In the opening lines of her song “All American,” singer Mickey Guyton croons about the heartland in a tradition that would make even the Okie from Muskogee himself proud. “We’re a Friday night football game/ the lighters at a rock show,” she sings, going on to ask “ain’t we all American?”
Guyton’s question is as rhetorical as it is pleading. A Black woman in a genre typically viewed as lily-white, she has been open about the struggles she has faced trying to make it in Nashville. “We’re used to being unseen. We’re used to the microaggressions, we’re used to the constant battles of trying to just be who you are,” Guyton said in a recent interview.
She will no longer be unseen come Sunday. Guyton is set to make history as the traditions she sings about in “All American” – country music, football, and rock shows – converge at Super Bowl LVI. Guyton will perform “The Star-Spangled Banner,” making her the first Black country singer to do so.
Progressives should not let this moment pass without comment. It is a perfect celebration of America’s diversity. A Black woman from the heart of Texas famed for singing in one of the most “rural” and American genres will perform the American national anthem ahead of the biggest game in America’s favorite sport. It’s a gorgeous tribute to America at its best: ever more inclusive, expanding the parameters of “Americanness” with each passing generation.
Poll after poll finds that country is the nation’s favorite genre of music. As of 2015, there are more than 2,100 radio stations across America playing exclusively country music – more than any other format. It is the music of the masses, a genre that celebrates the triumphs and eulogizes the tragedies of everyday folk. It is patriotic (Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA”) and poetic (Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors”), devout (Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel”) and defiant (Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill”).
It is also whiter than an Alabama country club. When Guyton signed with Capitol Nashville in 2011, she became the only Black woman signed to a major country label. It took 10 years for her to release her first full-length album. “Remember Her Name” was released in September and is nominated for Best Country Album at the Grammys.
Today, she remains one of the handful of Black artists prominent in the genre. There have only been three Black members of the Grand Ole Opry, and according to a study by researchers at the University of Ottaway, between 2000 and 2019, Black and indigenous people of color received only 2.3% of country radio airplay.
All this data suggests that Black people are being excluded from what is one of our most popular cultural institutions – making Guyton’s performance all the more momentous. As she performs, the U.S. Air Force will conduct what it is calling “a first-of-its-kind flyover” to celebrate its 75th anniversary. By combining this unique convergence of three all-American institutions – country music, football, and the military – this moment is the perfect opportunity for the left to reclaim the mantle of the flag, faith, and freedom – redefining these shibboleths of rural America along more inclusive lines.
Fair or not, there is this view that the left does not value these cultural institutions as strongly as the right. A November 2021 poll by ABC News found that 62% of registered voters think Democrats are out-of-touch with most Americans. You can see this play out in school board meetings across the country, where debates about what is taught in the classroom frequently serve as proxies for a culture war over what is and is not “American.”
The hate spewed at some of these meetings is noxious. Yet writing off those voters leaves them to the forces of Trumpian rage and conservative cynicism. These voters feel a legitimate disconnect between their values and the values of the left. To reach them, progressives need to convince them that the left shares their values and are the natural defenders of those values.
The country’s demographics are changing. The 2020 Census shows that 45% of Americans identify with a race or ethnic group other than white and that the size of the white population declined from 2010-20, a first in U.S. history. A Gallup poll last year found that the number of Americans identifying as LGBTQ has also increased.
As the makeup of America’s population changes, its institutions will need to adapt. To succeed, the left needs to stress that change will not destroy, but strengthen, these institutions – preserving them for the future.
There is precedent for this institutional change. In 1999, only 35% of Americans thought same-sex marriage should be legal. Ten years ago, that number had increased to 50%. Today, it stands at 70%.
Expanding marriage to include same-sex couples strengthened the American family. Expanding other hallowed institutions – like country music – to be more inclusive will only enrich our national experience. Rather than opponents of tradition, progressives can become the ones defending it, preserving the best of America by adapting it to the times.
Watching Mickey Guyton perform, I know I will feel a swell of patriotic pride knowing that this is the America liberals want – one in which a Black girl from Texas can make it in Nashville and then sing the Star-Spangled Banner on the world’s biggest stage. It’s a celebration of what makes this country great.
It is also a stark rebuke to the hateful forces which would constrict and confine “all-American” to white native-born citizens. Their America is one of smallness, backward-looking, timid, and wary. Ours is big, bold, and ready for glory – not unlike the Super Bowl itself.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Independent, Newsweek, Business Insider, and elsewhere. He currently lives in East Tennessee