Soul In My Country, Country Down In My Soul

by Rissi Palmer

Photo: Chris Charles

For better or worse, it was love at first sight for me and country music. The moment I heard the opening strings of Patsy Cline’s “Leavin’ on Your Mind,” I was hooked. Even as a small child, it called to me. There was something kindred in the “Old Rugged Cross” that we sang in my church every Sunday and Dolly’s “Coat of Many Colors.” A familiarity in the harmonies and outright soulfulness of Wynonna and Naomi’s voices that gave me glimpses of the Pointer Sisters. LeAnn Rimes and the unmistakable R&B runs soaked in her Texas twang were an absolute revelation to me as a budding vocalist.

I would sing and play these songs interchangeably, never thinking about the political ramifications of my tastes. It didn’t occur to me to be embarrassed or think it strange until high school, when I was sitting in my car in the school parking lot, hearing country songs coming from pickup trucks with little Confederate flags hanging from the rearview mirrors driven by white kids, and Tupac thumping loudly through the Black kids’ cars. I was somewhere in the middle, between Jay-Z and Trisha Yearwood, between the suburbs and the city, navigating complicated and confusing racial lines. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the stage was set for what would become my career and life’s purpose. I’d be straddling those lines for a living.

I embarked on my journey to be a recording artist in 1999 at age eighteen, thanks to the encouragement of my then managers, two spirited Black women who believed in not taking no for an answer. The approval of people who looked like me gave me “permission” to be loud about my love of this music.

I signed my first music publishing deal in Nashville at nineteen in 2000. I sang at Tootsie’s until the wee hours of the morning and played writers rounds at the Bluebird Café. I endured lots of rejection, which made me appreciate the big yes moments even more.

It was apparent that my appearance was an issue that needed to be figured out from the very beginning of my time in Nashville. My very first meetings with country record labels were sight unseen; a well-meaning insider would take my music, without a picture, and play it for the executives. If they loved it, then they would do the reveal. Once I came into the room, the questions would inevitably begin, and they were always the same: “We need to figure out how to market someone like her. . . .” I was asked questions about obscure country music to see if I knew it, or questions about the validity of my country roots, or if I was using country music to get to pop. It blew my mind that anyone would misunderstand my affection and appreciation for the genre.
By the end of that first year, I had seen almost all the major labels and was offered a demo deal and lots of “come back when you’ve recorded/written more songs.” It would be seven years before I was offered a deal, from an independent record label, 1720 Entertainment.

This record deal made it possible to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing the Grand Ole Opry, and I became the first Black woman in twenty years to appear on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Unfortunately, disputes with my record label brought it all to a screeching halt, and I left Nashville in 2010, feeling largely abandoned by the business, like an experiment that failed.
The year 2020 marked five decades since Linda Martell’s debut album was released. She was the first Black woman to play the Grand Ole Opry. Her album, Color Me Country, was the foundation on which all women of color in country have built their careers. She’s still the highest-charting Black woman in country to this day.

That year also saw the whole world grind to a halt due to a global pandemic. The murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd broke an already cracked dam of race relations, causing us to take an unflinching look at institutions and how they have been affecting people of color, especially Black people. It lit a fire under me. I knew there were more stories that deserved to be told and preserved. It was time to tell these stories, including my own, no matter how painful or ugly. And it was time for country music to see itself—complicated, omitted history and all. Thanks to the encouragement of my friend Shellie R. Warren, I began doing interviews for what would become Color Me Country Radio.

Color Me Country Radio with Rissi Palmer debuted on Apple Music Country on August 30, 2020, with the mission of telling stories of Black, Latinx, Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Indigenous artists in country and Americana music. In doing research for the show, I’ve discovered so many artists with compelling stories, and I cherish them. I find myself regularly face to face with the undeniable truth that Black people have had a hand in this music from the beginning. Country music is our music. It belongs to all of us. Each of us has a stake in its creation and preservation.

These days, I have settled into my artistry and made peace with who I am and what I love. I blast Lainey Wilson and Jazmine Sullivan without a second thought. I mix my influences—R&B, gospel, and country—in my music and have created a sound that feels like me. I’m at home in the music and in my skin. I am telling stories that mean something to me and hopefully resonate with others. It brings me so much joy to see this new generation of country artists of color creating and innovating on their own terms. They inspire me and give me hope. We are living proof that country is country, no matter where you’re from.

“So, after the record [‘Color Him Father,’ her first country effort] was released, we did a few of the local shows. And then I went on the Grand Ole Opry. Oh, it was dynamic. It really was. I didn’t expect such a reception, but it was so nice. That’s when I first met Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff. I met both of those, and then I met Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. See, these people I’d only listened to on the radio, you know, and never expected to ever get to meet anybody like that. Never. But then I met them, and they were so nice; it was like they had known me all of my life. I met Charley Pride in Tennessee at a party, in Nashville, for the Country Music Association. We talked a lot about—well, he was telling me that the beginning, when he started, how hard it was to get started. You know, he’d met some of the usual obstacles to a Black doing country music. And he asked me had I ever gotten into such a situation. I told him on a couple occasions, but nothing like what he described to me. I came along at a better time.”

—Linda Martell, interviewed by Daniel Cooper, August 1996