It’s rare for any song to get a standing ovation from the entire house, much less one from a developing artist, at UMG Nashville’s annual artist showcase at the Ryman Auditorium during Country Radio Seminar. It happened when Kacey Musgraves debuted on that stage to sing “Merry Go Round.” It happened again when Chris Stapleton made his premiere appearance.
This week, while some of Universal’s more established country artists got rousing receptions and at least partial standing-Os for their performances, Mickey Guyton was the only one to immediately bring the entire 2,400-strong crowd of programmers and air personalities to its collective feet. Guyton isn’t technically a brand new face to those radio people — the powerhouse vocalist had a few airplay singles out that have done just okay — but it didn’t take more than a verse and a chorus of “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” to sense the whoa factor that would have everyone upright at the end of the song.
That doesn’t mean radio’s necessarily going to play it, whenever it comes out. Commercially, the tune has about 500 strikes going against it: It’s a ballad by a female relative newcomer — so there’s three right there, for starters. It’s dark. It’s socially conscious. And it addresses the elephant in country radio’s room in a way that could be slightly uncomfortable, by addressing the prejudices, roadblocks and danger women face (disproportionate airplay possibly among the least of them).
It’s also exquisitely sung, moving and brilliant… so there’s that. Could it be a CMA or Grammy song of the year contender and airplay No. 1, too? Who knows? It was, at least, the No. 1 song of Country Radio Seminar.
At a panel that immediately followed the noontime showcase — which also spotlighted better known stars like Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood and the return to the label of Reba McEntire — programmers said they’d add Guyton’s song right now, if it were on their desk. It’s not: she just wrote it three weeks ago and hasn’t gotten past demo-ing it yet, for a project that’s expected to come out later in the year. But she decided at the last moment to use her lone song slot at the showcase to try it out, rather than any of the songs UMG has already been earmarking as singles.
The standing ovation is even remarkable when you consider how little the song kowtows toward being a crowd-pleaser. It’s tough — tougher than Little Big Town’s similarly themed “The Daughters” (which that group premiered last year at the same showcase), and tough enough that you could almost call it a female disempowerment anthem, if you didn’t read in hope between the lines just from the very act of being able to speak truth. This more visceral gut-punch will be relatable for probably every woman in the audience but is also bound to provoke a response from any father as well as mother who’s faced or will face sending a daughter out into the world.
The lyrics (co-written with three women, Karen Kosowski, Victoria Bank and Emma-Lee):
She thinks life is fair
God hears every prayer
And everyone gets their ever after
She thinks love is love
And if you work hard, that’s enough
Skin’s just skin and it doesn’t matter
And that her friend’s older brother’s gonna keep his hands to himself
And that somebody’s gonna believe her when she tells
But what are you gonna tell her
When she’s wrong
Will you just shrug and say it’s been that way all along
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
What are you gonna tell her
Do you just let her pretend
That she could be the president
Would it help us get there any faster
Do you let her think the deck’s not stacked
And gay or straight or white or black
You just dream and anything can happen
Do you tell her not to fight
Is it worth the sacrifice
Can you look her in the face
And promise her that things’ll change
What are you gonna tell her
Maybe you can’t
Cause there ain’t no way
You can’t explain
What you don’t understand
Yeah what the hell do you tell her
Guyton, who’s currently in the studio working on a full collection of songs after several one-offs, told Variety about the impetus for the tune.
“I’ve been in Nashville for eight years now,” she says. “I’ve seen so many women that I love, including myself killing their spirits just for a chance to be heard. We have been overlooked and silenced for so long. But the tipping point for me was when a Filipino girl reached out to me on Instagram informing me that she got accepted to Belmont and was going to move to Nashville. She asked me what she had to look forward to in her journey, and I had nothing good to tell her. That was a heartbreaking reality. I realized that women cannot do whatever they put their mind to because the world won’t allow it. And that needs to change now. So this song came from that realization.”
She says the most pronounced standing ovation of Country Radio Seminar was not what she foresaw for her performance at the Ryman. “I was actually terrified that people were not going to be able to receive what I was asking them when I sang this song. But they not only received it, they accepted it.”
Women suddenly seem to be getting a fairer shot at country radio, with five songs currently in the top 20 for the first time in anyone’s memory, and Maren Morris’ “The Bones” currently clocking in as the first multi-week No. 1 for a solo female artist in the format since 2012. With all that promisingly said, is there really a chance that a hard-edged ballad like this, from an already well-liked but commercially unproven artist, could even get released as a single, much less conquer the charts?
“I absolutely have high hopes that radio will play this powerful song,” Guyton says. “But if they don’t, I’m okay with that, too. My purpose is to give a voice to women who have been silenced, which is basically every woman in the world. So I know this song will reach the masses because it is so truthful.”