Photo: Phylicia J. L. Munn
When Mickey Guyton released her debut single "Better Than You Left Me" in 2015, it symbolized hope in mainstream country music for many reasons. Much like we see artists like Lainey Wilson and Carly Pearce today, Mickey Guyton was a ray of hope in the popular country as a more traditionally oriented artist that also contained mainstream appeal.
Mickey Guyton grew up singing in the choir of her local Baptist church. While auditioning for President of UMG Nashville, Mike Dungan, she sang a song by Patty Loveless. An outstanding performance of Patsy Cline's "Crazy" in the White House in 2014 put Mickey Guyton on the map of many, and then she released this more traditional, waltz-timed debut single in "Better Than You Left Me" with steel guitar and excellent writing, produced by Nathan Chapman. There was hope for the future of country music.
And of course it was cool that Mickey Guyton was African American. Not that we should categorize artists by race or wait for them ceaselessly, but it was cool that this more traditional Texas artist followed in the footsteps of someone like Charley Pride by proving that country music is for everyone and bridging racial gaps could.
But of course “Better Than You Left Me” stayed at number 34 on the airplay charts. Guyton's much more pop-oriented second single called "Heartbreak Song" performed even worse and stayed at number 45. There have been a few EP releases as well, but they have been largely ignored by the mainstream press, as has Mickey Guyton in general. And as we see again and again in the mainstream of country, there is no plan B for a major label if you don't do well on the radio. Everything stops somehow.
The theme of Mickey Guyton's career has been overlooked and forgotten. At a time when women were struggling to find traction – let alone one with a more traditional sound that didn't exactly match the cute little white girl from Maren Morris / Kelsea Ballerini – Mickey Guyton had three puns against going into the game, and her career was resigned to by most with an afterthought.
This was most clearly illustrated when it was revealed in June 2020 that Mickey had been Guyton excluded from a video shoot for the song "Redesigning Women" by the supergroup The Highwomen in 2019.
Guyton wrote a comment on Billboard about the incident, saying, “I left my sick husband, who nearly died of sepsis, in California just four days after his life-saving operation because I was invited … I arrived at the airport exhausted . ”But excited. I checked my itinerary and found that the entry was deleted. I had been discharged. The song was about helping women in country, but they dropped the only African American woman who landed in the charts in country music. You know? Don't you see that I support you? Are you interested? Do you want to see me? The answer is no. Let that sink in. "
This wasn't a major label or country radio Mickey Guyton got it wrong. These were the women who pretended to be breaking down the barriers of exclusion in country music. The Highwomen's Amanda Shires admitted she didn't even know who Mickey Guyton was until June 5, 2020 – five years after Guyton released her debut single and over a year after making the video for Redesigning Women.
What led Billboard to reach out to Mickey Guyton for their comment was the death of George Floyd and the spate of interest and attention that Guyton subsequently became the only black woman to sign with a major label. This was what finally set the wheels in motion for Mickey Guyton to release a new EP called Bridges in September 2020, and finally this album, which is Mickey Guyton's first full-length project since his contract with Capitol Nashville in 2014.
Just the Remember Her Name release feels like some kind of victory, and the album is appropriately titled. But now the circumstances for Mickey Guyton are very different from the first six years of her career. With the strong emphasis that the media and popular culture place on race, the red carpet is being rolled out for Guyton. It receives advertising opportunities on the left and right. It is courted where it was once ignored.
But the problem with Remember Her Name is that six years after releasing her debut single, Mickey Guyton is no longer the mainstream Texas traditionalist. Remember Her Name is almost entirely a pop project with all the meanings of pop style, including eight separate producers, drum loops, click tracks, and anything else that clearly doesn't make a selection country.
But it's not just about genre or taste. Becoming a pop star also separates Mickey Guyton from what originally made her unique and interesting. Remember Her Name sounds like any other pop record hit the country market. The 2021 Mickey Guyton is a far cry from who, as a performer who sang Patty Loveless and Patsy Cline as part of her repertoire, could help keep the popular country from sliding towards pure pop. Now she covers Beyoncé and is part of the sector that helps ease the pop slide of country music, much like Kacey Musgraves.
But unlike the new Kacey Musgraves album Star-Crossed, which, if you look at it strictly as a pop project, also symbolizes a complete transformation towards pop, Mickey Guyton's Remember Her Name has some verve and tenacity. It says something. Musically it may be safe. But you certainly can't blame her for being calm and confident from a lyrical standpoint. After six years of insults, delays and probably some outright racism, Mickey Guyton speaks his voice and makes sure we remember her name this time around.
Most of the songs on this 16-track album are explicitly about what got Micky Guyton the most attention that she has enjoyed in her career, and especially in the last year or so: her racing. You certainly can't blame Mickey Guyton for taking what the world gives him. It was the "who" rather than the "what" that has been drawing her a lot of attention lately. And so she borrows from it on Remember Her Name, and identity encompasses the overall theme of the album.
Some country fans may listen to this record and say, "Why do we have to focus so much on the race?" But this is Mickey Guyton's life experience that is set to music, and you might feel the same way if you were a minority and constantly overlooked and devalued. She expresses this in her Grammy-nominated song "Black Like Me". Songs like “Different” and “Love My Hair” also pick up on this theme, with an always outstanding singing voice that forms the foundation of her career.
But one of the problems with this album is the same problem with every album, pushing the same theme over and over until it becomes mundane and clichéd and then eventually moves into ingratiation and maybe even exploitation. Until you get to the song “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?”? The beet is so tightly pressed that there is only a little juice left. And honestly the message of this song is something worth questioning yourself.
Do you just let her pretend
That she could be president?
Would it help us to get there faster?
Are you making her think the deck isn't stacked?
And gay or straight or white or black
You only dream and anything can happen
Basically, "What are you going to tell her?" advocates lowering young people's expectations, stating that they cannot and will never achieve their dreams. We actually had a black president. We currently have a Black and Asian Vice President. And the only reason we might not have a gay president right now is because of a cloakroom deal the first black president raised behind the scenes to make sure that an old white is the next presidential candidate over the former mayor of South Bend Will, Indiana.
A song like "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" shows why the way we address such topics can be subversive in order to achieve the ultimate goal by exaggerating ourselves to appear strict or brave and creating self-fulfilling prophecies in which you tell people that they fail whatever they want because they are being discriminated against, saying the game is rigged and the deck is stacked, and giving them excuses not even to try, dream or push themselves or their own shortcomings consider.
Mickey Guyton has good reason to complain about how she's been treated by the country music's major label system. But for every story like Mickey Guyton's, there are 1,000 white straight men who have never been sniffed by a major label, let alone releasing singles and albums to the masses, receiving every mainstream radio play and nominating for awards and hosting shows at. It may have taken longer than it should have been, but Mickey climbed the mountain. She made it to the 1% of country musicians.
But this album isn't just identity-based. It's still a pure pop song, but "Lay It On Me," written about her husband's health issues that Guyton alluded to in her Billboard Op-Ed, is one of the standout tracks on the album and feels like a pop hit on hold. “Dancing In The Living Room” feels the same way. The lyrical approach of this album also makes it more pop than country. Pop is often more self-affirming, like the slogans "You are beautiful the way you are" that can be found on this record. Land is more introspective. "I've messed up my life and I'm the only one to blame."
Later on in this long album you finally come across some material that someone could at least interpret as "country" in the mainstream sense. "Smoke" and "Rosé" took that kind of radio stereotype approach to music and lyric poetry, but not in a way that revived the quest to be considered country more broadly.
And the album ends with a new “fly-higher version” of the song “Better Than You Left Me”, with which Mickey Guyton's career began in 2015 and we all look forward to her upcoming country career with promise. Just fitting and illustrative that in this new version of the song the steel guitar and any semblance of twang is wiped away for a straightforward pop production. Hearing the two versions of "Better Than You Left Me" side by side perfectly sums up what happened in Mickey Guyton's career maturation.
The reason country music should welcome different voices into its ranks is because of the way it can naturally help break down the barriers between us. But putting together a no-nonsense pop album that flatters a weird media narrative about country music and race, rather than just proving that blacks love and perform country music too, arguably harms this cause more than it does, or at least ruins it lying exertion inert. If you want more black artists in the country, they have to be black, but they have to be in the country too.
The media will round up such a record, but those in need of hearing the messages most urgently from Mickey Guyton's perspective will never get anywhere near it. Meanwhile, black artists who actually play country music, like Chapel Hart and Aaron Vance, continue to be overlooked and overshadowed as both the public and the media prefer and post flattering pieces of puff pastry to their peers on Twitter to signal their virtue.
It's good to see Mickey Guyton finally releasing her full-length album. That is a victory in itself. And for a pop album, it could score above average from the passion and message captured in some of these songs. But the possibility of what the publication could do was lost. It took six years, and in those six years Music Row did what it does best: make country stars pop.