Country’s Causes: Rissi Palmer and Kelly McCartney Elevate Artist’s Voices Through Color Me Country and Rainey Day Funds

This is life-changing funds for some of these artists.

Country’s Causes: Rissi Palmer and Kelly McCartney Elevate Artist’s Voices Through Color Me Country and Rainey Day Funds
Rissi Palmer; Photo Credit: Chris Charles; Kelly McCartney; Photo Credit: Stacie Huckeba

Rissi Palmer is planting seeds that are growing into a movement. She accomplishes this by gifting grants to artists of color in country music through her Color Me Country Artist Grant Fund that not only provides a monetary donation, but serves as a symbol of support for the artists she believes in. Formed in partnership with Kelly McCartney’s Rainey Day Fund, the Color Me Country Fund is an extension of Palmer’s popular Color Me Country radio show on Apple Music that also works to spotlight the voices and stories of Black, Indigenous and Latinx artists that have shaped the history of the genre. Since its official launch in Dec. 2020, the Color Me Country Fund has raised $14,000 and distributed micro grants of $500-$1,000 to nearly 20 artists including The Voice season 12 contestant Valerie Ponzio, Tristan McIntosh, who placed sixth on season 15 of American Idol, Ashlie Amber, Kären McCormick, CMT Next Women of Country class of 2021 inductees Chapel Hart, Sacha and many more. “I look at this as like plantings seeds,” Palmer shares with Sounds Like Nashville about the fund. “I want to make sure that people are able to sustain themselves in the journey and get the things that they need, and take care of their needs, while they’re on this road.”

The Color Me Country Fund is designed as a branch off of the Rainey Day Fund where McCartney, host of Apple Music’s roots music show, Record Bin Radio, is also intentional about spotlighting underrepresented voices. After McCartney connected with Palmer on Twitter to share that the video for her song “Seeds” moved them to tears, they awarded Palmer with a grant through the Rainey Day Fund to help pay for editing expenses when Palmer was working on Color Me Country independently, later introducing her to their contacts at Color Me Country’s future home of Apple Music. Named in honor of Black, queer blues legend Ma Rainey, the Rainey Day Fund was established in 2018 to support BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color), LGBTQ+ and artists who have disabilities in roots music. “When you have a platform, it matters what you use that platform for. It matters who you amplify,” McCartney affirms to Sounds Like Nashville. “What I like to do is normalize diversity. I want our people whether they’re BIPOC, disabled, queer, I want them on the main stage mixed in with everybody else.” McCartney relies on their intuition when selecting artists for a grant, intentional about offering a simple, yet meaningful gesture of support to an artist just before a major career breakthrough, whether providing a grant to Yola that she used to buy a plane ticket to Nashville from her native United Kingdom to make her debut album, Walk Through Fire, that earned multiple nominations at the 2020 Grammy Awards, to providing financial support to Americana singer Joy Oladokun during theCOVID-19 pandemic, months before her powerful song “breathe again” appeared in an episode of This is Us. Brittney Spencer also earned a grant before she was named to CMT’s Next Women of Country initiative, while Miko Marks’ grant led to a connection to McCartney’s friend at Brooklyn Basement Records that helped support the release of her 2021 album, Our Country, her first in 14 years. “It’s the most wonderful project to be able to go up to somebody and say ‘I like what you do, can I give you some money?'” McCartney laughs, comparing grant-giving to being a “proud parent.” “For it to be for the thing that has so often held them back, whether it’s racial or identity issues that have been an obstacle to them, those are the reasons we want to support them.”

Courtesy of Rissi Palmer’s Color Me Country Artist Grant Fund

For Palmer, the work is personal, as she empathizes with young artists who devote their lives to their craft. The 39-year-old recalls the early days of her career working retail by day and recording jingles at night to pay the bills, in between making music and pounding the pavement to find a record deal. “There were times when you would have to decide ‘am I going to pay this bill right now or am I going to put gas in the car?’” she details of using the change from her glove compartment to pay for gas. What kept the singer motivated wasn’t just the music itself, but the acts of kindness that proved those around her believed in her, whether her mother and grandmother supporting her in times of need, to her manager taking it upon himself to pay her rent while the singer was buried under legal fees trying to get out of a record deal. “That’s what this is born out of. This is what I’m thinking about whenever we were putting this together,” Palmer describes of the benevolence that inspired the fund. “I work really hard in trying to be the person that I wish that I had. I remember those times as a new artist when $500 can make the difference between you signing a really bad deal or not. If I could prevent people from making a bad decision, or sustain them through a rough time to get to the other side of it, then that makes me really happy. Five hundred dollars isn’t going to solve all of your problems, but it’s enough to raise your spirits to keep you going. It does more for you mentally and spiritually then it could possibly do financially.”

Justin Hiltner; Photo credit: Addyson Hiltner

Justin Hiltner can attest to the power of being on the receiving end of this generosity. Hiltner, an IBMA Award nominated banjo player and songwriter, met McCartney when they worked together at The Bluegrass Situation and McCartney appointed him to the advisory board for the Rainey Day Fund. Tasked with finding artists to distribute grants too, Hiltner soon found himself in need of support while working on his first solo album, McCartney surprising him with a grant that he used to pay for the mastering. “To have that pressure relieved was so amazing, and reminded me of why having these outlets that are more like mutual aide are so important, especially something like Rainey Day Fund that is so tuned into the community on a basic level,” he praises. “[McCartney’s] willingness to look out into the music industry space and see people who are not being seen by others as needing this support, that’s how I felt in this instance.”

The donation came at a critical time in the musician’s life. Hiltner was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2018 and set up multiple GoFundMe campaigns to help pay for the exorbitant costs for treatment. In May 2019, Hiltner underwent surgery to remove the entirety of his pelvic floor and has since been in remission. In the midst of a long recovery process when music was often on the back burner, the grant served as a sign of encouragement from his peers. “I think this wasn’t ‘here’s money because you’re broke,’ but ‘here’s validation that we see your contributions to music,” he expresses. “It’s permission to get me back into creating.”

Like Hiltner, McCormick has also experienced the impact of being financially and artistically supported through the grant. The singer draws to mind her first memory of Palmer in an issue of Country Weekly in 2008 where she received a free download of her debut single, “Country Girl.” “I remember seeing somebody that looked like me and had curly hair and brown skin and I was really excited,” McCormick recalls in a phone interview with Sounds Like Nashville. As a burgeoning artist herself, McCormick was invited by her idol to appear on Color Me Country in 2020, Palmer extending her support further by gifting a grant to McCormick that she used to fund the video for her song “Congratulations,” featured on her 2020 debut EP, Retro. “I was blown away. I felt so grateful,” McCormick raves with appreciation for the grant, comparing it to the feeling of a weight being lifted off her shoulders. “It’s nice to know that there are people in the industry that understand that being an independent artist means a lot of sacrifice and hard decisions.” The Washington state native balances two jobs, seven days a week in order to finance her music career, Palmer helping to bring those dreams to life through the grant that fulfilled her goal of releasing two videos in support of the EP. “I feel like as an artist, it is this incredible stamp of approval from somebody that I’ve looked up to for a long time,” she continues, referring to Palmer as a “fairy godmother.” “That was the part that I was so touched by when Rissi did reach out, because it was really her recognizing my art and saying ‘I believe in what you’re doing and I want you to continue what you’re doing.’ That really meant a lot to me. I felt that mutual respect.”

For Sacha, receiving a grant through the Color Me Country Fund also offered a sincere sense of validation from a woman she cites as a “pioneer in country music.” The Canada-based artist connected with Palmer through social media and was invited to appear on Color Me Country in 2020 and was notified via email in the following months that she’d been selected to receive a grant, the singer putting the funds toward daily music costs. “Being an independent artist, it is expensive, especially when it comes to staying competitive. It’s like being CEO of your own company and you have to figure out how you’re going to hire and pay everyone,” Sacha explains of the out-of-pocket expenses that include hiring band members and producers to paying for travel fees and video editors. Unbeknownst to her at the time, Sacha served as part of the inspiration for the fund. Impressed by her professional social media presence, Palmer says that Sacha was “ringing in my ear” when the fund was conceptualized. “It’s a very humbling thing for anyone to want to give you money, and not money to spend, but to invest in your dreams. That was a big deal for me because you don’t get somebody coming by every day to say ‘I believe in you and I want to contribute to that.’ For her to bless me with that grant was a sign that she believes,” Sacha reflects. “Her assisting in that way, it helps me to keep one foot in front of the other; it helps to keep the vision moving along. It takes an army to stay competitive, and it reinforces the fact that I have support. It keeps the wheels in motion to assist with your destiny.”

Allison Russell also knows the value of having someone invest in her dreams. As one half of Americana band Birds of Chicago, alongside her husband JT Nero, the band was the flagship artist to receive a grant under the Rainey Day Fund after meeting McCartney through their mutual friends, folk band Wild Ponies. The husband-and-wife team used the money to fund their album, American Flowers, the micro grant covering the exact amount needed to record the project in one day. “We felt embraced very early on and being given the initial Rainey Day micro grant confirmed that we had chosen the right place to come, that people were supporting each other here and making art happen,” Russell conveys, comparing empathy to a “super power.” “When you are having a tough time and someone helps you, that can be life changing. That can change the course of a career and it can allow someone to have a career. Sometimes people give up when they get to those tough spots and they think ‘there’s no future for me in music,’ that something like the Rainey Day Fund can potentially change that narrative for someone. There is something sacred about when people really have a dream and they pursue it unapologetically, lovingly, persistently [and] bravely, because it takes bravery and you have to take risks, that’s part of what the Rainey Day Fund is helping [to] minimize the risk for artists. They’re swooping in at a time when an artist is maybe in a really desperate spot financially. They’re changing the narrative, and exponential good comes from that.”

Birds of Chicago; Photo Credit: Beehive Productions

Russell is among the many people who recognizes the impact of Palmer and McCartney’s grassroots efforts. In 2020, Brandi Carlile’s Looking Out Foundation donated $5,000 to the Rainey Day Fund. Carlile is expanding her support by donating $1 from every ticket sold to her livestream concert at the Ryman Auditorium in March 2021 to the fund, while the CMT Equal Play initiative is matching up to $15,000 for the Color Me Country Fund, with the Looking Out Foundation also matching both amounts. Additionally, Fiona Prine, wife of the late folk legend John Prine, challenged her friends to donate and raised more than $5,000 in one day, with Prine pledging to match the donation amount that will be split evenly between the Rainey Day and Color Me Country Funds. The growing support is reflective of the pay it forward model that is built into the core of Palmer and McCartney’s visions, in hopes that the grant recipients will continue this cycle of giving. “It’s such a wonderful feeling to reach out to somebody and say ‘we want to support you because we see you, we respect you,’” McCartney observes. “It makes me beam that something that I can do changes someone’s life. It’s that ripple effect, and then hopefully they’re thinking about what they can do for someone.” “All of this is not only to keep them going, but also to plant a seed to pay it forward,” Palmer details.

Many of the artists are actively returning the favor. In addition to supporting her fellow artists on social media, McCormick is a vocal advocate for funding of music and art programs in schools, with future ambitions of establishing a music scholarship program at her alma mater, Eastern Washington University. Russell is inspired to use her platform to support the Rainey Day Fund and other up-and-coming artists, while Sacha has been a volunteer teacher with a music program that offers free lessons to youth in vulnerable communities, hoping to following in Palmer’s footsteps and help others fulfill their dreams. Hiltner notes that he and McCartney have built a “rubric of paying it forward” by making spreadsheets of artists who are part of marginalized communities, while making himself accessible to those in need of support. “Allyship is not a destination, it’s the journey. It’s constantly doing the work, being an accomplice, dismantling white supremacy and de-centering myself. If you spend money on queer, Black, Brown, Indigenous or Asian or trans or non-binary folks, the money goes further,” Hiltner defines. “The pay it forward aspect of it feeds you to help other people. When you feel how impactful it is yourself, it’s so much more motivating to keep doing that work of connecting folks and growing the network, the community, the family.” “Art builds our empathy, our connection, our ability to care about, see and recognize each other as equal humans,” professes Russell. “Art is the antidote. Art helps us live our deepest and most compassionate and empathetic humanity.”

Humanity is an integral element to Palmer and McCartney’s selfless efforts that they hope will compel others in the music industry to make meaningful change — for the ability to see and embrace one another is perhaps the true gift. “It’s one of the most beautiful things about being a marginalized identity is that we recognize each other, we support each other. We understand the safety and power in numbers, and you see that so clearly with all the Black women in country music right now supporting and lifting each other up, and it’s beautiful. That’s how it gets done,” McCartney declares. “Our ethos is ‘let’s all lock arms and storm the gates together and then hold the doors open, kick them down if we have to, but make sure they stay open for the next generations coming after us.’” “I think that country music is a microcosm of our country and where we are. I feel like if we all look out for each other and we figure out ways to take care of each other, then that’s a movement. I look at this moment as a movement, and [in] all great movements, everybody was self-sustaining. In order for us to stay the course and to continue the movement forward, we’ve got to be able to sustain each other,” Palmer proclaims. “Representation is extremely important. You hear these country songs or Americana songs and then you see these Brown and Black faces, that’s impactful, because a lot of the story that I hear all the time is that you don’t see yourself reflected in the music. This is my way of contributing to making sure that little people like my daughters see themselves reflected in the music. I think that’s what legacy is. Our legacy is these projects,” she vows. “And that’s the type of legacy that I would like to have.”