Among many other reasons to applaud Mickey Guyton for her long-in-the-works debut album, give her extra credit for being the millionth country artist to sing about “Daisy Dukes” — and the first to immediately follow that with a mention of “dookie braids.” Juxtaposing a white-girl cutoffs cliché with a Black-girl hair reference figures into a song, “All American,” that brings up class, race, gender and music differences to anthemically suggest that maybe we can all just get along. That she then devotes so many other moments on the album to wondering if maybe we can’t is a big part of the considerable strength of “Remember Her Name.” It’s a record that, on one hand, credibly posits Guyton as America’s next country-pop crossover superstar and, on the other, is unflinching about addressing the obstacles that may well still stand in the way of that happening.
The one cover song out of 16 tracks otherwise co-penned by the singer is her affecting version of the 2008 Beyoncé hit “If I Were a Boy,” a ballad in which sexism and romantic heartbreak are so entwined that it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins. She could have updated and amended it to “If I Were a White Boy,” to reflect both of the obvious strikes she’s had against her in a seven-year-long attempt to get a foothold at country radio, even as her star has risen in virtually every other medium but that one.
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For an album that sounds so obviously sonically designed to be a blockbuster, “Remember Her Name” is surprisingly willing to go there on matters of gender and race. They’re omnipresent in the previously released “What Are You Gonna Tell Her,?” a heartrendingly downbeat song about daughters facing possible lifetimes of inequity, and the gospel-style “Black Like Me,” which brings together the worlds of Ralph Ellison and Ralph Emery. Those songs — landmark singles in the history of the genre, despite being nearly airplay-free — are now joined by album tracks like “I Love My Hair” that make it clear the increasingly emboldened Guyton is well past the point of wanting to be seen as a country star who just happens to be Black.
Guyton is already a mass-media personality, following in the footsteps of a Kacey Musgraves as somebody TV and streaming services adore and radio so far doesn’t feel it needs to have much to do with. Some country fans and programmers who’d like everyone to believe it really is a level playing field would have you believe that her shutout at the format has less to do with those Black-and-female strikes against her than a third one: not sounding all that country. It’s a specious argument: Although the genre may be dominated by its redrock-rock flank right now, country’s pop-leaning Adult Contemporary Wing has never gone away, and Guyton is hardly far off from Carrie Underwood and Lady A territory. The new album does establish her genre bona fides with two back-to-back exercises in pure roots music: “Smoke” and “Rosé,” the latter particularly emphasizing her not-always-evident Texas twang. But in a perfect world (one where the answer to “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” is: “tell her everything’s fine!”), there’d be room for a new country/AC queen, with Guyton as this generation’s Faith Hill, or with room for Underwood to share, at least.
The songs that land on the slightly polemical side are the album’s most powerful. But “Remember Her Name” is also fare of not-as-topical fare, including numbers like “Higher” — an all-purpose uplift song with a well-timed key change that takes it, yup, higher —that feel like Diane Warren-in-her-inspirational-mode squared. Guyton said in a recent Artist Den/Variety video interview that the record’s title track was written after the death of Breonna Taylor last year, but the track exists at least as squarely in the tradition of big diva ballads that have the singer remembering a younger, more idealistic version of herself as if that were a separate person, a la Sara Bareilles’ “She Used to Be Mine.” Sometimes adversities are unspecified, as in the ballad “Indigo,” which addresses the issue of “color” in a different way: “I’m bluer than blue for reasons that you don’t know,” she sings. And sometimes she comes back around to specificity, as in “Words,” a number that makes it clear that, yes, the social-media-savvy Guyton reads the comments: “They don’t like the songs that I sing and the man who gave me my ring / They even hate that I’m Black / There’s so much pressure but I gotta let it go / To keep it to myself and not let it show.” These thoughts may affect your interpretation even of some of the tracks that go a little more generic with their anxiety: In “Do You Really Wanna Know,” when Guyton sings, “I’m so used to tellin’ lies / But if I tell you the truth, will your heart be big enough to hold it?,” it’s hard not to put an interpretation on that, and to answer back that, in her chosen genre, the jury is still out.
There’s a danger in making “Remember Her Name” sound like it’s all about grievance. Guyton spends good chunks of the album trying to be a uniter, not focusing on the dividers — like the aforementioned “All American,” where the full context of that line is, “We’re hand-me-down, tailor-made, Daisy Dukes and dookie braids, James Brown and James Dean.” That anthemic call to unity is followed by “Different,” which looks to turn outside status into something sassy and fun, as Guyton sings, “I don’t want to fit in, I want to fit out,” and makes that sound as weightless as the record’s other meditations on nonconformity are heavy.
And Guyton is certainly capable of making a statement without Making A Statement. Look at the number of tracks on “Remember Her Name” that include other women’s names. In an age where even some of the most feminist-forward female singer-songwriters manage to make a record without ever bringing in any other women to work on them, Guyton has avoided using the obvious big guns of Nashville — although Nathan Chapman pops up on a few occasions — and has Karen Kosowski as her producer and co-writer on nine out of 16 tracks, along with at least one female co-writer on nearly every number, with Victoria Banks and Emma-Lee showing up most frequently in the credits. It’s hard to imagine all these themes coming through as strongly as they did if she’d submitted herself to very many of Music City’s mostly manly writers’ rooms.
If there’s anything that “Remember Her Name” could stand a little bit more of, it’s Guyton’s sexy side, as previously heard in the EP cut “Pretty Little Mustang,” and renewed on occasion here. Someday, maybe, she can set those gentle protest songs aside and just do an entire record’s worth of ballads as sexy as this record’s “Dancing in the Living Room.” For now, thank God she didn’t: the country music landscape of 2021 needs Guyton as a systemic rebel even a little more than it needs her as a traditional romantic. Carefree can wait.
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