The country musician Rissi Palmer settles into a chair in her Durham studio. Behind her is a blackboard where she’s scrawled to-do lists, a Quincy Jones quote, and her three-month goals. She’s such an enthralling presence—intent, gracious, and assertive—that it takes me a moment to notice the tiny hand reaching up from the bottom of the Zoom frame to tug her hair. It’s Nova, her baby daughter, whom she’s nursing while effortlessly rattling off country music deep cuts. She’s equally unfazed when her husband, Bryan, and her dog wander in and out of the frame. Rissi Palmer can do it all.
“Mommy could be doing the most important things in the whole world, and it still doesn’t matter,” Palmer says with a smile and shrug.
It’s September 3, a few days after the release of the first episode of Color Me Country, Palmer’s new Apple Music radio show, which focuses on the Black, Indigenous, and Latinx histories of country music. The name comes from Palmer’s patron saint, Linda Martell, a country singer who, in 1969, became the first Black woman to sing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
“I was nervous because this is a really important project to me,” Palmer says. “When it’s an album, you can be like, ‘Well, I don’t care, because I love it.’ But with this, it’s really important to me to get it right because it’s not just my story—this is a lot of people’s story.”
The task of telling the alternative history of country music is a big one, in part because so little information about it exists. Google pulls up a handful of think pieces, many of them born during the Lil Nas X media frenzy, when his hooky TikTok sensation “Old Town Road” topped the country charts before being removed by Billboard for not being “country” enough.
In the wake of that controversy, listicles about Black country artists sprang up alongside pieces that framed artists of color in relation to their influence on the genre—which, since country originated in Black traditions, are many.
Still, the commercial side of the genre is unfriendly to Black artists and listeners, with a charged history of erasing that influence, seldom signing artists of color and keeping them off the radio. When Black country stars have managed to break those barriers, they rarely receive the standard Nashville treatment or receive the recognition they’ve earned.
This is where Color Me Country comes in, with a debut season that focuses exclusively on women.
“It’s really important to me to normalize this for these women to become part of the conversation, not just in an ‘other’ kind of way,” Palmer says. “In the same breath that you talk about Kelsea Ballerini, you should be talking about Miko Marks.”
The first woman we get to know, in the first episode of Color Me Country, is Palmer. We learn of her influences, from Lionel Richie to Patty Griffin, and hear from her close circle—her best friend, her husband, her nine-year-old daughter—in an intimate look at Palmer’s journey to Nashville. There, with “Country Girl” in 2007, she became the first Black artist in 20 years to chart a country single.
Palmer was born and raised outside of Pittsburgh. At age 12, she moved with her family to Missouri, where she consumed a steady radio diet of pop and hip-hop. She was obsessed with Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, and the Backstreet Boys.
But her Georgia-born parents loved country music, and she did, too.
“I didn’t feel like I could say out loud that I liked country because I felt like a lot of my friends would look at me crazy—‘Girl, you like country?’ So I didn’t tell a lot of people that that’s what I was listening to,” Palmer says. “I would pull into school listening to Tupac and really, a few minutes before, I was listening to Trisha Yearwood.”
From a young age, Palmer knew she wanted to sing. At 16, she busted out Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine” on a chicken-shit-littered Arkansas State Fair stage. A few years later, she dropped out of DePaul University in Chicago to pursue music, and at age 19, she was offered a shot at R&B stardom when the producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis—a duo that has worked with the likes of Janet Jackson and Palmer’s idol, Mariah Carey—offered her a record deal on Flyte Tyme Records.
But she turned it down: The sound wasn’t her.
When Palmer was 21, a Star Search rep came across a performance by her, and she went on to place third in the 2003 season of the talent show. Things picked up speed from there: She signed with the label 1720 Entertainment and, in 2007, released her self-titled debut album, which featured the clear-eyed, joyful single, “Country Girl” which peaked at number 54 on the country music charts. It was followed by two more Billboard Hot Country Songs: “Hold On to Me,” which reached number 59 in May 2008, and a cover of Jordin Sparks’s “No Air,” which peaked at 47 a month later. Palmer also achieved another dream, following in Linda Martell’s footsteps, when she sang at the Grand Ole Opry in 2007.
But Nashville music is a tough business, especially for a Black woman, and artistic differences led her to leave her label in 2009—a decision that turned into a legal dispute and prevented Palmer from recording for a year.
She’s continued to release albums, though none have replicated the chart success of her early singles. In 2013, after having her first child, Grace, she released the children’s album Best Day Ever, followed by a five-song-EP, The Back Porch Sessions, in 2015, and Revival in 2019.
Palmer’s career has taken her to New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, and finally, Durham, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. About 500 miles from Nashville, she’s found true kinship with musicians like Phil Cook and XOXOK’s Keenan Jenkins.
“It’s not like Los Angeles; it’s not like New York,” Palmer says. “This is a true community. You can reach out and touch these people.”
Kamara Thomas, who runs the series Country Soul Songbook—which highlights alternative voices in country, soul, and Americana—says she and Palmer are each other’s biggest fans.
“Our aims are so similar, in that we care about the music,” Thomas says. “We’re willing to put our action behind the change we want to see within it.”
“I try to make sure that I have the same drive and passion for my work that I’ve seen in her, because I know that’s what gets artists through setbacks,” Jenkins says. “She is obviously a trailblazer for Black women in country music, but she is a guidepost for me as well.”
Since Palmer’s 2007 hit, there have been other songs with the same title, from Luke Bryan’s too-cheesy-to-be-sleazy tailgate anthem—which includes that infamous parenthetical wink, “country girl (shake it for me)”—to the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ defiant portrait of a backwoods Southern woman. And there were others before Palmer, who certainly didn’t invent the phrase.
But she did reinvent it. As her hit single has it, being a country girl isn’t about a dress code or zip code or race. It’s not being a Georgia Peach or Tennessee Ten. It’s about heartbreak and bare feet and true love and tire swings; appreciating the small things and honoring your roots. That’s being a country girl. And that’s country music.
Originally, Palmer had planned to release the podcast on June 29, during the national Black Lives Matter protests. But then, a week before the release, she checked her email to find a message from Apple. They’d heard about her podcast, and they wanted to hear more.
Over the summer, the entertainment industry has taken a hard look in the mirror and made some promising gestures toward racial equity. Reese Witherspoon announced the production of a country music talent show that will focus on diversity. Faith Hill and Charlie Worsham avowed support for Mississippi removing Confederate iconography from its state flag. The Dixie Chicks scrambled to drop the “Dixie” from their name, followed by Lady Antebellum becoming Lady A (and swiftly blundering into a messy $10 million lawsuit with a Black blues singer of the same name).
But it’s a tough industry to reform overnight. Whiteness is the bedrock of commercial country music, where blues roots have been systematically whitewashed over time, replaced with anthems that sell jingoism, xenophobia, and large, expensive trucks.
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Rhiannon Giddens was blunt about why more people don’t know about country music’s diverse roots: “White supremacy. There is no other way to put it: It was constructed by numerous people as part of the white-supremacy movement.”
Is a tide really turning in country music?
“Ask me in a year,” Palmer says. She’s less concerned with performative allyship that directs attention to the growth of white artists than with directing attention to the artists of color that are already out there, doing the work and singing the songs.
“We’re advocating for our daughters being able to show up into a creative space and be defined for just what they’re bringing,” Kamara Thomas says. “I think part of what Color Me Country is trying to do is carve out those spaces where it’s like, ‘You just come here to be an artist.’”
Season one’s focus on women is appropriate, as country music has both race and gender problems, doubling the challenges for women of color. The next episode, which comes out September 13, will feature a conversation with Miko Marks, a husky-voiced country singer who has received critical acclaim and comparisons to Wynonna Judd, but has yet to break through the charts or major-market stations.
Color Me Country takes its name from the Linda Martell album that turned 50 this year, which was released by a label that was, in gutting proof of the industry’s racism, called Plantation Records. Martell has been a shadowy figure for years: It was known that she lived somewhere in South Carolina, but that was about it. In the first episode, Palmer says that even if she never got to meet Martell, she was content to honor her legacy.
But then a wonky cosmic coincidence happened: Martell broke her silence. On September 2, just days after the show’s debut, she was interviewed in a Rolling Stone feature titled “Country’s Lost Pioneer.” It’s a wrenching story about a voice edged out of an industry and into silence. Palmer says she’d had no idea until someone sent it to her; days later, Martell’s daughter messaged Palmer to thank her for the tribute. Maybe, Palmer reasons, Martell had had enough space from the industry to finally feel free.
In this, the two artists have another thing in common.
“I don’t want anything from the industry,” Palmer says. “I like my career. I like the things that I get to do in a day. And I am—this sounds cliché as hell—but I am blessed, I truly am. So I don’t want anything for myself other than to be able to give opportunities to other people and to be able to continue to make music. I can say more things than people who feel like they have more to lose.”
Correction: The “Color Me Country” was referenced in an earlier edition of this piece as a podcast. The show is an Apple Music radio show.
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