Author: Karl Galloway
Rissi Palmer was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Missouri, spending summers in Georgia, her parents’ native state. Between their love for the genre (her mom was a huge Patsy Cline fan) and her southern roots, Palmer comes by country honestly. Starting her career at 18 years old, her gift lies in reaching across boundaries. One of our most compelling singers, she is at home in R&B but has made her mark in country, bringing the entire spectrum of popular music to bear on music she calls “Southern Soul.”
Her new album, Revival, is her most powerful work to date. The product of a mature artistic vision, laser-focused social consciousness, and a voice with the power and grace only experience can bring, it is also her most important work. Revival finds Rissi dealing with some of the most pressing issues of the times, as well as with the personal realms of love, loss, and identity. She firmly believes (and a little research will bear this out) that country music is soul music, and certainly not strictly the purveyance of white artists. There have been many country artists of color, some of whom may sound more familiar than others. Charley Pride and Mexican-American singer Freddy Fender might ring a bell, and if their names don’t, then “When the Last Teardrop Falls” and “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” could nudge loose a memory from a long-forgotten barbecue or family get-together. However, on these icons of the genre, Rissi recommends seeking out the deep cuts.
Other artists, like David Lee of Shelby North Carolina, or Sarge and Shirley West (contemporaries of Charley Pride) are less well-known. The whitewashing of country music can be countered with the intentional redirection of attention by white artists like Maren Morris as well as a little personal research; spend time looking for Black and Latinx country singers and a whole world opens up. Country music has something in it to make most folks proud, and its true diversity should be celebrated by us all.
Rissi is doing her part with her latest project, Color Me Country Radio, which shines a light on Black, Indigenous, and Latinx histories of country music that for too long have been off mainstream airwaves. Palmer’s engaging and informed approach includes speaking with artists such as Valerie Ponzio, Mickey Guyton, and Darius Rucker about the experience of being a person of color in country music, and about the artistic process.
The show carries on the legacy of its namesake’s creator. Linda Martell, to this day the highest-charting Black woman in country music with the song “Color Him Father,” (coming in at #22) created the album Color Me Country. She was the first Black woman singer at the Grand Ole Opry in 1969 and her rendition of the song “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” also reached #33 on the charts. To date, "Color Him Father" is the highest-charting single on the Billboard country chart by any black female artist. While it is indisputable that Martell is a pioneer in sound and experience, she did not attain the commercial success commensurate with her skill. Between murky music business dealings, personal loss, and outright racism, “Color me Country” was the only album she ever produced.
Continuing the mission of representation and support, the Color Me Country Artist Fund was set up in partnership with Kelly McCartney and the Rainey Day Fund to provide financial support to underrepresented voices of BIPOC artists in country music. The Rainey Day Fund was created by McCartney to assist BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and disabled artists, as well as others who add to the rich fabric of roots music. With her similar mission, Rissi Palmer recognized a real problem in the country music industry. As a result, the Color Me Country Artist Fund was born to offer support to BIPOC country artists, providing grants up to $1000.
Speaking on her own experience Rissi says “I wish I could give everyone $10,000. But I know from personal experience what it’s like as a musician to choose between gas to get to a gig and food. Throughout my career, there have been little gifts here and there to keep me going. I call them postcards from God. If we can provide that same kind of support to an artist of color who just needs a little support, then this fund is working.” Despite her life experience, she is still startled by the lack of gender representation and the pay disparity between men and women in country music, particularly between white men and women of color. It's a serious problem, one that keeps a lot of talent out of the spotlight and off the radio. The Color Me Country Artist Fund directs %100 of its resources to artists and is part of a larger response needed to address this and other forms of exclusion.
As mentioned, curiosity and a willingness to dive into music history is part of the equation as well. For those just beginning a foray into country music, Linda Martell’s “Bad Case of the Blues,” Palmer's favorite track, is a fine place to start.