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Country artist Rissi Palmer launches radio show to showcase people of colour in country

As a young girl Palmer loved country but thought, ‘Black people don't do that.’

As a young girl Palmer loved country but thought, ‘Black people don't do that’

Country artist and radio host Rissi Palmer first fell in love with country music as a little girl. (Jimmy Bruch)

It was childhood Saturday mornings that first made Rissi Palmer fall in love with country music.

Palmer's mother would put on records by greats from Andraé Crouch to Dolly Parton, and from Patsy Cline to Aretha Franklin, while the whole family would clean the house.

"Country music has always been a part of my list, my musical diet," she says in an interview with q host Tom Power. "It was always just there."

Not long after, Palmer found herself spending summers going to state fairs with a group performing cover songs, and making brief TV appearances. ("I was Missouri famous," she quips.)

One time she was performing with a group at the Arkansas State Fair — immediately after a livestock show — and her group kicked into the beginning chords of the Shania Twain hit Any Man of Mine.

"The whole audience was pretty excited because that was a big song at the time. There was a white girl in the group, and I think everybody expected [her] to step up, and instead I did. And it was a little bit like, 'Huh, OK,'" remembers Palmer.

"By the time it was done, everybody was clapping and dancing and that sort of thing. So I think it worked out well — but I think it was surprising for them."

'Black people don't do that'

Later, as a teenager, Palmer wrote a country song for Reba McEntire and performed it for her managers, and it took them by surprise.

"They said, 'Why don't you want to sing country? Why didn't you tell us that you could do this?' And I was just like, 'Well honestly, Black people don't do that," remembers Palmer.

"Because at the time, the only Black person that I knew of that did country music was Charley Pride. So I didn't think that was a viable option for me, to be quite honest," she says.

"And they were like, 'Girl, that's the thing that makes you you. That's your uniqueness. That's your thing. And surprisingly enough, they encouraged me."

That encouragement paid off. Palmer has released three full-length albums and three Eps, performed at the White House, and was featured in the CMT documentary Waiting in the Wings: African-Americans in Country Music.

In 2007, her song Country Girl landed on the Billboard Country Chart, making her the first Black woman to chart a country song in 20 years — an achievement that elicited a mixture of excitement and sadness.

"It was kind of bittersweet — and the unfortunate thing was it kind of took over the conversation from that point forward. When I talked to journalists and when I did interviews, all anyone wanted to talk about was me being Black, rather than talking about my artistry," she says.

"So it was a double-edged sword in some ways. It was a blessing, and then at the same time, it was kind of a curse."

Old Town Road

But it would be a completely different song that would inspire Palmer to launch her new Apple Music radio show, Color Me Country — a program that highlights women of colour in country, Americana and roots music.

"I was inspired by a very unlikely source: Lil Nas X and Old Town Road. When the song came out, I very curiously watched the controversy unfold," says Palmer, referring to how in early 2019 the fast-rising country-rap song was pulled from the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart because it reportedly didn't fit the parameters of the genre.

The move triggered a huge debate over the definition of country music, and the genre's longstanding lack of diversity. Soon after, Billy Ray Cyrus recorded a rendition with Lil Nas X and it skyrocketed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, remaining there for a record-breaking 19 weeks.

"I found it really interesting that Lil Nas X and this song were the hill Billboard and the industry decided they were going to die on," says Palmer.

"There have been so many times where Nashville has intersected with hip-hop," adds Palmer, pointing to Nelly's collaborations with Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line, as well as country rap artists like Cowboy Troy and Camo Collins, and Sam Hunt's use of trap beats.

"So I thought it was really interesting that Lil Nas X and this particular song were a line too far."

Soon after, Palmer posted a Twitter thread outlining all the different Black artists in country music, starting with women; sooner people started retweeting, commenting and adding names.

"I wanted to acknowledge these artists — and I felt like if the industry wasn't going to do it, then I would do it," she says. "So that's where the idea came from."

'This wasn't even a conversation'

When COVID-19 hit earlier this year, Palmer knew her fellow artists would be stuck at home, so she decided to record conversations and create a podcast — but then Apple Music came knocking.

The first season of Color me Country focuses specifically on women of colour, and features interviews with artists, scholars and other personalities.

Among the first guests are Mickey Guyton, Miko Marks, Tierra, Tristan McIntosh, Crystal Shawanda, Chaley Rose, Lizzie No and Kamara Thomas.

In one episode, country singer Miko Marks echoes Palmer's early experience, saying she's regularly asked why she's doing country.

But while country music today is heavily white, she points out, its early roots were not.  

"In the United States especially, that's a common thread with a lot of things. We are sold narratives and we buy them hook, line and sinker, and we allow them to create these cultural divides that are ridiculous," says Palmer.

In fact, one of the things she loves most about country music is the fact that it's "one of the most thoroughly American art forms."

"I say that meaning it took several different types of us —cultures, ethnicities — to come together to create this sound that everyone has come to know and love as country music. And it doesn't diminish the history to talk about these things," says Palmer.

"I feel like it makes it richer and fuller, and it makes the story more vibrant."

This year country music has seen some significant changes — including band name changes for the Dixie Chicks (now the Chicks) and Lady Antebellum (now Lady A), the Grand Ole Opry posting about Black Lives Matter, and Mickey Guyton becoming the first Black woman to perform solo at the Academy of Country Music Awards.

But are these changes meaningful, and will they last? Palmer says to ask her again in a year.

"This wasn't even a conversation in 2007 when my record came out. The fact that we're even talking about these things and really pondering them is wonderful. And I hope that people continue to push themselves and continue to be uncomfortable," she says.

"But we'll see in a year if we're right back to where we were, or if we're in a completely different place."

 

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