RISSI PALMER'S COLOR OF COUNTRY
Updated: Dec 20, 2020
Had Rissi Palmer not become one of a handful of Black women ever to make Billboard magazine’s country-music charts, perform on the Grand Ole Opry—and land a record deal that ultimately would end in heartbreak—she might never have discovered a far more illuminating, satisfying path.
She might never have been among the groundbreaking artists of color who country superstar Maren Morris cited on stage as her inspirations as she accepted her third award of the night, this one for female singer of the year, at the Country Music Association Awards in November 2020.
There was Palmer, mentioned alongside lost legend Linda Martell, the genius Rhiannon Giddens, rising star Mickey Guyton, British country-soul singer Yola, and the great Charley Pride—who had just received the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award on the same stage. Weeks later, Pride would pass away of complications from COVID-19.
Palmer, now an independent singer-songwriter living in Durham, North Carolina, is still making music and has grown in visibility as the host of Color Me Country on Apple Music Country, giving voice to other young artists of color pursuing their own kind of country dream.
“It’s interesting to me how much everyone’s stories intersect at certain points,” Palmer said in an interview with SoulCountry. “There’s always that moment of recognition that there’s not a lot of people who look like me (in country) and it’s going to be hard.
“You’re told that I’m not sure there’s a place for you, or if there’s a place for you we have to make it ‘believable’,” she said.
Finding her path
Born in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, and raised in Chesterfield, Missouri, outside of St. Louis, Palmer spent many summers visiting her “Poopoo”—a.k.a. Mamie Shropshire in Atlanta, and making the trek to stay with her great-grandmother, Janie Lou Richardson, in Summerville, Georgia—a little town that inspired one of her best songs, carrying the town’s name.
“It is a very common black experience to go to your grandparents house for the summer,” she said. “I remember my 9 year old asking me if I ever went to summer camp, and I was like, ‘Girl, no. I went to Georgia.’”
Palmer's influences were honestly country, then, when she first made waves on the country music scene. In 2007, her video for “Country Girl” began to appear nationwide on CMT. Co-written by Palmer, the song hit No. 54 in on the Billboard country charts that October. It’s a radio-friendly melody with a bluesy edge, dobro and harmonica. Palmer sings:
“It's the way I think not how I talk, oh no It's a pride you feel that makes you walk the walk Come Sunday morning palms up in praise It's all about my mama 'nem and how I was raised.”
She followed her lead single with two more chart hits from her self-titled debut album, on which she wrote or co-wrote most of the songs: “Hold On to Me,” a modern country-pop romantic ballad co-written by Palmer, Shaye Smith, and Ed Hill, driven by mandolin, guitar and fiddle, which hit No. 58 the following May.
Her longest stay and highest point on the charts came in June that same summer, when her banjo-driven rendition of the Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown pop-and-R&B smash “No Air” hit No. 48, spending nearly four months on the charts.
Palmer signed her first publishing deal at the age of 19 and a record deal at just 26. She didn’t know much about the history of country artists of color at the time. Her appearance on the 2004 CMT documentary about Black country artists, Waiting in the Wings, helped her realize the importance of what she was doing—and whether others had come before her.
“I’ll be honest with you—it was like a revelation to me that there were other people doing this who look like me,” she said. “That was my first introduction to DeFord Bailey and Linda Martell and Frankie Staton. You only ever hear about Charley Pride, so it was nice to not feel strange or alone in my pursuit.”
Palmer began to realize she didn’t belong in the mainstream country industry. "I was tired of being treated like a product rather than a person, and of never feeling like I was enough, or too much of anything to truly fit in," she said.
“Leaving the label was the worst time of my life, and I still deal with residuals from it now. But if I hadn’t decided that it wasn’t for me and that it was time for me to go, then no, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. It took “such a painful situation that I’m now able to come to the table to do this show with a lot of wisdom and confidence in that wisdom.”
“I don’t ever see myself trying to get back on the commercial country charts, and it’s because I’m having so much fun doing what I’m doing right now,” Palmer said.
About 10 years ago, she began more of her own research into the history of the genre’, which was explored in Ken Burns’ country music documentary that aired last year on PBS. “I had an album compilation of black artists called From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music… that piqued my interest as well,” she said.
The idea for the Color Me Country radio show came from the encouragement of a friend and Palmer’s exchanges with fans and artists on social media.
“It started as a Twitter thread. I realized people were interested in hearing this story,” she said. “These conversations were not happening at all and… quite frankly, I probably would have been dissuaded from having this conversation (in years past). My best friend, Shellie, had been telling me for years that I should do a podcast or something. She encouraged me to put all this knowledge and frustration into a project and in that moment, Color Me Country was born.”
The radio show has hit a nerve and helped begin to spread change, landing her on NPR, in Rolling Stone, adding to her earlier appearances at the White House and Lincoln Center.
“I got tired of reading journalists make these very short lists of black artists or artists of color that have been involved in country music. It’s always those same five artists,” she said. It was a “short sighted way to tell this story and it makes it look like no one was doing anything ‘til 1968 when Charley Pride came” on the scene.
Her show already has featured candid interviews with the talented and poignant singer Mickey Guyton, the Nashville husband-and-wife duo The War and Treaty, and the biggest (and most amiable) of all Black country stars, Darius Rucker.
“Darius was one of the only other people that was out (making mainstream records) when I was,” Palmer said, “so when he reached out to be on the show, I was honored.”
The show also has featured Nashville singer Joe West, whose parents had performed as Sarge and Shirley West—the first and only Black duo to record albums and appear on regional Opry shows in the late 1960s. Palmer had run across the couple’s ad in a vintage Billboard magazine calling them, “Mr. and Mrs. Negro Country and Western.”
“I tracked down their son and I did an interview with him, because Sarge has passed and Shirley is in a nursing home now,” said Palmer, noting that Joe West has produced a documentary on his parents’ careers, called A Song Can Change A Life.
New episodes of Color Me Country feature an array of talent, such as Latina artist Valerie Ponzio, indigenous Canadian artist Crystal Shawanda, and gospel-folk singer Brittney Spencer. A future episode will feature British cow-punk singer DeLila Black. (See SoulCountry’s recent feature on DeLila Black here.)
“I’m just excited to get to tell these stories and be the platform that should’ve existed when I was out there,” Palmer said. “I want to provide a safe space for these artists to tell their truth without fear of push back or misunderstanding. I get where they’re coming from because I’ve been there.”
“We’re going to do a show in January called The Class of 2021, where I’m going to feature a bunch of young women who I’ve come in contact with who are just phenomenal,” Palmer said. “These are all just independent artists that are out here playing music and self-producing.”
Palmer even heard from a relative of Martell, the first Black woman to appear on the Grand Ole Opry and whose 1970 album is the namesake of Palmer’s program.
“When her daughter wrote me and said she was aware of the show and everything, I was just blown away. I cried,” Palmer said. “I’ve wanted to interview (her),” Palmer said of Martell, but she tried to “partner that with respect for her wanting to be in her new life and not be bothered.”
“I’m excited that she’s getting her moment, I really am,” she said of Martell. “Anything that any of us have been through in the present day is nothing compared to what she’s been through.”
Country roots and ‘Seeds’
Palmer’s newest record, Revival, arrived as Black Lives Matter protests erupted nationwide over the police killings of young Black Americans. The lead track, “Seeds,” preaches unity and justice, keeping her pop-country framework but with smarter lyrics and more serious themes.
“Country music in its barest form … It relates to all of us. It’s like a human story, and we all can relate to that,” she said. “It’s when you get into the commercialization and the branding, it becomes this exclusive, narrow thing.”
Earlier, after her departure from a major label, Palmer recorded an EP, The Back Porch Sessions, in 2015, which Palmer “dedicated to my great-grandmother’s back porch.”
“It was my first project that I’d done on my own as an independent artist, outside of the children’s album (Best Day Ever in 2012),” she said. “I had been hiding that song from the record label,” knowing the end of her contract was near.
More powerful than “Country Girl,” the song is about the town where as a girl Palmer spent most of her summers. The song's simple melody and straightforward lyrics lay atop a rather profound country song about the common Black experience of traveling South or to the country to visit relatives for the summer. Palmer's soulful vocals also sound more authentic than some pop-country singers who try to sound more like Beyonce' than themselves.
"You raised us all on kisses and honey
Jesus and switches, stretching money
You knew God and you gave him to us
We had you so we knew love
Oh, Highland Avenue
Ooh-oh I left too soon
It took 20 years, a few left turns
To get me back to where you were
Where love was still in Summerville
… My heart is still in Summerville"
“That song is special to me for a lot of reasons… I didn’t think about if people were going to love it or not. I just knew I loved it,” she said. “My grandmother was a huge influence, because when my mother died, she helped raise me.
Her grandmother’s home also was “one of the first places I heard country music and R&B music all mingled together,” she said. “My great-grandmother’s radio was constantly on, and so when we were there you just heard music all day long.”
“Summerville,” which Palmer said was first inspired by Wynonna’s “Flies on the Butter,” became the official song of the town, situated in the rolling hills about 90 miles northwest of Atlanta.
Palmer even shot the music video there, featuring a performance and images of the town, including folk artist Howard Finster's eccentric home (as seen in R.E.M.'s videos).
“They actually had Rissi Palmer Day in Summerville,” the singer said.
“My mother was born there, my grandma was raised there—born and raised—my great grandma, great-great grandma and grandfather,” she said. “This picture that I’m holding is all of us in my great grandmother’s front yard in Summerville.
“And so, I felt like I wanted to write a song that was dedicated to this cluster of really strong women who made me who I am, and also to kind of pay homage to where I first started singing period.”
The future of country
A decade ago, Palmer settled with her husband and daughters in Durham—where her husband’s career led them and where Palmer has found a rich artistic community in a city with an impressive history of blues, folk music and social activism.
After living in New York, Los Angeles, Nashville and Atlanta, “I didn’t think of North Carolina as … a great place for me to be making music, but it has been the most cultural and artistically enriching base for me than anyplace I’ve ever been,” Palmer said. “It’s my favorite creative community, and I feel like I’ve grown as a person and musically from being here.”
Her next album may be a stripped-down, acoustic project that reflects the quarantine of 2020. “I’ve been toying with the idea for years,” she said. “I’m currently writing a song with Shannon Sanders, who’s a longtime collaborator and producer.”
The same duo wrote the Color Me Country theme song. “We’ve only written the chorus,” Palmer said. “We’re trying to finish that right now.”
Despite the newfound recognition for Palmer, the remembrances of Charley Pride, and the words from the stage of the CMAs, the future for country artists of color may be outside the lines.
“I’m not expecting miracles, I’ll be honest with you,” Palmer said. “I think the future of country artists… it’s in the Jason Isbells and the Chris Stapletons, and it’s happening outside the industry. I mean, that’s how all music, honestly, is happening. Unfortunately, the innovation is not happening in the commercial sector.”
While it makes fewer performers rich, the path for independent artists allows for much more freedom.
“People have the freedom and autonomy to do what they wanted to do… The industry is just going to have to catch up. Having to be beholden to radio, I think, is the downfall of the genre—all genres—to be quite frank with you,” Palmer said.
“I’m never going to be angry or turn my nose at what’s happening commercially, because I once was in that arena myself. But I think when you take all of the corporateness out of the equation is when you get a genuine, real thing,” she added.
“You get the soulfulness, you get the honesty, you get the quirkiness. You get art.”
Support Rissi Palmer’s Color Me Artist Fund to assist musicians of color during the pandemic and the lack of live shows.