In 2015, when Mickey Guyton released her debut single “Better Than You Left Me,” she symbolized hope in the mainstream of country music for a host of reasons. Similar to how we regard artists such as Lainey Wilson and Carly Pearce today, Mickey Guyton was a bright spot in popular country as a more traditional-leaning artist who also contained mainstream appeal.
Mickey Guyton grew up singing in the choir of her local Baptist church. When auditioning for UMG Nashville President Mike Dungan, she sang a Patty Loveless song. A stellar performance of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” at the White House in 2014 put Mickey Guyton on the map of many, and then here she was releasing this rather traditional, waltz-timed debut single in “Better Than You Left Me” with steel guitar and superb writing, produced by Nathan Chapman. There was hope for country music’s future.
And of course, it was also cool that Mickey Guyton was African American. Not that we should categorize artists by their race or harp upon it incessantly, but it was cool that this more traditional artist from Texas was following in the footsteps of someone like Charley Pride in proving country music could be for everyone, and bridge racial divides.
But of course, “Better Than You Left Me” stalled out at #34 on the airplay charts. Guyton’s much more pop-oriented second single called “Heartbreak Song” fared even worse, stalling at #45. There were a couple of EP releases as well, but they went mostly ignored by mainstream press, as did Mickey Guyton in general. And as we see time and time again in the mainstream of country, if you’re not received well at radio, there is no plan B for a major label. Everything just sort of stalls out.
Overlooked and forgotten became the theme of Mickey Guyton’s career. In an era when women were struggling to find traction—let alone one with a more traditional sound who didn’t exactly fit the Maren Morris/Kelsea Ballerini cute little white girl model—Mickey Guyton had three strikes against her going into the game, and her career was mostly resigned to an afterthought by most.
This was illustrated most emphatically when in was revealed in June of 2020 that Mickey Guyton had been disinvited to a video shoot for the song “Redesigning Women” by the supergroup The Highwomen in 2019.
Writing an op-ed in Billboard about the incident, Guyton recounted, “I left my ailing husband, who almost died from sepsis, in California just four days after his life-saving surgery because I had been invited … I arrived at the airport exhausted but excited. I checked my itinerary only to find that the entry had been deleted; I had been disinvited. The song was about supporting women in country, yet they disinvited the only charting African American woman in country music. Do they know? Don’t they see that I support them? Do they care? Do they want to see me? The answer is no. Let that sink in.”
This wasn’t a major label or country radio doing Mickey Guyton wrong. These were the women who professed to be breaking down the barriers of exclusion in country music. Amanda Shires of The Highwomen admitted she didn’t even know who Mickey Guyton was until June 5th of 2020—five years after Guyton released her debut single, and over a year after the “Redesigning Women” video shoot.
What stimulated Billboard to reach out to Mickey Guyton to pen her op-ed was the death of George Floyd, and the flood of interest and attention that flowed toward Guyton in the aftermath as country music’s only major label-signed black woman. This is what finally put the wheels in motion to allow Mickey Guyton to release a new EP in September of 2020 called Bridges, and eventually this album, which is Mickey Guyton’s first full-length project since being signed to Capitol Nashville in 2014.
Just the release of Remember Her Name feels like a victory of sorts, and the album is aptly titled. But now the circumstances for Mickey Guyton are much different than they were for the first six years of her career. With the strong emphasis the media and popular culture puts on race, the red carpet is being unfurled for Guyton. She’s receiving publicity opportunities left and right. She’s being courted where she was once ignored.
But the issue with Remember Her Name is that here six years since she released her debut single, Mickey Guyton is no longer the traditionalist from Texas with mainstream appeal. Remember Her Name is almost exclusively a pop project with all the pop-style signifiers, including eight separate producers, drum loops, click tracks, and everything else that makes a selection distinctly not country.
But it’s not just a genre or taste concern here. Becoming a pop star also separates Mickey Guyton from what made her unique and interesting in the first place. Remember Her Name just sounds like every other pop record being pushed to the country market. The Mickey Guyton of 2021 is a far cry from the one that could help save popular country from its slide towards pure pop as a performer who was singing Patty Loveless and Patsy Cline as part of her repertoire. Now she is covering Beyoncé, and is part of the sector helping to facilitate country music’s pop slide, similar to Kacey Musgraves.
But unlike the new Kacey Musgraves album Star-Crossed that also symbolizes a complete transformation towards pop, when taken strictly as a pop project, Mickey Guyton’s Remember Her Name has some panache and tenacity. It says something. It may be safe from a musical standpoint. But you certainly can’t accuse it of being sedate and safe from a lyrical standpoint. After six years of slights, delays, and probably some outright racism, Mickey Guyton is speaking out, and making sure we remember her name, this time.
The majority of the songs on this 16-track album deal expressly with the one thing that has garnered Micky Guyton most of the attention she’s enjoyed in her career, and especially in the last year or so: her race. You certainly can’t blame Mickey Guyton for taking whatever the world is giving her. It was the “who” not the “what” that has resulted in much of the recent attention she’s enjoyed. And so she leans into this on Remember Her Name, and identity comprises the album’s overall theme.
Some country fans may listen to this record and say, “Why do we have to focus so much on race?” But this is Mickey Guyton’s life experience set to song, and you might feel the same if you were a minority, and continuously overlooked and discounted. This is what she expresses in her Grammy-nominated song “Black Like Me.” Songs like “Different” and “Love My Hair” also assuredly broach this subject, and with a singing voice that has always been stellar, and is the foundation of her career.
But one of the issues with this album is the same issue with any album that harps on the same subject matter over and over to the point of becoming trite and cliché, and then eventually moves into pandering, and maybe even exploitation. By the time you get to the song “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” the turnip has been squeezed so tightly, there’s little juice left. And frankly the message of this song is something worth questioning itself.
Do you just let her pretend
That she could be the President?
Would it help us get there any faster?
Do you let her think the deck’s not stacked?
And gay or straight or white or black
You just dream and anything can happen
Basically, “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” advocates for lowering expectations in young people, professing they can’t, and won’t ever realize their dreams. We actually did have a black President. We currently have a black and Asian Vice President. And the only reason we may not have a gay President at this very moment is because of a cloakroom deal the first black President levied behind-the-scenes to make sure an old white guy became the next Presidential nominee over the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
A song like “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” illustrates why the way we broach such subjects can be subversive to the ultimate goal by overreraching to appear stern or bold, creating self-fulfilling prophesies where you tell people they can’t make it in whatever pursuit they choose because they’ll be discriminated against, saying the game is rigged and the deck is stacked, and giving them excuses to never even try, or dream, or push themselves, or be introspective upon their own shortcomings.
Mickey Guyton has a solid reason to complain about how she was treated by country music’s major label system. But for every story like Mickey Guyton’s, there are 1,000 white straight males that were never even sniffed at by a major label, let alone allowed to release singles and albums to the masses, receive any mainstream radio play, and be nominated for and host awards shows. It may have taken longer than in should have, but Mickey climbed the mountain. She made it to the 1% of country music performers.
But this album is not all identity-based. It’s still strictly a 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 in the waiting. “Dancing In The Living Room” feels the same. They lyrical approach of this album is also what makes it more pop than country. Pop is often more self-affirming, like the “You’re beautiful just the way you are” type of sloganeering that is found on this record. Country is more introspective. “I made a mess of my life, and I’m the only one to blame.”
Later in this lengthy album, you finally get to some material that someone might be able to construe as “country,” at least in the mainstream sense. “Smoke” and “Rosé ” have that sort of radio cliché approach to the music and lyricism, but not in a way that resuscitates the effort to be considered country in a more general sense.
And the the album ends with a new “fly higher version” of the song “Better Than You Left Me,” which started Mickey Guyton’s career way back in 2015, and has us all anticipating her impending country career with promise. Only fitting and illustrative that in this new version of the song, the steel guitar and any semblance of twang are wiped for straight-laced pop production. Listening to the two versions of “Better Than You Left Me” side by side perfectly encapsulates what has happened in Mickey Guyton’s career maturation.
The reason country music should welcome diverse voices within its ranks is the way this can help naturally break down the barriers between us. But putting together a straight up pop record that panders to a slanted media narrative on country music and race, as opposed to just proving that black people can love and perform country music too, arguably does more harm than good to that cause, or at least renders the underlying effort inert. If you want more black artists in country, then they must be black, but they also must be country.
The media will lap a record like this up, but those who most need to hear the messages conveyed from Mickey Guyton’s perspective will never go anywhere near it. Meanwhile black artist who actually play country music such as Chapel Hart and Aaron Vance continue to be overlooked and overshadowed as both the public and media favor these pop-sounding black performers, posting pandering puff pieces on them to signal their virtue to their colleagues on Twitter.
It does feel good to see Mickey Guyton finally get her full-length album release. That is a victory all unto itself. And for a pop record, it might score above par from the passion and message captured in some of these songs. But the possibility of what the release could accomplish got lost in the process. It took six years, and in that six years, Music Row did what it does best: turn country stars pop.