Rissi Palmer is African-American, but she's not going to parade that around. "I'll never be like, 'Hi, I'm the black country artist.' But I'm also not apologizing for who I am," said Palmer.
The color of her skin is enough to make her something of a novelty. There hasn't been an African-American woman on the country charts in 20 years. And while there have been attempts to infuse some equal opportunity into country, no one has officially succeeded since Charley Pride's reign in the early 1970s. In spite of that, the genre seems poised to accept an artist such as Palmer.
In a call from Philadelphia, where she was on the road to woo country radio executives, Palmer, 26, told the Tribune what kind of country singer she wants to be. "When the album comes out, it'll be just about the music. I'm not making it about being black. That's gonna garner attention, sure, but it's just not about that," she said.
The self-titled debut album comes out Tuesday, and already her first single, "Country Girl," is at No. 54 on the country charts. But not everything looks rosy for this St. Louis native and former DePaul University student.
In a business where timing is everything, Palmer's couldn't be worse. Her album comes out the same day as Carrie Underwood's sophomore effort, "Carnival Ride." Spins on country radio, especially in a major market such as Chicago, are hard to come by any day. But with listeners' radio requests for Underwood's single and her media appearances taking center stage, Palmer could get lost in the shuffle. Her vocals certainly rival Underwood's, but that isn't always enough against the Nashville machine.
Another issue could be her race. It may not matter to Palmer, but will it matter to fans? In spite of the genre's core audience of white people, Palmer is capable of settling any doubts. Her talent eases well into the impressive.
Much-needed feminine sound
Country's supply and demand has historically skewed toward white male artists. So hers is a much-needed feminine sound with a vocal range that spans the continuum from Martina McBride-style belters to the youthful enthusiasm LeAnn Rimes channels so well.
"Country Girl" is Palmer's unlikely here-I-am anthem. She's no cowgirl, rather a girl from the St. Louis suburbs whose parents hail from the South. "I had what I think was a very traditional Southern upbringing," she said. The lyrics feel like the antithesis of Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman." In Palmer's "Country Girl," she says "You don't have to be from Arkansas to appreciate a Southern drawl / Don't need kin from West Virginia to have it in ya." While Palmer may not have had what many consider a traditional Southern upbringing, she says she still gets it. "That life was my parents' reality," she said. Critics have given her points for the quasi-yodeling in the chorus. "That little thing just popped in my head, like a cool note thing," she admits. "I was not trying to yodel."
Influenced by Patsy Cline
Sarah Majors, a songwriter with Nashville's Zavitson Music Group, has been writing with Palmer for six years. "I like helping artists find their voice, but Rissi had already found hers," Majors said. "When we wrote 'Country Girl,' it took months." They finally wrote the chorus, Majors said, over dinner one night.
On a Patsy Cline remake, Palmer really goes bluesy lounge-singer to make "Leavin' on Your Mind" her own. "How can you one-up Patsy Cline? You can't. So you make it your own," said Palmer. "Patsy was my biggest influence and my mom's favorite singer. My earliest memories are of me and Mom cleaning the house on Saturday, listening to Patsy. I wanted to do it different but [also] stay true to the integrity of the song." Palmer sang it at her Grand Ole Opry debut. "That's the moment when all the work, the sacrifice and the rejection is justified, because you're on stage at the Opry. And that audience takes their country very seriously," she said.
The rest of the CD is littered with a few wilting ballads and an occasional gem. All, though, have traditional country instrumentation that will keep it from crossing over to pop radio.
The first track, "Hold on to Me," was originally penned by Palmer to pitch to Faith Hill. "I was only 19, and I just wanted to write songs for me. But my co-writers said, 'Let's write for someone who actually has a record deal.'" Hill put the tune on hold but ultimately chose not to record it. Good thing for Palmer, who rips it wide open and puts her pipes to good use.
Another Palmer-penned tune, "Butterflies," was inspired by, of all things, a quote from HBO's "Sex in the City." Sarah Jessica Parker's character "Carrie [Bradshaw] said, 'Some people are settling, some are settling down, and some will settle for nothing short of butterflies.'" Palmer found a song in that line about holding out for perfection, and the result demonstrates a bit of a songwriting gift and the soaring falsetto she pulls off flawlessly.
Palmer's label, 1720 Entertainment, isn't a Nashville outlet. Instead, they are a business dedicated to diverse music styles. And having Palmer on their roster certainly fills the country niche nicely.
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