PHILADELPHIA—There’s nothing shocking about Rissi Palmer’s music.
The 26-year-old singer from Sewickley, Pa., whose self-titled debut album came out Tuesday, is a country artist whose songs about small-town values and broken hearts would fit seamlessly on radio playlists alongside Keith Urban and Faith Hill.
But if the music doesn’t catch you by surprise, the person singing it does. Palmer is black, and her single “Country Girl,” which expresses its bona fides with pride (“I’m whatcha might call real corn-fed, I’m a country girl, born and bred”) is the first by an African-American woman to hit the Billboard Hot Country chart (currently No. 54) since Dona Mason’s “Green Eyes (Cryin’ Those Blue Tears)” 20 years ago.
“When I walk into a room, people don’t think I’m a country singer,” Palmer says, living up to her first name, which means “to laugh” in Portuguese. More likely, they think she’s an R&B diva or a neo-soul singer in the making, options she might have pursued if she had signed a contract offered her by the Janet Jackson production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
“That was a hard deal to pass up,” says Palmer, who couldn’t put pen to paper because “I couldn’t imagine singing something I couldn’t feel sincere about.” And what she’s sincere about, she says—sitting at a hotel after a recent appearance at country station WXTU-FM and before flying back to her home base of Nashville—is country music.
That might seem odd to casual country fans, for whom Charley Pride is the only black face to be identified with an otherwise lily-white genre. But a student of the music like Palmer, who was featured in the 2004 CMT documentary “Waiting in the Wings: African Americans in Country Music,” knows that the history goes deeper. It includes DeFord Bailey, the harmonica player who was a star of the Grand Ole Opry in the 1930s, as well as Cleve Francis, the country singer (and cardiologist) signed to Capitol Records in the 1990s.
Raised outside Pittsburgh in Sewickley before moving to the St. Louis suburb of Eureka, Mo., when she was 12, Rissi Palmer (pronounced REE-see) is the daughter of Georgia natives. Her mother, who died when Palmer was 7, “was a huge Patsy Cline fan.” Palmer grew up listening to her father’s record collection, which ranged from Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton to Chaka Khan and Santana. “Rissi Palmer,” on which she cowrote nine of the 12 songs, includes a heartfelt and imaginative cover of Cline’s “Leavin’ on Your Mind.”
Being a fan of LeAnn Rimes and Shania Twain wasn’t the only thing that set Palmer apart when she was in high school in Missouri.
“I felt different for a lot of reasons,” she says. She was the new kid in a suburban school where most of the African-American students were bused in from the inner city.
“The other black kids were like, `Oh, you live in the suburbs.’ Plus, you know you’re different from all the white kids. The thing that helped me get along in school was music.”
Even when singing with a Mickey Mouse Club-like afterschool TV show called “Team 11,” she gravitated toward country. At 16, she sang at the Arkansas State Fair, on a stage “covered with chicken feathers and bird poop,” and walked up to the mike to sing Twain’s “Any Man of Mine.” The audience looked stunned at first, then gave her a big round of applause when they heard her belt it out in her strong, supple voice.
Afterward, “a guy comes up to me,” she recalls, slipping into a hillbilly twang, “and says, `Girl, I didn’t know what to think about you, but you were pretty good. You might think about doing that for a living.’ That was like the maiden voyage of my country career.”
That career has proceeded with some uncertainty over the last decade, as Palmer, who dropped out of DePaul University in Chicago after a semester, has pursued her vocation in New York, Los Angeles and, mostly, Nashville.
“Country music was always in my mind, but to be honest with you, I didn’t think that it was a path for me because I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me,” she says. And when people in the music business see the 5-foot-9 Palmer, their first impression is not to think they’ve discovered the next Faith Hill.
“Everybody feels they have to put you in a nice, neat little box,” Palmer says. “Because if you’re a black woman in the music industry, then obviously you have to be like Beyonce. But Beyonce does what she does so well, why do we need five more of her?”
Palmer has been turned down by most of the major record labels in Nashville, and she’s had her share of struggles. She’s worked as a clothing-store manager and a mortgage-company secretary, while writing songs and cutting demos. She’s sung jingles for Barbie commercials and the “Dance Fever” TV show, and competed on “Star Search.”
Last year, she signed to Atlanta-based 1720 Entertainment and has been making headway since. A four-song EP, available only on iTunes, was released last summer through Starbucks Entertainment, which will feature “Country Girl,” along with tunes by Bob Dylan and KT Tunstall, as part of its Song of the Day download series this month. And last week, Palmer sang the national anthem at a Cleveland Indians-Boston Red Sox playoff game.
“I’m so excited about being accepted by the country community,” Palmer says. “Because I’m very proud to be a black woman, and I’m not trying change anything about myself. What you see is what you get. But young black women, especially young women of color, don’t have to think that they need to conform to what society thinks you should do, just because of what your skin color is. ...
“Black music is so broad and so much bigger than just hip-hop and R&B,” she adds. “It’s gospel, it’s rock, it’s country. It’s just so much bigger than that, and we’re so much bigger than that. I hope that people don’t think that we have to limit ourselves, just because of our color.”
While Palmer would happily serve as an inspiration for other young black women to pursue their dreams, she wants to be known first for her music.
“There are all these amazing, talented, incredible women and men out there, like Wynonna and Faith and Patti Griffin and Prince, that have had careers that span decades, that still matter. That’s what I want. I just want to matter. I don’t want to always be the black country singer. `Rissi Palmer: Oh, she’s black.’ I want you to think what a great songwriter or what a great singer or performer she is.”
THE FACES OF BLACK COUNTRY MUSIC
Charley Pride remains the mainstream face of African-American country, but the history of musical intermarriage between Southern blacks and whites—and country, blues and soul—involves a much larger cast of characters.
Bluesmen like Muddy Waters and B.B. King grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry, hearing artists like Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music, who was in many ways was a bluesman in disguise. Soul singers such as Solomon Burke, Joe Tex and the Staple Singers continually dipped their toes in country waters. The story of the musical lineage that Rissi Palmer joins is best told on the 1998 boxed set “From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music,” which is shamefully out of print, but available used (for an exorbitant price) on amazon.com.
Here are some of the principals:
DeFord Bailey: The original member of the Grand Ole Opry blew his “Pan American Blues” train song on his harmonica at the start of the show’s first broadcast in 1929, and he remained an Opry regular throughout the 1930s and early 1940s.
Ray Charles: When the Genius of Soul gained artistic freedom in the early 1960s, the first thing on his agenda was recording his two “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” LPs. The 1962 string-laden sets of Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold covers turned out to be his biggest sellers to that point.
Charley Pride: When Pride’s first single, “The Snakes Crawl at Night,” was released in 1966, it came out without a publicity photo. Nervousness about the country audience’s willingness to accept a black star proved unfounded, however, as Pride went on to score three dozen No. 1 country hits, including “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” and “Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone?”
Stoney Edwards: Edwards never approached Pride in popularity, but the black-hat-wearing Oklahoman’s 1970s recordings have grown in stature as the years have passed. The stand-by-your-woman song “She’s My Rock” was his biggest hit, and he paid soulful tribute to his forebears on his version of “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul.”