Los Angeles but travels frequently to Nashville. "There's just such a respect for each other. My husband was such a good 'pre-baby daddy,' like how he helped me through pregnancy. I could not have done it without him, and now he's helped me after. The first three months, he was getting up at night more than I was. He put the bassinet right by his side of the bed, and he slept right next to his face every night. They have an incredible bond."

Guyton is grateful the pandemic has offered the silver lining of more family time for her. She's still hesitant to tour, since she would be bringing Grayson. "Give my baby COVID?" she says. "I would never forgive myself."

Her smattering of one-off live performances in recent months, however, offer her a glimpse of what's waiting for her.

"To see people waving their hands or turning on their flashlights on their phones or holding up the American flag when I sing 'All American,' it's just so fulfilling," Guyton says. "I'm like, 'Wow, this is what it feels like up there!'"

For now, she can simply savor that her voice, which was silenced for so long, really does matter. "Now that I'm part of the conversation," Guyton says, "I think I'm bringing honesty — like, true honesty — and I'm celebrating our differences. ... Our differences are beautiful."