Record execs are ‘scared,’ but ‘country music fans are ready’

Scouts Mickey Guyton, Orville Peck and Jimmie Allen on the set of AppleTV+’s ‘My Kind of Country,’ executive-produced by Kacey Musgraves and Reese Witherspoon. (Photo: AppleTV+)

“One guy, when I was talking to a label before I got my deal, he said, ‘Jimmie, I like you. I want to sign you. But I’m not sure if I’ll lose my job, because my boss doesn’t believe in this,’” country superstar Jimmie Allen reveals to Yahoo Entertainment, chatting frankly about his past career struggles alongside two other country trailblazers, Mickey Guyton and Orville Peck. The three comprise the panel on My Kind of Country, a new AppleTV+ talent competition searching for a Nashville star who — like Allen, Guyton, and Peck themselves — doesn’t fit the typical Nashville mold.

“It seems like some people are really trying to make an understanding and be a part of the change, which is why we have My Kind of Country,” says Guyton. “I think we all wanted to sign on [for the show] because we were already doing this in our respective careers. … So, when the opportunity was brought to us, we were like, ‘Do I have a pulse? Yes, please. We’ll do it!’”

Guyton – who, like Allen, is Black – faced her own battles in the industry for a decade, and actually considered quitting music just four years ago, when she was “made to feel disposable” and “everybody was trying to fit me into a box of a white woman with blonde hair. … Even when I released my [breakthrough] song ‘Black Like Me’ and I was sending it to different record executives, it took them, like, days to get back to me.” And Peck says he was “told with no hint of kindness, many times, straight up in my face, that I would never be successful as an openly gay man in country music — that it would never, ever work, that I could never wear the mask I wear that I wear, that people would think I was a fool. In Nashville, people thought I was nuts when I first started banging on doors. But I don’t know, I just had the determination. I knew I had a seat at the table, and I wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

All three of these determined artists have of course since proven those closed-minded, short-sighted record executives very wrong. Allen has won both New Artist of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards and New Male Artist of the Year honors at the Academy of Country Music Awards; received a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist; and racked up four No. 1 country singles and more than 1 billion streams. Guyton has received four Grammy nominations (making her the first Black artist up for Best Country Album); was named CMT’s Breakout Artist of the Year and Time’s Breakthrough Artist of the Year; was the first Black woman to perform at the ACM Awards and host the ACMs ceremony; and sang the national anthem at Super Bowl LVI. And Peck, a rare crossover act who has performed at both Coachella and the following weekend’s country-centric Stagecoach festival, has topped Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart while simultaneously cracking the top 15 on the Americana/Folk Albums, Top Country Albums, and Top Rock Albums charts. He’s also recorded a duet with his idol, Shania Twain, and has been nominated for the Polaris Music Prize, Juno Awards, and GLAAD Media Awards.

“I’d say to people all the time, the country music fans are ready,” says Allen, as he reflects on the recent diversification of the genre. “A lot of times you have executives — I call ’em the ‘suits’ — that are either scared or don’t want to see it happen, so they hold it up. But I tell artists all the time, ‘No matter what you look like or where you’re from, keep putting music out, and the fans will find it.’”

Guyton agrees that she doesn’t think record labels are “giving country music listeners enough credit,” but Peck says, “There’s something I find exciting about the current vibe in country, because when we were first starting in our respective careers, I think there was less of us trying to carve our own paths, and it felt a bit hard. … It’s almost undeniable

now, and these ‘suits’ can’t really gatekeep any longer. I feel like we’re about to just have those floodgates burst with all these different artists in country that have just not been given the chance before.”

That brings us to My Kind of Country, which is executive-produced by Reese Witherspoon and another country trailblazer and a fierce LGBTQ+ ally, Kacey Musgraves. The show is looking far beyond Nashville to discover country music’s next big thing, with its 12 diverse contestants, including several Black singers and one non-binary artist, hailing from Mexico, India, and Peck’s home country of South Africa. Talent show veterans Allen and Guyton — who made it all the way to the “Green Mile” episodes of their respective American Idol seasons, in 2008 and 2011, but frustratingly received hardly any screentime back then — were relieved, once the found themselves on the other side of the judging desk, that My Kind of Country avoided the usual aggressively edited drama of other reality competitions. “This show, I think, is just so important. That’s why I was so sensitive to the artists: I didn’t want them to feel like they had to ‘turn on’ something to get screentime. Like, literally just be yourself, and that’s enough,” says Guyton.

Peck, who recently was a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, jokes, “I’m gay, so I don’t need to go on American Idol to be judgmental; it just comes naturally!” But he more seriously notes that he and his My Kind of Country co-stars — who prefer to call themselves “scouts,” not “judges” – were in a unique position to help their contestants, because they’ve truly been in the same boots. “Things are changing, for sure, but we’ve all heard we have a million of these stories… all of those doors shutting,” Peck says. “That’s why we had so much empathy for these artists. We were so careful and delicate about what we were trying to do with them, and help them, because we’ve been through it ourselves.”

Peck cites getting to perform with both Twain and the 1970s’ late “grandfather of queer country,” Lavender Country frontman Patrick Haggerty, as important torch-passing career moments for him, and Guyton says when Black Americana/folk duo the War and Treaty signed to her label, Universal Music Group Nashville, that’s when she “felt a part of the change,” because “Black country artists getting signed to major record deals is huge; that was [once] completely unheard-of.” Interestingly, Allen cites an American Idol moment as one of his epiphanies, when he returned to the show as a mentor in 2022 and a Black male country contestant, Mike Parker, “told me I mean to him what Charley Pride means to me. That right there was like, ‘OK, cool. I made it.’ It was moments like that that that makes the whole fighting through everything worth it.”

Allen, who was friends with Pride (the first Black artist to have a No. 1 country hit) and used to “talk on the phone [with him] every other Sunday at 6 P.M.,” confesses that still he goes on YouTube “a couple times a month” to rewatch his duet with Pride at the 2020 CMAs, where Pride received a lifetime achievement award just two months before his death. “Nothing for me will ever top that moment. Performing with Charley Pride at the CMAs was iconic,” Allen gushes. “A lot of times we can get burnt-out or feel entitled or jaded, and whenever I feel entitled or feel jaded, I go back to that moment and remember how special it was, and it helps me a lot.”

And now, the scouts of My Kind of Country are hoping to keep paying it forward and affecting change by helping the show’s new crop of barrier-breaking roots music hopefuls. And they believe that change is coming, soon, whether those conservative, old-school Nashville “suits” want it or not. But the fact that Allen, Guyton, and Peck — along with Black country artists like Kane Brown and Brittney Spencer and openly gay ones like Brandi Carlile and TJ Osbourne — are having so much success is what will likely make those bean-counting executives finally diversify their label rosters. “I’m looking forward to seeing the procession of country music change — whether that’s because executives want to change it, because they want to see it, or they just want to make more money,” Allen quips. “Either way! One thing you can always count on is American greed, so we gotta use it to our benefit.

“There’s some people that just don’t really want to see [the country genre] go anywhere else; they’re comfortable where it is. But I can honestly say the cool thing is there’s a lot of record execs that are signing multiple people of different races, from different parts of the world,” Allen continues sincerely. “When they see myself and Mickey and Orville out doing our thing in country, not only does it inspire other artists that are different, but it slowly starts to open the mind of the executives. So, they’re like, ‘You know what? What I thought wouldn’t work, does work.’ Because a lot of times, people get inspired when they see someone that looks like them: If you go to a country festival and it’s three white artists performing to a sea full of white people, OK, great — but what happens if you get an Asian country artist? Then Asian people might get into country, because they see someone that looks like them. So, the writing is on the wall. Representation matters, and it’s cool to see it starting to happen.”

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