Valerie June’s Surprise ACM Performance w/ Eric Church Overlooked

This story has been updated.

Mickey Guyton made one of the greatest impacts during this week’s ACM Awards on Wednesday night (9-16) when she took the stage at the Grand Ole Opry House in a white dress, and offered a stirring and stunning rendition of her poignant and timely song “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” (see below). Singed to a major label way back in 2011, Mickey Guyton is finally receiving her due, and her performance is likely to go down in country music history, as it should.

But as we have seen from the media on numerous occasions when it comes to country music, in an effort by some to score a big headline or a buzzy tweet—or in some instances to embellish accusations against country music as a systemically racist and exclusionary to forward an agenda—many are portraying Mickey Guyton’s 2020 ACM performance as the first ever appearance by a black woman on the ACM Awards stage.

“The first Black woman artist to ever perform on the Academy of Country Music Awards. The first. It’s 2020,” is how blue-checkmarked journalist Marissa R. Moss portrayed the Mickey Guyton moment in one viral tweet.

UPDATE: After the posting of this story, Marissa Moss has deleted her original tweet.

She was far from alone though. Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland tweeted out as well, “Brava Mickey! It makes me so happy to see you shine, and share your talent and love for country music, with the world! Mickey Guyton is the first black woman to ever perform on the ACM Awards. Ever. The first ever. May this be the first of many! Cheers!”

And this wasn’t just relegated to Twitter of course. Publications got in on the action as well, with the Houston Chronicle publishing, “Mickey Guyton became the first Black woman to perform at the Academy of Country Music Awards last night … In the 55 years of the ACM’s existence, it’s unfortunate that this is the first time a Black woman was able to grace the stage.”

Popsugar and many others also portrayed the Mickey Guyton performance as the first ever in ACM history by a black woman, while being emphatic about how it was the first time. Ever. For a black woman of color to grace the ACM stage.

But this is just not true.

You only have to go back as far as last year and the 2019 ACM Awards, and to look no further than Mickey Guyton herself to refute that 2020 was the first time a black woman had been welcomed to the ACM Awards stage. Mickey Guyton performed “I’m Standing With You” beside Chrissy Metz, Lauren Alaina, Maddie & Tae, and Carrie Underwood in 2019, which included numerous moments where Mickey sang solo, and the camera was affixed to her alone.

And though it didn’t come with a performance slot, it is certainly worth mentioning for context that Mickey Guyton was actually nominated for Best New Female Vocalist by the ACM Awards in 2016. So even though she may have not made a performance on stage that year, it’s difficult to say the organization was ignoring her, or women of color.

But Mickey Guyton was still not the first black woman (Ever. The first.) to take the ACM Awards stage, even in recent memory. At the 2013 ACM Awards, Eric Church stunned the audience when he walked out on stage to perform his song “Like Jesus Does” acoustically, and joining him was up-and-coming Memphis-based songwriter and performer Valerie June.

At first, few knew who the black woman with long dreadlocks wearing a red dress was. Saving Country Music was able to put the pieces together, and then published an interview with Valerie about the moment. And this was not Valerie June just making a brief appearance as part of a backline chorus. This was an intimate, 2-person performance that put Valerie June right in the spotlight, and helped launch her career. While the camera on Eric Church was rendered in grayscale, Valerie June was in full color (see below).

“This performance most definitely has elevated my career to another level,” June told Saving Country Music at the time. “I’m a HUGE old country music fan. Often times, it can feel like the world is not ready to hear me on a stage like that. This experience surprised me in many ways. We live in a beautiful time. After seeing some of the buzz around our performance, I am moved to trust that world a bit more instead of judging it. It was lovely how everyone at the ACM’s welcomed me!”

Pointing out that Valerie June performed in a primary slot at the 2013 ACM Awards is in no way to take away from what Mickey Guyton accomplished at the 2020 ACM Awards. Guyton did make history as the first artist to perform her own song in her own slot on the awards show, as ABC News correctly pointed out—though Guyton did share the moment with Keith Urban, who played piano on the song, in a similar two-person, intimate performance as Eric Church and Valerie June in 2013, just with reversed roles.

But as we saw in 2019 with Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road” when certain infleuncers and many in the media wanted to emphasize his success, they participated in a concerning and hurtful form of black erasure where the contributions and accomplishments of previous black artists in country were either downplayed or outright ignored to emphasize or embellish what Lil Nas X had achieved. In one of the linchpins of the controversy around the song, Twitter personality Shane Morris claimed, “Billboard started their Hot 100 in 1958. The Top Country songs started in 1964. A black man didn’t make it to #1 until 2008.”

Of course this information was incorrect. Between 1964 and 2008, Charley Pride alone had 29 #1 singles, and was named the CMA Entertainer of the Year, and Male Vocalist of the Year twice. Ray Charles had a #1 with “Seven Spanish Angeles,” and numerous other black performers had charting singles during the time period. Shane Morris went on to be quoted by dozens of media outlets due to his viral Twitter thread with false information, was interviewed by NPR, and was portrayed by The New York Times as a country music “label executive,” when he had only been an employee for a country label for a short period.

This also happened when Lil Nas X won Musical Event of the Year at the 2019 CMA Awards, and numerous outlets ran with the story that Lil Nas X was the first LGBT member to ever win a CMA, when Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and others had in the past.

In truth, it’s likely many other black women had taken the ACM Awards stage even before Valerie June in the role of chorus singers, backup dancers, or perhaps as a primary performer or duet partner. In 2011, Rhianna performed with Jennifer Nettles on the song “California King” as a duet. It appears Jennifer Nettles forgot this moment herself when tweeting about the ACMs.

Unfortunately the archives of previous ACM performers are not as complete as the CMAs. And it’s totally understandable that a simple mistake was made overlooking Valerie June’s 2013 ACM performance (or Mickey Guyton’s in 2019, or Rhianna’s in 2011).

But one of the motivations for forwarding that it took 55 years for a black woman to appear on the ACM stage is that the ACMs were being exclusionary to artists of color, when many black men had performed on the stage before, and so had at least some black women. Circumstance could have just as much to do with a lack of black women on the ACM stage as racism.

Undoubtedly though, country music needs to continue to be on guard to make sure both women and men of color are given equal opportunities to their white counterparts to succeed. But in this emotional moment of racial reckoning, we also cannot allow ourselves to overlook the important moments, accomplishments, and opportunities black performers have been a part of in country music’s past as we yearn for more equality for the future.

© 2023 Saving Country Music