A Black Woman's Kick-Ass Country Music

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Why you should care

She brings Dionne Warwick and Patsy Cline into the same room — that’s our kind of party.

It’s about time Mickey Guyton kicked her coldhearted, shit-kicker boyfriend to the curb — and country music stereotypes along with him.

The high-level country-radio exposure given to Guyton’s debut single, “Better Than You Left Me,” sets a precedent worthy of her breakthrough as a Black female singer in a genre not known for having too many. Her song’s music video shows this is more than just a sociological statistic: Not only can the sister sang, she broadens the definition of that colloquial, ghettoized “sister.”

In wistful montages of her solitary wanderings around a house so empty it looks windswept, Guyton reminisces about her heart being broken by a lover’s frosty goodbye. The video, directed by Peter Zavadil, is sunlit and Guyton isn’t gloomy. “Better Than You Left Me” is in the tradition of country music resolve and pop female perseverance. Guyton’s long-faced expressions frequently break into chin-up smiles — notably when two white girlfriends (cast to reflect America’s plurality as well as country-western’s proven market) visit with baked goods and good cheer to encourage her recovery.

This sisterhood has a pedigree, shown when the BFFs go out on the town, including a stop at a music store where they browse vinyl LPs and pull out a Patsy Cline classic. Guyton scans the cover briefly, admiringly, and this is where the point of the video’s uniqueness — and its charm — kick in: It breaks the mold of pop music fragmentation and cultural segregation.

Guyton’s Southern intonations casually lay waste to the enervating assumption that Black Americans don’t relate to country music — that Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Tom T. Hall and Dierks Bentley appeal only to white listeners with red necks and pickup trucks.

The interracial, cross-cultural reality can be seen in Guyton herself as she takes up the vulnerable-but-strong torch tradition borne by Patsy Cline. “Better Than You Left Me” even has the slightly waltzy tempo that opened Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” — only without Aretha’s gospel inflection. Guyton’s country-western vibe is no less authentic; it’s equally part of an American music prodigy’s heritage. Zavadil may frame Guyton to resemble the long tresses and delicate emoting of commercial giant Carrie Underwood, yet keen-eyed viewers will note a Beyoncé breeze blowing Guyton’s hair in that empty house that no longer feels like a home. “Better Than You Left Me” also echoes Dionne Warwicke’s 1964 hit “A House Is Not a Home.” It’s uncanny that the more Guyton evokes Aretha and Dionne, the more countrified and at-home she seems.

Born in Arlington, Texas, in 1984 — the year music charts were topped by Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and the Judds’ “Mama He’s Crazy” — Guyton grew up in an era of musical ferment when country and urban audiences enjoyed music from opposite cultures and wider points of origin. The twang in Guyton’s voice is genuine — the regional sound of sob-choked longing and vibrant passion expressed in a simple, natural way. It’s one of the all-American sounds, representing vast sections of the map, and Guyton is one of the ways by which we get to cross it. As the video ends, Guyton changes place with her car-driving girlfriends and takes the wheel. Music culture is better for the way she expands it.

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