‘Color Me Country’ Host Rissi Palmer — Future 25
This story appears in Rolling Stone‘s 2021 Future of Music issue, a special project delving into the next era of the multibillion-dollar hitmaking business. Read the other stories here.
Rissi Palmer, a keen student of history, had long noticed problems with the way people talked about race in country music. Discussions often centered on the same small group of artists but never thoroughly investigated the past beyond Charley Pride — and she knew there was a rich history of artistic contributions out there. She felt compelled to set the record straight.
“I’d see all these things and I’m like, ‘That’s not true. That’s not complete,’” Palmer says. The North Carolina-based singer started talking to other country artists who had counter-narratives to share. Now she interviews guests on Color Me Country, her biweekly Apple Music country show spotlighting black, indigenous, and Latinx artists. The show takes its title from the lone 1970 album of Linda Martell, the first black woman to perform solo on the Grand Ole Opry. “What better way to honor the history of people of color in country music [than] to honor one of the patron saints of it?” Palmer says.
Though Martell enjoyed modest radio success, shifting label priorities left Martell without an outlet to release music and she ceased recording. That story of falling through the cracks resonated with Palmer, who attempted to break through on country radio in the mid-2000s before legal issues with her label derailed things. (She returned to recording several years later as an independent artist, first with the children’s album Best Day Ever and then the grown-up, R&B-flavored album Revival in 2019.) “I could have very easily ended up the same way Linda did, meaning, never making music again,” Palmer says.
Formatted like an intimate, conversational radio show — NPR’s Fresh Air was a reference point — Color Me Country switches stories from episode to episode, but keeps its focus squarely on issues surrounding people of color in country music. Early guests included singer Miko Marks, whose country-music experience was similar to Palmer’s, and the Grammy-nominated artist Mickey Guyton, whose struggles to get airplay have been well-documented. Between discussions, Palmer plays music from artists on the show and beyond, refreshing the playlist regularly.
“I didn’t want people to think this is two hours of black people whining to each other about why they can’t make it… I wanted to make sure people got a well-rounded idea of what it’s like and what we’re up against”
In addition to stories about artists, Palmer also makes room for lively roundtable discussions and even academic experts to provide some crucial context and empirical data. Scholars Amanda Martinez and Dr. Jada Watson appear in one episode, laying out facts that back up artists’ reports of structural racism. Palmer calls the program “a form of protest” and “activism in the way that in my little corner of the world I can do.”
But the tone of the show is lively, upbeat. “I didn’t want people to think this is two hours of black people whining to each other about why they can’t make it,” Palmer says. “It’s very obvious when you hear the academics speaking or people that are outside of being artists, that it reinforces what we talk about in every episode. I wanted to make sure people got a well-rounded idea of what it’s like and what we’re up against.”
Palmer also partnered with fellow Apple Music Country host Kelly McCartney to create the Color Me Country Fund, which has raised nearly $15,000 to provide microgrants for performers coming on her show. “Everyone I am going to interview, I offer it to them,” Palmer says. “Like, ‘Hey, you need any money?’ You don’t have to write an application. I just mainly want to help plant a little seed and help you take care of your rent for a month if that’s what you need, or pay for your car repairs.”
Asked whether she’s noticed any improvements around race in country music over the last couple years, Palmer points out positive efforts by CMT and the ACM to make programming and voting more inclusive. The labels in Nashville still have a way to go, she says, and it’s going to take more than signing a few black performers. “I don’t mean run out and sign the first person of color you find and then you’re like, ‘Go us, we did it!’” she says. “It means, who’s in your boardroom? Who’s producing the records? Who’s writing the records? Who’s engineering them? Who’s the stylist? Who’s taking the pictures? It’s in all these things.”
Palmer’s work to spotlight and retell lesser-known stories helps preserve country music’s real past. Keeping those stories alive and public is Palmer’s solution for combatting the myth that country music has ever been made solely by and for white people.
“I just don’t want anybody to die feeling like they’re forgotten and that they don’t matter,” Palmer says. “I know what that feels like. If I can tell you a story and I’m doing it here in my little corner of the world, then you did exist and you did matter.”