Female Friday: Rissi Palmer

"Support an artist more than anything and let that be your activism. If you want to see more diversity, support a female artist, support an artist of color."

Written by Cillea Houghton
Female Friday: Rissi Palmer
Rissi Palmer; Photo credit: Chris Charles

Written in Rissi Palmer’s baby book is the phrase “sings constantly,” her mother unknowingly committing her daughter’s destiny to print. At the age of 19, Palmer established herself as a force to be reckoned with in the country music world when she became the first Black woman in two decades to chart a country song with “Country Girl” in 2007. But Palmer’s influence extends far beyond her chart success, combining her powerful voice and compelling lyrics to share her world perspective - so much so that Maren Morris highlighted Palmer and the many other Black women who have shaped country music during her acceptance speech for Female Vocalist of the Year at the 2020 CMA Awards.

In this edition of Female Friday, Palmer joins Sounds Like Nashville for a wide-ranging conversation that focuses on how her parents’ record collection inspired her music career, the motivation behind her popular Apple Music radio show Color Me Country, how fans can make supporting artists of color their form of activism, and much more.  

What inspired your passion for music and specifically country music?

As long as I can remember, I have loved music and loved to sing. I remember my mother in my baby book it says ‘sings constantly.’ All my memories of childhood are music related; I can remember what song was playing on the radio when certain things happened. Neither my mother or my father were particularly musical people, but they loved music, they were fans of music, and so their record collection is a huge reason why I’m a musician now because my parents listened to everything. Country was a part of that and pop music was a part of that and R&B was a part of it and gospel, just everything.

One of the singers that my mom really liked was Patsy Cline and so I can remember listening to Patsy Cline records in the same breath as Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston and those types of people. It all flowed together for me, it all made sense together for me. There was never any segregation of the music early on, that didn’t come until later when I was older and wanting to be cool and listen to what the other kids were listening to. But early on, it was all pretty seamless.

I think the thing about country music specifically was that I loved the stories. Outside of being someone who’s always loved to sing, I’ve always been someone who liked to tell a story or listen to a story. I was a voracious reader growing up, I still am, and I like to write stories. Listening to country music always felt like you’re getting a story in addition to hearing music and hearing these great voices, you’re getting a really good story. I can remember sitting even as a little kid and following along with this stuff and I’m like ‘this is good,’ just being really interested in ‘how is this going to wind up?’ So I think that’s what drew me specifically to country.

How do you adopt that in your own songwriting?

For me, it’s all very visual. I always think of songs in terms of if I were watching a movie. One of my big pet peeves about television shows sometimes is when the characters don’t get developed because the episodes are so short. Songs are like the ultimate television show, meaning it’s super short and you have three minutes to get really great character development and to fully develop a story. It challenges you to pick your words really carefully and wisely, you don’t want to waste a word. For me, that’s always been how I look at songwriting and how I look at my own writing. I tried to figure out what is the quickest way for me to get from point A to point B without taking any shortcuts?

Are there any songs in particular where you felt like the approach was wise or you were intentional with the words that you chose?

The song “Butterflies” from my first album is one of my favorite songs. It was something that I wrote the chorus and the first verse by myself and then I brought my co-writer Sarah Majors into it. I was 19 and I was sitting in my basement and I was watching Sex and the City and something that one of the characters said struck me as I wrote it down in my notebook and I picked up my guitar and I started playing around. I was like ‘how do I tell this story?’ because basically it’s a love letter to my heart and telling myself that I’m not going to waste you and I’m not going to give you over to dumb stuff. I’m going to save you for the real thing and here’s what the real thing is and this is what the real thing looks like, and I feel like I got that across pretty well.

The other song is called “Summerville” and that was on The Back Porch Sessions. I wrote that with Deanna Walker and Sarah Majors. I had actually been inspired by “Flies on the Butter” by Wynonna Judd. I loved that song and every time I hear that song I cry, because it’s such an amazing, great song and it paints really vivid pictures of her growing up. I wanted to write something like that about where my great-grandmother and my mother was born and where my grandmother was born in this place called Summerville. We set out to create these pictures of what Summerville was like and what a summer in Summerville would have been like when I was a kid, and it’s one of my favorite songs. As far as the storytelling aspect, I think when you finish listening to the song, you have a really good sense of what it was like for little Rissi to spend her summers in Summerville in this small town in Georgia. I love that song.

The last song is from my new album called “You Were Here.” It’s a song that I wrote about a miscarriage that I had 2018, probably one of the hardest songs that I’ve ever written. It was like therapy for me. I think what a lot of people feel when they’re having a miscarriage or when they’re having a loss of something and people want you to feel better, they want you to get over it, not because they’re being mean or anything, I think it’s just because a lot of people don’t know what to do with you when you’re not feeling good and so it’s like ‘I really want you to get past this so you’re not feeling bad anymore’ and it makes them uncomfortable. I was in a really dark place after I had my miscarriage and telling that story and trying to be as honest as I could about how I felt really helped me get out of that place. When I listened to that song and when I sing that song, I know exactly where I was, and I think that anybody that was listening to it can feel where I was and understand where I was and how I was feeling at that point.

Rissi Palmer; Photo credit: Chris Charles

Tell me about the inspiration behind your Color Me Country radio show and what you’re hoping to do with it.

Color Me Country started for me in 2018. It was a conversation that I had with a girlfriend and she was saying to me ‘you need to do a podcast about music because you talk about it all the time.’ I love to read and I am a history buff and I’m a music fanatic, music history, so anything that has to do with how a record was made, I love it. In 2019 when Lil Nas X put out “Old Town Road” and there was all the controversy about it being removed from the country charts and all the subsequent controversy that went on with that, I paid a lot of attention to the press because I was curious how this is going to be spun. Based on my own experience in Nashville and with the media and black people and country music specifically, I was really curious. I thought it was interesting that Lil Nas X was the place where everybody decided that they were going to draw the line. After so many years of Cowboy Troy and various country artists doing collaborations with rappers and there being actual country music rappers and then a new crop of artists using trap beats and tracks and drum machines and stuff on their records, I thought it was really interesting that the line was being drawn at this young Black gay man making what sounded like a lot of the other stuff that other people were making.

The other thing that was interesting to me was when people were writing about Lil Nas X and then wanting to write about the Black history in country music, how very myopic it was. It’s like ‘there’s only ever been five and sometimes six, but they’ve only ever been five and these are the only ones who we’re going to talk about, and then there was never any other black people, no black influence’ and I was like ‘this is so wrong.’ So one day I was like, I’ve had enough, and so I made a list on Twitter of 10 minutes of research partnered with what I already knew and I put it up on Twitter, these are all the black women that have ever charted in country music, and then people started tweeting it and were adding to it and it started a really long thread and so I was like ‘people are interested in this.’ When quarantine started, I’d been kicking the idea around and I was like ‘I’m going to go ahead and do this.’

What are these conversations like and what do you hope that listeners get out of them?

For me, it was always wanting to have these conversations about their artistry, about what it’s like being a person of color in a space that is typically overwhelmingly white and how you navigate, but making it a conversation between peers and friends and people that understand where the other is coming from and not so much making them like an “other.” A lot of times, and I don’t think this is done in malice, but I think that when you’re speaking to mostly white media as an artist of color in a typically white space, you tend to be “othered” a lot and singled out because of your differences and that’s what everybody wants to talk about.

I’ll use myself as an example. In the very beginning when I was doing press for my first album, a lot of people wanted to talk about the fact that I was the first Black woman in 20 years to be on the charts, which is great and is true, but we weren’t talking about the fact that I co-wrote 10 of the 12 songs on my first album. There’s a whole lot of other interesting things about me other than me just being Black, but I never got to talk about them because I was always talking about being Black. That’s what I wanted with the show. I wanted ‘say whatever you want to say, and it’s all good. You’re in a friendly place, you’re talking to someone who knows exactly what you’re going through, who’s been through what you’ve been through and knows the same people, knows the community.’

What I’m hoping people hear is it sheds light on the parts of the business that are super mysterious. You’re coming from the very honest, real artist’s perspective and so you maybe are able to see it in a way that you haven’t been able to see it before. We’re having friend conversations, so you’ll get the real that you may not necessarily get from reading an article in a newspaper or in a magazine. You’re almost overhearing two friends talking on the phone. I wanted candid honesty, humor and candor, and that’s what I think we’ve been able to accomplish.

What’s on the horizon for you?

During this time, I’ve probably be the most productive I’ve been in years. I started doing children’s music in 2011. I did two collaborations this year that were very different from anything that I’ve done in my adult music, but I absolutely love them. One was about teaching kids about consent and the other was a song in Spanish and English about cooperation and people getting together and we may not be exactly the same, but we can find common ground with each other. So I sang in Spanish for the first time this year.

I’m working on a couple of music projects right now. A smaller project that I’m hoping to get out by the beginning of the year has to do with making my old music new again, that’s all I’ll say, and I’m working on new music. I wrote a new song with Shannon Sanders that is the theme song for my show and we’re working on some other stuff together, so I’m looking forward to that. I’m open to whatever the universe brings, whatever God wants for me. I’m just open right now and being open has brought a lot of really awesome things into my life.

I think the biggest thing is everybody’s talking about diversity and I’m really very happy about that because that was not the conversation in 2007 when my first record came out. It makes me really happy that a lot of the artists that I’m speaking to are coming up in an industry in a time where people are having these conversations, so I want to make sure that all the fans, all the people that love country music and that listen to country music, that you hold the industry’s feet to the fire. Everybody’s talking about diversity, make sure that they make good on it. Also, the job of the fans too is to support artists. If you see an artist, and independent artists especially, that you like and think their music is interesting, stream their music, buy their music. Watch a live stream if they’re doing one, favorite their music on all the streaming. Make your support known. Follow them, like them on social media, because that’s how people work. That’s how the media starts following people, it’s because of buzz. Support an artist more than anything and let that be your activism. If you want to see more diversity, support a female artist, support an artist of color.