But Brown, Guyton and Brothers Osborne are among those now unafraid to shock this mold. These are the artists building a new future for Music Row, where power doesn’t equate to chart position alone — it reflects something deeper, where ownership, individuality and the quest for inclusion hold more weight than a hit single. They may not all have equal radio or institutional support on their side, but the freedoms of streaming, the possibilities of crossover markets and their fearlessness about speaking out have created a movement within the mainstream to expand the genre beyond just one look, sound or perspective. The real renegades of Nashville aren’t just those who eschew the system altogether — they’re the ones who try to rebuild it from the inside out.
It’s a strategy that Guyton, 38, has mastered in the past year. She came to Nashville in 2011, signed to Capitol as the only Black female artist on a major country label. Since then, she has endured barriers both subtle and sinister, through racism and sexism both quiet and overt. When she released the superb “Black Like Me” after the murder of George Floyd, it opened up country music to a whole new audience who had never dreamed they would see their story represented — and it also opened doors for Guyton. She received a Grammy nomination, performed at the ceremony and hosted the ACM Awards alongside Keith Urban. She started many crucial conversations about the genre’s systemic and historical racism, all during a pandemic when people were confined to a computer, not an arena. Above all, she found her most creative and resonant voice by doubling down on what makes her unique instead of fighting to fit in.
“As a Black woman who has been signed to a label for a very, very, very long time, I was finally like, ‘F--k this — I am literally crazy if I keep doing the same thing over and over,’ ” she says, rocking her young son in her arms. “I said, ‘Enough is enough. I’m going to do things on my terms. I’m not going to write another song that you think will work on country radio.’ Country radio was not going to support me, and that’s OK. Let me do it a different way.”
Brown, 27, who rose through the ranks without the initial support of the Music Row establishment, has become a brand unto himself over the past two years. He revolutionized how Nashville thinks an artist can achieve success, embracing social media and YouTube to amass a passionate fan base. Now, he’s becoming a behind-the-scenes force, too, launching the label 1021 Entertainment (a joint venture with Sony Music Nashville) and publishing imprint Verse 2 Music (with Sony Music Publishing Nashville). He has collaborated with everyone from Marshmello to Camila Cabello, made history as the first Black male solo country artist to perform at the BET Awards and scored five No. 1 Country Airplay singles, with both of his full-length albums — 2016’s self-titled set and 2018’s Experiment — ruling Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. He’s one of the first major country artists to put concert tickets on sale as the pandemic eased up, and his 35-city Blessed & Free tour will hit all 29 NBA arenas this fall.
“Kane has modernized the approach to being a successful country artist,” says Martha Earls, Brown’s manager. (Her husband, Kent, is his partner in Verse 2.) “You could say the same thing about [T.J.]. I certainly would never speak for anyone, but the old approach was, ‘If you’re gay, just sit there and pretend you’re not, because it could bother somebody.’ Now the modern approach is to lead with your truth. That’s the thing that I’ve always loved about Kane: his willingness to be very open about his life. We’re living in the future versus trying to hold on to the past.”
Surely, Brothers Osborne can’t relate to the magnitude of what Guyton and Brown endure as Black country artists. But the duo, known for John’s fearless guitar work and T.J.’s gorgeous baritone, is certainly familiar with pushing against business as usual, having defied plenty of conventional career wisdom since the pair moved to Nashville from coastal Maryland. The brothers spoke about gun control and supported Democratic candidates, but while T.J., 36, had not hidden his sexuality from his friends, he publicly remained in the closet for much of his career. Eventually, following in the footsteps of out country artists and writers like Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Chely Wright and Ty Herndon, he came out in a Time article between album and tour cycles — a decision manager John Peets says was the result of over a year’s worth of conversations and deliberations.