The Hard Path: Country Musician Rissi Palmer

Country music star Rissi Palmer has created her own success in a genre that hasn’t always been welcoming to Black performers.
by David Menconi / photography by Samantha Everette

Rissi Palmer wasn’t actually present for her most recent high-profile exposure. It came at the November 11 CMA Awards telecast on ABC, while rising country star Maren Morris was accepting her award for Female Vocalist of the Year. At the podium, Morris gave a shout-out to a half-dozen Black female Americana acts; Palmer and fellow North Carolinian Rhiannon Giddens among them, for making “this genre so, so beautiful. I hope you know that we see you.” As it happened, Palmer was in the shower at the moment.

“I got out of the shower and my phone was going insane,” she recalls, laughing. “My mind automatically went to, somebody clearly died. I still was not getting it from the texts — Maren Morris CMA OMG! — so I started watching and, WOW!” It was a nice piece of recognition for the 39-year-old Palmer, a long-respected music industry veteran, from country music’s current female It Singer. Morris has won five CMA Awards, three of them this year, with an R&B-flavored style not too far removed from that of Palmer herself.

Born in Pennsylvania, Palmer grew up there and in Missouri before coming to the Triangle in 2010, splitting the past decade between Raleigh and Durham. Her first two vocal idols were Whitney Houston and Patsy Cline, and she’s always had a voice that can sing pretty much anything convincingly — country to soul, R&B, gospel or pop. Palmer first began singing with the grown-up church choir at age five, when she needed to stand on a milk crate to reach the microphone. A chance meeting in an airport with superproducer Terry Lewis led to Palmer getting an offer from Lewis and Jimmy Jam’s Flyte Tyme Productions at age 19. But she turned it down because she wanted to sing country rather than pop, a nervy decision given how hard it has traditionally been for Black artists to break into country music.

“Everybody was asking, What the hell is wrong with you?!,” Palmer says. “I’ve vacillated about whether or not I should have done that a lot over the years, especially when nothing else came my way for the next five years. But 20 years later, my take is that I would not be on the path I’m on now if I had. In hindsight, it’s easy to say it was the best decision. But it didn’t feel like that at the time.”

Vindication arrived with Palmer’s 2007 eponymous debut album, which had two singles make the Billboard country singles chart. At the time, she was the first Black woman artist to crack that chart in 20 years.

“She’s a force,” says Jamie Katz Court with Raleigh-based Piedmont Council of Traditional Music, which has booked Palmer for several programs over the years. “She’s so connected to the history of the music, while also making her own new original music reflecting her experiences. She has a great way of connecting with people. We love working with her.”

Despite Palmer’s chart success, her record deal soured, leading to several years of legal difficulties. She has since chosen to go the independent route, keeping busy on multiple fronts including singing, teaching and recording. She self-released her latest album, 2019’s Revival, with a powerful video for the song Seeds inspired by the 2014 death of Michael Brown at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri.

Palmer is also the host of Color Me Country, an Apple Music radio show on which she showcases the lesser-known histories and music of Black, Indigenous and Latinx country artists. The way she sees it, that’s part of the mission of her career, because she always seems to wind up on the harder path.

“There are moments when I just feel really, really tired,” Palmer admits. “But I’ve never been able to see any other life or career or passion for myself. I’ve known since I was a small child that this was what I wanted to do. It’s been a fun, horrifying, scary journey, but I can’t see doing anything else. Maybe single-mindedness is why I’ve stuck with it for so long.”