Country Jukebox Jury LPs: RaeLynn and Mickey Guyton

RaeLynn – Baytown

In the modern style, echoing the likes of Maddie & Tae, an entire album seems to have already been rolled out. There’s nothing wrong with that, when streaming comes first for an artist targeted at the under-30s with their playlists and TikTok accounts, but it doesn’t half dilute the impact of a new full-length release when most of the songs are well known.

I spent the first part of 2020 deeply hooked on Keep Up, a wonderful song in which RaeLynn boasted of her ‘Baytown twang’. Suitably, her album (which begins with Keep Up) is named after her hometown, population 76,000, who should all be proud of her.

I loved her song Love Triangle, a slow burner from her last full-length release, and the Lori McKenna co-write God Made Girls, both of which she performed in the tent outside the O2 Arena when she came over for Country2Country in 2019. She also supported Maren Morris in some big UK venues that spring, where she played the fine trio of Bra Off (‘breaking up with you is like taking my bra off, feeling free and loose’), the bro-country-sung-by-a-gal Rowdy and the excellent song Only In A Small Town.

That last tune was written by small-town bard Rhett Akins and we get plenty of rural signifiers: Walmart, ‘more trucks than cars’, ‘tea is sweet’, dogs in the shotgun seat, living for Friday, back roads, first kiss in the backroads, fishing…but not bingo because God isn’t there for some reason. Rhett being Rhett, there’s a fun verse about ex-boyfriends and a good line about going to ‘Mickey D’s…supersized’. The vocal has personality and charm, as always, although I do wonder how many ways Rhett Akins can write the same song before he runs out of road. Crap, that’ll probably be a Rhett Akins song too!

We’ve also heard Still Smokin’, a jazzy song about a summer fling; Fake Girl Town, about being a young lady hiding the hurt on a night out (Jesus gets a namecheck in the chorus); and Judgin’ To Jesus, which is full of personality and wit and reminds me of Maddie & Tae’s finest tunes, especially because RaeLynn raps the verses.

The previously released pair of Me About Me – a slice of autobiography disguised as a lament for her partner not asking about her – and Small Town Prayer (‘we’re so little and He’s so big’) both show depth in her songwriting. She Chose Me, written with the stellar Jimmy Robbins, is a story of her own conception: ‘More than just love was made’ when her parents met in a Galveston motel room. Her mum didn’t choose ‘one quick fix’ and instead gave birth to Rachael Lynn! What a bold song to release, and no wonder if was kept from the public until the album. The album concludes with a demo version of her song Made For Me To Love, which is all about her own pregnancy which led to a newborn baby a few weeks ago. Jesus gets a namecheck in the third verse.

Neon Cowgirl is a barroom song where RaeLynn encourages the protagonist to keep shining in spite of her breakup, a more traditional take on the Maddie & Tae tune Bathroom Floor. The production from Corey Crowder, who also helped Chris Young’s recent work, is tender.

Not happy with a spot on that Chris Young album Mitchell Tenpenny joins RaeLynn on Get That All The Time, which was curiously written by both Tyler Hubbard and Kane Brown but which features neither of them. This might be because it’s a bit of fluff set in a bar and doesn’t really feature much of the male vocalist.

Elsewhere, Blake Shelton uses his muscle as her former Voice coach to duet on Why I Got A Truck, another song co-written by T-Hub (whose Tree Vibez label puts out RaeLynn’s music). Blake play the role of a father figure teaching RaeLynn to drive a big vehicle: ‘It’s a little bumpy but I like it that way!’ There’s also a nice Joe Diffie allusion as Blake purrs how girls ‘love a pickup man’. It’s just two country kids singing about trucks and there’s nowt more country than that.

Mickey Guyton – Remember Her Name

I worry for Mickey Guyton who has spent seven years waiting to release her debut album.

Thanks to the protests over the treatment of black Americans, Nashville has looked around and realised there’s not much diversity in the sea of white faces (make it happen at executive level too and there’ll be proper change). It remains a damning indictment that Mickey could release a human being into the world before this album, and credit should go to Capitol Nashville for financing this album and, hopefully, enable her to support a top-level artist (I would suggest Alicia Keys) on tour next year. She went out with Brad Paisley back in 2015, since when a lot has changed. Chrissy Metz, a make-up artist who became an actress on This Is Us, is one of many singers who are better known by country fans than Mickey.

Mickey is now based in LA, so is geographically far away from Nashville, and I think it’s a farewell. She knows, as I do, that she’ll be treated as the Black Girl in Town. She’s already been given a CMT Award and I am sure a CMA Award will follow. Her voice is similar to that of Carrie Underwood and is best served by ballads like Better When You Left Me, which appears in a new version six years after it was first released. Imagine Carrie with a political conscience.

This is definitely her story and it stands out in today’s climate. Black Like Me (‘it’s a hard life on easy street’) and What Are You Gonna Tell Her are both showstoppers which would be perfect for American Idol contestants in lieu of the Dreamgirls official soundtrack. Both of those songs brought Mickey back into the conversation; I knew of her through Somebody Else Will, a poppy track written by some A-Listers that felt very conveyer belt. Now, as an artist, she follows acts like Maren Morris and Carly Pearce in being more than a cookie-cutter Music Row puppet.

Jon Caramanica spoke to Mickey for the New York Times, where the singer revealed she was on medication to keep her mood up and, shockingly, recounted the times she had to go on round trips to Atlanta to see a stylist for her red carpet appearances when she first broke through. She also self-medicated with alcohol, which she doesn’t now she’s a mummy. That brings a new flavour to Rose, which becomes a sort of taunt rather than a bachelorette anthem.

Another theme on the album is Mickey’s place in the world, using her identity to inform her art, which starts with the title track that opens the album. With impassioned vocals, especially in the middle eight, Mickey does the modern thing of ‘taking up space’ in a way that should inspire the listener. It’s a great instrument that hasn’t been allowed to flourish in Nashville; again, it damns the city.

All American trots around the country and ticks off ‘James Brown and James Dean’ to unite black and white before unleashing a chantalong chorus. Fine British songwriter Anna Krantz gets a co-write on Love My Hair, another song which will launch a thousand thinkpieces: ‘I found my freedom,’ Mickey sings, addressing her 12-year-old self and all 12-year-old girls who will see an aunt or big sister figure.

The tracklisting is full of punchy one-word titles: Words is a therapy session in song which rhymes ‘my truth/bulletproof’ and will resonate with plenty of listeners (‘what can I say, I’m only human’); the insistent pop song Different, which actually sounds like a song that would play over the credits of a Disney movie aimed at kids, perhaps on purpose; the worshipful ballad Higher, written with Narada Michael Walden who wrote I Love Your Smile for Shanice; the accusatory Smoke, written with Balewa Muhammed who worked on Dirrty for Christina Aguilera; and Indigo, where Mickey is ‘bluer than blue’.

Some of the tracks take on themes which are too rote. Lay It On Me is another one of those songs about crying on the singer’s shoulder and feels like filler. Dancing in the Living Room is another one of those songs about slow-dancing in a dimly lit room. Do You Really Wanna Know is another one of those songs about hiding the truth about how you feel, with the revelation that her dependency on drink has led her to therapy and changing ‘the way I think about the way I think’.

Grady Smith once described ‘Nashville country music’ today as the intersection between Adult Contemporary, Christian music and pop music, with a dash of rural themes common in country music. Like Dan + Shay, Gabby Barrett and Thomas Rhett, Mickey is operating in this genre, which may well open up the genre to black acts like Brittney Spencer and Chapel Hart. Mickey’s album is fine, but what she represents is the game-changer.

I can’t wait for the follow-up, which ought not to take eight years to make.

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