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‘Remember Her Name’ by Mickey Guyton Review: A Lifetime in the Making


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The songwriter’s new album documents her pursuit of success in country music at a level never experienced by a Black woman before.

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Mickey Guyton performing in August

PHOTO: AMY HARRIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

A full decade after she first arrived in Nashville determined to become a performing songwriter, Mickey Guyton is a nominee for the Country Music Association’s New Artist of the Year award. The irony in that is thick, if not particularly unusual, given how various awards bodies tend to define “new.” There have been a few EP releases along the way, and a top 40 single, “Better Than You Left Me,” in 2015, but it has taken all of those years for the native Texan’s first full album, “Remember Her Name,” to emerge. Unmistakably, its 16 original songs reflect the aspirations and struggles of her 37 years and, in particular, those involving her pursuit of success in country music at a level never experienced by a Black woman before. The album, remarkable in multiple ways, is set for release on Sept. 24 (Capitol Records Nashville).

This is an instance of an artist and a time coming together. Interviews and reports since her initial signing in 2011 suggest that she received repeated corporate entreaties along the way to try singing styles and material that were more in the traditional country vein—or less so; to reign in her subject matter; to try some sort of change to break though to the mass country audience. The barriers in her way were not subtle. As she puts it in the initially matter-of-fact, then impassioned song “Words” on the album: “They don’t like the songs that I sing . . . / May even hate that I’m Black . . . It’s so much pressure feeling like I gotta smile and let it go.”

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Her answer and the road to this record came last year: Set out by plunging further still into the pointed and personal material that had been questioned. Her #MeToo moment song, “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” written with collaborators Victoria Banks, Canadian Emma-Lee and this album’s principal producer, Karen Kosowski, stunned industry showcase audiences early last year with its cry of despair and anger about the limits on ambition placed on young girls. Her next single, also included here, the poignant and rhythmic “Black Like Me,” went on to make her the first Black woman ever to be nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance. There was no doubt that its narrative, about growing up in a small town, with a daddy who worked day and night to own a used car, is in the country storytelling song tradition, or that its recounting the direct experience of racial discrimination is a rarity in the genre.

Roughly half of the songs on “Remember Her Name” take up social, even political issues in that vein. They depict the often challenging world she’s encountered with passion, and, in some instances, with specific, confessional and brave responses to problematic perceptions of her body (“Love My Hair”) and the way she moves (“Different”). That notably intimate approach is consistent, though all of the songs credit writing collaborators as having had hands in filling out what were all Ms. Guyton’s ideas. And she sings to and about some other “her”—such as the opening, title number and the celebrated “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?”—with such affecting fervor that they’re no less personal for not being first-person.

In both vocal style and production, the music on this album is consistently contemporary, even pop mainstream country. Ms. Guyton has noted being moved in childhood by singers such as LeAnn Rimes and Dolly Parton. Her often riveting singing is flexible—attuned to the emotional needs of each song, wide in its vocal range but controlled. It never veers, for all its force, into contest-style excess.

While the socially pointed songs are bound to get the most attention, nearly as many tracks here are on more typical country subjects—and strong examples of those. There are come-on love songs (“Lay It on Me”), domestic love songs (“Dancing in the Living Room”), a suspicion of cheating song (“Smoke”) and, for those who’ve heard one too many beer and tequila salutes, a song about a different currently popular refreshment— “Rosé.” And there’s a uniting, patriotic theme, too, “All American”: “We’re a Friday night football game, the lighters at a rock show . . . / James Brown and James Dean. Ain’t we all All American.”

In the arguably Taylor Swift-like questioning song “Do You Really Wanna Know,” Ms. Guyton asks what may be the most immediate question of all, whether heard as interpersonal or political: “If I tell you the truth, will your heart be big enough to hold it?” Will fans of today’s mainstream contemporary country sounds respond to this material, more challenging in its lyrics and point of view than what’s generally heard on the radio? Will those most likely to be responsive to these stories and plaints, who may not necessarily be pre-sold on 2021 country, find the genre more inviting with these themes? I can’t say with certainty, but the answers ought to be in the affirmative. The album title evokes and identifies with Breonna Taylor and one of the contemporary racial-justice movement’s rallying cries, but this first album, itself, stands to be remembered as a milestone.

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