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Rissi Palmer's Color Me Country: Championing Change

By Matt Wickstrom

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Despite living out her dream of writing and performing country music since the mid-2000s, Rissi Palmer’s journey has been far from sunshine and rainbows.

An avid fan of country music since childhood, Palmer quickly realized upon releasing her self-titled debut album in 2007 that, as an artist of color, the country music industry and its gatekeepers didn’t love her in the same way she adored them.

This came even as three songs from Palmer’s debut - 'Country Girl’, ‘Hold On To Me’, and ‘No Air’ - all charted, leading to performances at The White House, New York's Lincoln Center and multiple appearances on the Grand Ole Opry.

After over a decade of trying to make a go of it in Nashville, Palmer eventually relocated to Durham, North Carolina. In the years that have followed, she’s observed a slow turning of the tide toward more equity in country music with the emergence of artists like Mickey Guyton and Lil Nas X, but knows there’s still much progress yet to be made.

As a result, in early 2020 Palmer launched her own podcast, Color Me Country, that sets out to educate listeners on the diverse history of country music and how many Black, Indigenous, Asian and other artists of color have contributed to its legacy. According to her, the idea for the show was one she’d been floating around for years with her friend and eventual guest of the show, Shellie R. Warren, before committing to it just prior to the pandemic turning our world upside down.

“I have emails from her dating all the way back to 2017 about starting a podcast,” says Palmer. “At the time I brushed it off because I was in the middle of my own recording career, playing shows and raising a family. When we started work on it, it was early in 2020 - before protests for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, but not long after Lil Nas X blew up and was subsequently blocked out of country radio with his hit song ‘Old Town Road’.

Countless think pieces came out after that which made it seem like only a few Black artists were interested in or contributed to country music, completely getting the story wrong. Not only that, but they were also omitting Hispanic, Indigenous and Asian artists. That’s when I knew I had to do something.”

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Suddenly with an abundance of free time due to the pandemic, Palmer jumped into work on the show in March 2020, completing 24 interviews by that June. Shortly after launching Color Me Country - named after Black country artist Linda Martell’s 1970 album of the same name - Palmer was connected with the team at Apple Music, who less than a week later signed her to a contract to produce and exclusively host the bi-weekly show on their platform.

“Mickey [Guyton] is one of the most visible Black country artists currently, but she’s far from the only one,” says Palmer. “It hurts when you feel like you’ve given your heart and soul to something only to be passed over and forgotten about. I made the decision early on after leaving Nashville to work as an independent artist that I would always be respectful and give credit where credit is due to those who came before me and those continuing to grind today.

Linda’s story is not only indicative of how I, but countless other artists of color have been treated, so I found it very fitting to use her album as the title for the show to illustrate just how long this fight has been going on.”

Since Color Me Country has been on air, the show - and Palmer herself - have quickly become leaders in the conversation pushing for more equity and inclusion in the genre. Now up to 48 episodes and counting, the show does an excellent job of highlighting the history and significance of artists of color to country music, like the aforementioned Martell, while also introducing her audience to the new crop of artists helping to push the conversation further forward today.

One of those guests has been Madeline Edwards, a blossoming talent from the Lonestar State who Palmer named in Color Me Country’s Class of 2022, alongside Tony Evans Jr., Joy Clark, Michael B. Whit, Julia Cannon and Tae Lewis. Edwards is one of a handful of artists hand-picked by Palmer to perform at her Color Me Country takeover at The Long Road Festival in Leicestershire, UK from Aug. 26-28.

According to Edwards, she and Palmer have grown to become close friends since connecting on the show. She’s incredibly grateful for the community and network that has been built as a result of Color Me Country.

“Rissi's heart for other artists, especially artists of color in the country music space, is completely selfless,” Edwards shares. “She is such a champion for artists like me and has never expected anything in return, in addition to using all her resources to help artists. Her heart is always 100% in the right place. It's rare to find people like that sometimes. When she could be pushing for all of the glory herself, she instead chooses to pave a path for others without expectations—and that right there is a true champion.”

Another group that has benefited from the show is Mississippi-born trio and family band Chapel Hart. The group was part of Palmer’s inaugural Color Me Country Class of 2021 as well as CMT’s Next Women of Country class the same year, and has gone on to collaborate with the likes of ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Jackyl’s Jesse James Dupree and Jennifer Hanson, among others.

“We’ll never have enough thank-yous for people like Rissi for using her show to lift us and other artists of color up,” says Chapel Hart’s Danica Hart. “Platforms like Color Me Country have completely changed the game for us and for country music as a whole. It’s allowed people who may not have heard our music before to hear it and realize there’s a lot more to country music than what you hear on mainstream radio. The work that organizations like Color Me Country and the Black Opry are doing for Black, Indigenous and other artists of color in country music is incredible and something I will always be thankful for.”

One more artist aided by Color Me Country has been Miko Marks, someone who understands the struggle of making it in country music as an artist of color all too well. After coming to Nashville in 2003 and finding moderate success while also not feeling fully embraced, Marks went on a hiatus from music for over a decade before returning in 2021 with the EP Race Records and full album Our Country.

Now, Marks is again making waves in an industry that is now embracing her more than ever before, largely due to the platform given to her by Palmer and Color Me Country.

Color Me Country had a lot to do with me getting back into the music industry,” says Marks. “I was the first guest on the show and things just took off from there. I’ve gotten so much support from her - I don’t know that I’d still be making music today if it wasn’t for her. It’s so wonderful to see people like Rissi holding the door of opportunity open for others with her platform, which she has done for me time and time again.”

In preparation for The Long Road Festival later this summer, Palmer is currently hard at work raising money through her Color Me Country Foundation to ease the financial burden off of the artists she will have joining her to perform at the event.

However, that’s not all the foundation does. It also includes the SEEDS Project, an arm of the foundation that offers free or pay-what-you-can Zoom calls with industry professionals like artist managers, booking agents and entertainment attorneys for independent artists of all backgrounds. As Palmer describes it, nowadays there’s a lot more to the music industry than just the music. Handling your art like a business is just as, if not more important.

“It’s also about who you’re writing with, who has access to your songs and who they can connect you with for a publishing or record deal,” says Palmer. “Those are the things we’re looking to connect artists with through the Color Me Country Foundation. We not only want to give artists performance opportunities, but also teach them how to build a website and hire an agent. I want this to become a full-service resource center where artists can come to help elevate their careers without waiting for the industry to do it for them.”

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Rissi Palmer will be hosting her Color Me Country stage at this year's Long Road Festival in Leicestershire, UK from 26th - 28th August.

For information on Long Road Festival 2022 and to purchase tickets, click here.