Mickey Guyton follows her instincts on the triumphant Remember Her Name

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Mickey Guyton
Mickey Guyton

Bonnie Nichoalds Mickey Guyton's full-length country debut arrives at a moment when the genre is still grappling with race

Mickey Guyton took country music by surprise last summer when "Black Like Me," her slow-burning call for empathy and understanding inspired by John Howard Griffin's 1961 book of the same name, became a smash. But she's been plying her craft as a songwriter and vocalist for a decade, and her debut album Remember Her Name, which is full of heartfelt songs that soar and shiver alongside Guyton's majestic vocal, is a full-spectrum showcase of her long-simmering talent.

Guyton began pursuing music as a full-time vocation in 2011, signing a deal with Capitol Nashville that year. But the road to her first single was a rocky one, with people in the business telling the Texas native how to tailor her songwriting style to come off as "really country," and how her status as a Black woman made her an outlier on the exceedingly white, mostly male world of country radio. She released her first single, "Better Than You Left Me," in 2015; it was a modest hit, and she nabbed an ACM Award nomination for Best Female Vocalist of the Year.

Then "Black Like Me" happened. Guyton wrote the ballad in 2019, after she'd made a significant change to her songwriting philosophy. She cast aside the advice she'd been given earlier in the 2010s, instead digging in to her experiences as a Black woman in America for inspiration. "Black Like Me" was intended to be on her long-in the-works debut album, but when the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 led to a surge of protests around the world, Guyton posted it to her Instagram account. "Black Like Me" quickly became a streaming-music sensation, and a single listen reveals why: Guyton guides its growth from spare ballad to roof-raising powerhouse that blends country vocal melodies with charging "oh-ohs" and plainspoken lyrics. "If you think we live in the land of the free/you should try to be Black like me," she states on its first chorus.

Ten years after signing her record deal, the now-38-year-old Guyton has released her first full-length. It arrives at a moment when country music is still grappling with race, starting with the fallout — and depressing lack thereof — from an incident where mega-selling artist Morgan Wallen was caught on tape using a racial slur. Over 16 tracks, Guyton, who co-wrote all but one of the album's songs, describes life as a Black woman through metaphor-rich romantic ballads, inspirational rallying cries, story songs — and, of course, the obligatory barroom anthem, here the lively salute to pink wine "Rosé."

Guyton has a strong, clear soprano that makes her music emotion-forward even as each song's individual styles vary. Cuts like the sparkling title track and the thoughtful "Do You Really Wanna Know" blend disarmingly honest lyrics with a vibe that recalls the widescreen country-pop hits of the '90s. The self-affirming "Different" is an energetic party track that feels ripe for guest verses from pop, R&B, hip-hop, and country badasses. "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" a tender portrait of maternal anxieties, channels the pain of lived experience into a tension-racked lullaby for a parent who can't sleep, while "Dancing In the Living Room," a disco ball-lit ballad about reveling in private time at home, glows with the satisfaction of mutual love.

Near the end of Remember, Guyton covers "If I Were A Boy," a musing on gender expectations that Beyoncé recorded for 2008's I Am… Sasha Fierce. In the context of Remember, Guyton's performance of "Boy" is another example of how putting people in boxes stunts their growth. It's a pointed rebuke to country-music gatekeepers, too, revealing the ridiculousness of those record executives who are still trying to draw bright lines between country and R&B. It's followed by an airy remix of Guyton's debut single, which closes on a lyric — "No, baby, I don't think you know me anymore/I'm better than you left me" — that doubles as a statement of self for Guyton, who found success when she began following her instincts.

"It has been such a struggle to get people to listen to me," Guyton told EW last fall. With Remember Her Name, Guyton raises her voice proudly, flaunting her songwriting power and vocal guile while demonstrating how reflecting a more complete picture of America can only make country music better. Grade: B+

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