- By Alan Richard
MICKEY GUYTON'S RYMAN MEMORIES
NASHVILLE — Country singer Mickey Guyton shed some real tears from the Ryman Auditorium stage on October 17.
While not the first time she'd performed from the Mother Church of Country Music's stage, it was another important step for Guyton in bringing country to a broader audience.
On this night, she was the opener for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, the progressive Southern Americana-rock singer and one of the best songwriters in music and his terrific band on the third night of their October residency at the Ryman.
Isbell’s eight-show run featured thoughtfully chosen opening acts, all of them women and nearly all women of color.
His wife, Amanda Shires, brought her smart songs and fiddling to the first show, followed by singer-songwriter Brittney Spencer on the next night, then Guyton and a series of other important rising talents in country and Americana.
Following Guyton were: the incredible young East Tennessee mountain-soul artist Amythyst Kiah; leading blueswoman Shemekia Copeland (joined by SoulCountry friend Will Kimbrough); the brilliant and courageous Allison Russell; talented singer-songwriter Joy Oladokun; and Adia Victoria, a true original and South Carolina native, who'll open some additional dates for Isbell in early 2022.
Guyton was the most country-pop-oriented opener during Isbell's Ryman, but seemed right at home. The mainly Americana-oriented audience seemed to understand the meaning of these performances, making Guyton's well-earned tears flow with multiple standing ovations.
Guyton opened her set at the Ryman with an intimate version of “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” It was just her and a backing piano on what might always remain her most important statement-song, first released last year on her excellent Bridges EP and again on her brand-new album:
“What are you gonna tell her When she figures out That all this time you built her up
just so the world could let her down? Yeah, what do you tell her? Mmm What are you gonna tell her?
What are you gonna tell her When she's wrong? Will you just shrug and say it's been that way all along?”
This song alone shows that Guyton's voice matters, and frankly, she doesn't need a white, male reviewer like me to say so.
Songs to remember
Guyton's talent beamed when she performed the standout title track from her new record, Remember Her Name.
The song's title and chorus repeats the phrase that entered common vernacular following Breonna Taylor's death at the hands of police in Louisville, Kentucky. But Guyton said from the stage that the lyrics speak to herself and anyone who needs a reminder of her own strength:
“Remember the fire, remember her face
She felt the storm and danced out in the pouring rain
Remember her laughing
through all the pain
Remember the girl that didn’t let anything get in her way
Remember her name”
Few mainstream pop-country artists can sing a song like “I Love My Hair,” which Guyton told there Ryman audience is about her struggle to embrace herself as a Black woman and as a singer.
Guyton's band gave “Higher,” a song with such a memorable, gospel-influenced pop hook, a stronger, punchier guitar-rock feel than on her new album. The more organic live versions of her songs often sound better than the studio versions, which suffer from over-production at times. (This is common in today's pop-country music, of course.)
At the Ryman, Guyton also covered “If I Were a Boy,” which she recalled hearing as a girl suffering from her first heartache. Beyonce’s original was a major influence in her decision to pursue music as a career, Guyton said from the stage.
On the upbeat “All American,” which could easily be a No. 1 pop-country hit if country fans would embrace the song's we're-all-the-same message and catchy, anthemic chorus, Guyton sang:
“We're hand me down, tailor made, daisy dukes, dookie braids James Brown and James Dean We're cold beer, champagne, millionaires, spare some change And everything in between
Ain't we all, ain't we all American? Ain't we all, ain't we all American?”
Another impressive moment: Guyton’s performance of “Better Than You Left Me,” which I take as modern country-soul. The song helped Guyton gain notoriety in country music upon its release as a single on her debut EP, earning her an Academy of Country Music Award nomination for best new female vocalist.
Sung live, Guyton gave the song more weight than just about anything I’ve heard from mainstream country music in recent years.
Even when taking steps in the right direction, the country music industry has continued to show embarrassing clumsiness in identifying and promoting Guyton and other women artists of color.
A native Texan who grew up in Waco, Guyton came to Nashville in 2011 and reportedly signed with Capitol Records in 2015.
The label then took years to put Guyton's new album on the market, even after “Better Than You Left Me” made waves (but wasn't embraced by country radio).
Guyton made history this year, becoming the first Black woman to be nominated for a Grammy nomination in country music for last year's powerful single, “Black Like Me.” She was nominated this year for a Country Music Association Award for Best New Artist, despite having been in the business for several years now.
In October, CMT also named her Breakout Artist of the Year, and she accepted the award with her characteristic grace. (Guyton and Yola also sang a stirring version of “Remember Her Name” on the CMT awards broadcast.)
Despite all the twists in her career path, Guyton's star continues to rise. This spring, she became the first Black person to host the Academy of Country Music Awards this year since Charley Pride in the 1980s, singing “Black Like Me.”
With this much talent and a personal story that reflects the journey of so many Americans, why is she not one of country music's top artists already?
From here on, what's country music going to tell her?
MORE: Our story on some of today's best and most promising Black artists in Americana music, based on an important discussion during AmericanaFest.
ALSO: Learn more, as we did, about the role of Black musicians at key points in the development of country music, in this 2020 story from SoulCountry.