Rissi Palmer: Don’t Wait on the Industry, Make Things Happen

Photo by Chris Charles

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 18 Winter 2021

Sewickley, Pennsylvania-born country musician Rissi Palmer has always brought music with her wherever she went, to St. Louis, Nashville, and North Carolina, where she now lives. Since releasing her first album in 2007, Palmer has released a children’s album (Best Day Ever – 2015), an EP (The Back Porch Sessions – 2015), and another full-length album (REVIVAL – 2019). 

Palmer has performed at numerous iconic venues, including the Grand Ole Opry, New York’s Lincoln Center, and the White House. Besides numerous national television appearances, she has been featured in many major media outlets, namely Ebony, Essence, Washington Post, Newsweek, People, and The Washington Post, to name a few. Most recently, Palmer made Rolling Stone’s annual Future of Music 2021 Edition.

However, music isn’t the only thing Palmer involves herself in. 2020 saw Palmer launch her very own Apple Music radio show, Color Me Country, which led to creating the Color Me Country Artist Grant Fund for country artists of color. Palmer is also featured in the “American Currents: State of the Music” exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

In her interview, Palmer talks about what ignited her passion for music, getting started in the industry, her experience as a woman of color in country music, and her efforts to support other young people of color who are interested in pursuing a career in music. 

When asked about the influence of music in her family home growing up, Palmer says that “my parents are not musicians. My parents are music fans.” In the Palmer household, being a music fan meant having records on records on records, with work by artists from all kinds of genres. “You could find anything from Earth, Wind & Fire to Chaka Khan to James Taylor to Dolly Parton to Patsy Cline. We listened to all of this stuff together. So, it never felt weird to me until someone told me it was weird that I liked country.”

In conjunction with this varied exposure to music, Palmer also credits a trip to see the musical Dreamgirls with her mother with inspiring her to pursue a career in music. “[My mom] was explaining to me that [the musical wasn’t] real, these are actors. I was like, so wait, you can get paid to stand on stage and sing? Those two things, between [my parents’] record collection and Mom taking me to see that play, that’s when I realized that this is something that you could do. These are real people, and this is what they’re singing. I always knew I wanted to sing. I always knew that that’s what brought me joy. So yeah, making that realization like at like five or six changed my life.” 

When asked what artists particularly inspired her growing up, Palmer named Patsy Cline, Tina Turner, and as she aged, Mariah Carey. “I was one of those kids that liked to read the liner notes. When [Mariah Carey’s] Vision of Love came out, I noticed that she had written almost everything on the record, and I was blown away by that. I was just like, she wrote all of this, this is all her stuff. And then I was like, okay, great. Then that’s what I’m going to do.”

Despite the passion she’s always had for music, Palmer didn’t always know she wanted to be a country singer. “That wasn’t what I always wanted to do. I used to call it acoustic music because I didn’t see anybody like me outside of Charlie Pride, but that was like the sixties.”

However, Palmer soon found the encouragement she needed to set out on the path she continues today. “It wasn’t until I met my two managers, who were two Black women from St. Louis, where I’m from. The summer after I graduated high school in 1999, we went to New York to start working on my demo, and we were doing some pop stuff and that kind of thing, but nothing felt right. We were sitting in a hotel, and they noticed that I was writing in this notebook that I always write in, and they were like, well, Rissi, why don’t you sing us one of your songs? And so, I opened the book, and I gave this long preface. I was like, I wrote this for Reba McEntire. And I remember them looking at each other like, you wrote it for Reba McEntire?”

“So, I sang that song, and they were like Rissi, it’s a country song. That’s your thing? Why didn’t you tell us that you did this? I didn’t have a good answer other than like, I just didn’t think it was a viable thing for a 17-year-old girl to want in the year 1999, to be a country singer.”

Aside from discussing how she got her start, we spent quite a bit of time with Palmer on her experience as a woman of color in the music industry. Palmer has a two-pronged answer when asked how she feels about sometimes being the token person of color for a majority-white organization. “I have been that person a lot, in the type of work that I do, but I’m fine with being a token if that means that I can wedge that door open to get more people in. I think if organizations know that, like, okay, this is totally performative and they’re not gonna be here next year, then what we do is take advantage of the opportunity and take all the information and all figure out where they got their resources. Do all the recon work, so to speak, on the inside and then figure out how to duplicate it for [people of color]. You take advantage of being at the table. You take all the pictures, write all the notes, and figure out how to get the blueprint for yourself.”

That said, being a person of color in an industry that has a largely white history is extremely difficult, which is why Palmer makes her music for herself. “I’ve definitely had moments where it’s been like, why am I doing this? This is dumb. I mean, all of the whole reason I left Nashville was I had just gotten to the point where me and the record company had hit a wall, and I was tired. I needed to get away—stepping away from it for a second and gaining some perspective. Getting some therapy really helped. And I say today that the reason why I can be so tireless is because I’ve just decided that rather than wait on the industry to do the right thing, I’m going to model what I think the right thing is and figure out how to make those things happen.”

This not waiting for the industry to change itself is what resulted in Palmer creating her artists’ fund, so new up-and-coming country artists of color don’t have to face some of the same challenges that she did. “That’s why we started the fund, because I’m like, okay, well, if no one’s handing out publishing deals and they’re not forthcoming and making these things happen. There are only two Black women signed to major labels in Nashville right now. And just from doing my show, I know there are more than two that can do this well on a professional level. Something’s got to give. So rather than continue to beat my head up against the wall of making Nashville do the right thing, I’m gonna give you money, and this is how you can make the records. This is how you can do the things that you need to do for your career to make, you know, to move your trajectory forward on your own.”

The experiences she has had as a Black woman in this industry have changed the way she looks at success in music. “I managed my expectations, and that has made all the difference for me. Even in my own career, I’m not expecting to get a Nashville record contract when I finish my new project. If it happens and it’s good for me, and it makes sense, then that’s amazing, but I’ve done this on my own for the last 11 years, and I have no problem continuing to do it on my own. I love it. That’s a point I had to come to because, you know, everybody wants to be safe. Everybody wants a record deal. Everybody wants a publishing deal. Everybody wants to be famous and rich. I’ve had a record deal, and I know what that feels like. So, it’s not a thing that I feel like I need to conquer anymore, but that’s the thing I have to remind myself of, that I validate myself. I make sure that, you know, if I’m good with what I’m doing, then I’m good. Mentally, that’s how I worked through that.”

Aside from her artists’ fund, Palmer is also doing other work to encourage young people to make good choices as they break into the industry. “We talk about making music, but we don’t talk about the business behind making music, and that’s where so many of the bad decisions like nightmare scenarios come into play. I started a thing this year where I’ve partnered with a local artists advocacy arts organization here in North Carolina called Triangle Artworks to do a series that I call The Seeds Project.” 

“What we do with The Seeds Project is it’s like a 90-minute thing that anybody can come to. I invite professionals that are my friends—I have chosen purposely mostly women and women of color that are professionals in the business—and we talk about how to do this yourself. How you can take this as far as you can as an artist and do it safely and do it economically and do it so that you win and nobody else is winning off of you.”

To close, Palmer went into detail about more of the specific sessions that The Seeds Project has done and plans to do. “We’ve already done one on publishing. We’re going to do one on management. How to select a manager. What does it mean to have a manager? What should a manager be doing for you? How to get an agent. How to be your own agent if you can’t get an agent. Legal things that you can look for in contracts if you’re not able to work with a lawyer. Ways for you to just protect yourself. I think that stuff is really important because we talk about the creation of music, but we don’t talk about the marketing of it. We don’t talk about branding of yourself. We don’t talk about how do you read a contract. What does perpetuity mean? I think that that needs to be a part of music; business literacy is paramount.”