Music

Country Music Needs Mickey Guyton More Than She Needs Country Music

Her overdue debut is a scorching reclamation of a genre.

A woman with brown hair and an updo wears a sparkly blue dress. She stands on a stage with red and yellow lights.
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - JUNE 09: Mickey Guyton speaks onstage for the 2021 CMT Music Awards at Bridgestone Arena on June 09, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images for CMT) Erika Goldring/Getty Images

It’s remarkable that Mickey Guyton has stayed committed to country music at all. Coming to it was as natural as a bluebell sprouting in Texas, since Guyton grew up in small towns across the state. Yet in her decade-long career, she’s always been asked why, in a way other country artists aren’t: Why did this Black woman embrace a genre whose name is coded for “white” just as “urban” (absurdly) euphemizes Black? Guyton’s country epiphany came as a tween, seeing LeeAnn Rimes, a girl about her own age, belting out the national anthem at a Texas Rangers game. From there, she took in all the other bold, emphatic country women’s voices of the 1990s. But the Guyton family had been shown what more prototypically “country” people thought of supposed interlopers when the community in Crawford, Texas (near George W. Bush’s ranch), made it clear they weren’t welcome at the local public school, some four decades after Brown v. Board. Little wonder that as an adult, Guyton felt unsure where she’d fit in. It wasn’t until her late 20s that she wound up in Nashville, signing to Capitol Records in 2011. Ever since, she’s continued getting abundant signals that country music is uncomfortable with her being there.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

It took nearly four years of anxious strategizing for her label to put out her first single, a scorcher called “Better Than You Left Me” that made the lower reaches of the country Top 40 but should have been much bigger. The industry’s hesitations persisted, and Guyton has said that coping with them led to insomnia and problem drinking, which surely didn’t help. Last year, however, Guyton came at last to national attention by funneling her pent-up frustration into her song of testimony, “Black Like Me,” amid the ferment of the George Floyd protests. Last week, she finally released her first full-length album, Remember Her Name.

The resulting artifact incorporates all the anguish of its own long journey into being. It’s ended up as a brazen manifesto on the shortcomings as well as the possibilities of both country music and America as a whole, delivered in thoroughly mainstream country form. It’s hard to point to a direct precedent. There’s a long lineage of songs accusing country of betraying its past; far fewer admonish it for not keeping up with the future. Many country women have sung about sexism, but only recently as a Nashville-specific issue; Brad Paisley’s American Saturday Night in 2009, at the dawn of the Obama era, made some bold-for-Nashville arguments about progress and inclusivity. Guyton’s intervention, though, recalls nothing so much as the truth bomb Ray Charles lobbed over the ramparts in 1962, with his two Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music albums, which demonstrated the deep, unrecognized kinship of country and R&B. In 2021, however, Guyton’s call comes decidedly from inside Nashville’s house. And it’s not afraid to blow the roof off.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“Black Like Me” acts as Remember My Name’s centerpiece, conceptually and structurally, positioned ninth among the album’s 17 tracks. It was in college that Guyton came across John Howard Griffin’s 1961 book of the same title, in which a white, Texan, blind and paraplegic war veteran used medication and radiation to darken his skin and venture out in a Black man’s guise. He presented the hate and violence he encountered as legitimizing proof of the Civil Rights Movement’s grievances to doubtful whites. Guyton asks whether the nation a half-century later can bear to hear that message straight from the source, with the same empathy: “If you think we live in the land of the free/ You should try to be Black like me.” Doing it as a Black country singer, singing in a gospel mode that interconnects pop forms, Guyton implicitly compares her own voyage to Griffin’s: Is she, too, permitted to traverse cross-cultural lines and report back to a mixed audience?

Advertisement
Advertisement

The rest of the album’s 50-minute run is sequenced thoughtfully to build up to and ease down from that burning pivot point. Each song plants the seeds for the next or calls back to one previous. Yet Remember Her Name never quite becomes a “concept album,” a format mostly alien to the mainstream country mode (with rare exceptions). It maintains the trappings of a typical Nashville debut—love songs, party songs, patriotic songs, self-affirmations—while highlighting the double consciousness that marks it as anything but standard.

Advertisement

Outsiders may ask why Guyton has gone to all this effort. She has the voice and charisma to be a star in any style. Why stick with one that’s been so inhospitable, especially in an era people talk about as “post-genre”? After Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” was booted off the Billboard country chart in 2019, he rode that controversy till he couldn’t no more, then blithely galloped into other worlds of sound. Guyton’s fellow Texan, Kacey Musgraves, has all but left country behind after audiences pretty much anywhere else proved more open to her progressive millennial bent. In many ways, musical genres in the United States (and likely everywhere) are less about music than about creating and entrenching division in a system of segregated sound.

Advertisement

Like any American music, country is a hybrid and reinvention of rhythms and harmonies out of Black, European, Latinx, Indigenous, and other sources. But the peculiarities of Southern white supremacism and of country’s defensiveness over being a long-scorned “hick” popular-music backwater have made it an especially stubborn bastion of musical separatism. Just 5 percent of artists signed to the biggest country labels are Black, and in the past two decades, people of color comprised 2.3 percent of country radio airplay. The cause is not only the “Nashvegas” good ol’ boys club, but the large chunk of country’s listenership that buys into and defends this hegemony, because that’s what hegemony does. Witness the ugly spectacle earlier this year of fans rallying to pump up sales and even sponsor billboards in support of the young country star Morgan Wallen after he was caught drunkenly using the N-word on video.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Guyton’s Texan girlhood and musical roots are birthrights she won’t surrender

Those patterns “terrified” Guyton when she was taking the stage this July at the Country Music Association’s Summer Jam event, she said in an interview last week in the Tennessean. She recalled the online abuse she’d received after releasing “Black Like Me” (which she addresses in new album track “Words”) and trembled. To her relief, the Summer Jam crowd cheered her on. Those ovations are quickly becoming part of an average Guyton day: In the past year, she’s become the first solo Black female country artist nominated for a Grammy, the first Black woman to co-host the Academy of Country Music Awards, and, as announced this past week, the recipient of a “Breakout Artist of the Year” award at the upcoming Country Music Television Artists of the Year show. Guyton is well aware that, with industries under pressure on race and diversity, such “firsts” can serve as ass-covering, symbolic gestures. After all, why aren’t straight white male country stars such as Sam Hunt also pushed into being spokespeople, given that Hunt’s success was built largely on putting a country backspin on hip-hop and R&B? Still, Guyton seems to be up to take it all on.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I’d venture part of the reason is another, contrary truth about musical genres: As artificial as they are at base, over time they gather energies, continuities, and constituencies that hold real-world substance. To walk away would be to cede that ground. Guyton’s Texan girlhood and musical roots are birthrights she won’t surrender. In the decade she’s already invested in Nashville, she’s also developed a heartfelt solidarity with her fellow women in country, who across all backgrounds are also massively underrepresented in radio play. (“Genre” shares linguistic origins with “gender,” and overlaps with connotations about race too.)

Advertisement

In fact, Remember Her Name’s most representative track may not be “Black Like Me” so much as Guyton’s earlier 2020 single “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” —a plaintively devastating ballad about lying to young girls that they’ll be free to be anything they want, when the facts about equity and abuse say otherwise. The song seizes on the country trope of tunes about watching your kids grow up as a crowbar to pry out the rickety supports from under the myth of the American Dream. Likewise Remember Her Name as a whole plants its feet firmly in the soil of country conventions even as it knocks over the “white picket fences” that surround them. And it does so in a methodical, structured way that repays examination in sequence.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The album opens with “Remember Her Name,” ushered in with nostalgic pedal steel, a song of resilience that specifically calls on Guyton’s memories of her own early determination: “When did you lose the girl with no fear? Oh, she never left.” Fittingly for a first album, the title implies the artist declaring “remember my name.” Its tagline also echoes the protest chant “say their names,” the need to preserve the memories of the serial victims of police violence. Yet in the video that premiered the night of the album release, the song’s story becomes about a young Black girl who loses her firefighter father as a first responder on 9/11, then grows up to be a firefighter herself—rather than, say, a protest singer. Even after her “Black Like Me” transformation in 2020, Guyton remains game for Nashville triangulation, to get across her ideas while remaining within genre bounds.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

“All American” starts off in the previous song’s childhood framework, in the manner of a familiar country “list” song about small-town life—“the lines on the interstate, the dust on a backroad,” “a Friday-night football game”—but soon starts bridging “country” and “urban” by paralleling stars in Texas to lights in New York, then escalating to cross-racial signifiers with “Daisy Dukes, dookie braids/ James Brown and James Dean.” It promotes inclusion by talking about all Americans having “the same stars, the same stripes,” suitable for the girl whose first favorite country song was LeeAnn Rimes singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Advertisement

Picking up on the “All American” line, “We’re different in a million ways,” track 3 is called “Different.” Its girl group/Motown-lite bop feel goes a bit far in a Meghan Trainor everything-positivity direction for me. But its opening couplet, “I love my skin, I love my hair/ And if it bothers you, I really don’t care,” gets reconsidered more seriously in the following track. Contrary to the Lizzo-esque upbeatness one might expect from the title “Love My Hair,” track 4 is a quietly seething ballad, warning white listeners that mutual appreciation doesn’t extend to the right to touch (“the weight of your hand/ can never make you understand”). It tells a widely shared tale of Black women’s hair shame, and the rough route to self-acceptance, and it doesn’t take much music-industry knowledge to picture all the Nashville image-management meetings this song howls back at.

Advertisement
Advertisement

That centering in identity leads into three songs about love and domesticity that again do double duty. On their own, they’re straightforward radio-pop country songs that affirm Guyton’s right to stand alongside the likes of Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert in vocal and emotional impact, and how wrong Nashville was to sideline her. But they’re also Guyton’s tribute to the emotional support system she has in her husband, as she implores her partner to open up to her on “Lay It On Me” and celebrates their closeness in “Higher” and “Dancing in the Living Room.”

Advertisement

With these foundations of both self and relationship established, Guyton goes on to ask listeners whether they’re prepared to hear the real hard stuff on “Do You Really Wanna Know?” And then she brings it with the central triptych of “Black Like Me,” “Words,” and “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” If you want the highs of the previous three love songs, she tells country listeners, you have to take the lows, too, as you would a heartbreak song from any country bro. Her heartbreaks are just not the same as his.

Advertisement

At this point, the album risks becoming too unconventional to remain a recognizable Nashville project. So Guyton relieves the tension with two winking genre workouts, “Smoke” and “Rosé.” The first is a fun riff on infidelity cliches that would be equally at home on a Miranda Lambert record. On the other hand, I could do without the next song’s bubbly catering to Nashville’s wince-worthy rolling-drunken-bachelorette-party “transpotainment” industry, especially from an artist who’s been open about drinking as an issue. But both tracks verify there’s not a Nashville requirement Guyton can’t fulfill, except by not being a Black woman.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Now Guyton circles back with “Indigo,” which answers the opening imperative to “Remember Her Name” by offering another eponym to bear in mind, an alias that might encompass Guyton more fully: “Hey, we haven’t met, just call me Indigo/ I’m bluer than blue for reasons you don’t know.” Indigo is a word long tied to African-American culture—think of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo”—with overtones about skin color and, as Curtis Mayfield sang it, “We people who are darker than blue.” As this record’s twilight theme, “Indigo” rekindles the emotion of “Black Like Me,” but in a more understated, intimate mode. It’s a culmination of the album’s story, a restrained moment of wisdom hard earned, and as such it moves me reliably to tears. Still, as a white listener, I’m also highly aware that its plea for understanding is aimed right at me.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Remember Her Name also includes two postscripts: A faithful cover of Beyoncé’s 2008 hit “If I Were a Boy” and a differently textured version of Guyton’s first single, that never-quite-hit “Better Than You Left Me.” Showing you can match Beyoncé note for note and inflection for inflection is a mighty flex for a singer, of course. In the context of Remember Her Name it also gives notice to Nashville: If you still don’t want me after all this, there are other places I could go. By choosing this particular Beyoncé song, Guyton combines that Ray Charles-esque genre flexibility with gender fluidity, reinforcing that the album’s critique has always been about both race and sex. After that, “Better Than You Left Me” sounds like a song not just about healing from heartbreak but about a broader kind of survival, the kind of resilience she’s been seeking since the opening track: It becomes a proclamation that Guyton is better now than Nashville has left her, liberated from country’s constrictions and ready to create a country all her own.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Guyton could have swerved away from country music anytime. She still could. Yet Remember Her Name’s blend of protest album and genre record volleys her interrogators’ frequent question back at them: Why not country, why not me? Other artists might toss aside problematic genre baggage to claim their own sounds. But Guyton likes these sounds. The alternative is like accepting that the local school won’t take you, giving up on demanding space in communities that don’t want to change, or taking on the burden of building whole new systems instead of insisting that existing systems fix themselves. The debate over these options is as old as the idea of revolution. On Remember Her Name, Mickey Guyton lays down a brief for her reformist side as eloquently as anyone in popular music ever has.

Advertisement