In 2007, singer/songwriter Rissi Palmer became the first African-American woman to reach Billboard Country Singles Chart in twenty years. From her debut as a professional singer in 1997 to the release of her first solo album in 2007, Palmer has been hailed by some industry analysts as a leader in the evolution of the country music genre.
Palmer was born on August 19, 1981, in Sewickley, Pennsylvania; a small town located less than an hour from Pittsburgh. Palmer's father, Johnny Palmer, a manager for retail shopping chains, and mother, Donzella Palmer, an airline attendant for Delta Airlines, met and married in their mutual home state of Georgia before moving to Pennsylvania. Palmer told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) that her parents were "extremely instrumental" in her love of music. Palmer remembers her mother listening to a variety of country and gospel, including Patsy Cline, who was one of her mother's favorites. Her father also enjoyed a diverse interest in music, and Palmer remembers that her childhood home was filled with diverse array of music.
Palmer's mother was diagnosed with colon cancer in the early 1980s and died in 1988, leaving Palmer's father as her sole caretaker. "My mother's death had a very profound affect on me," Palmer told CBB. "It was at this time that I started to write poems that would later turn into songs. She has remained one of my biggest inspirations." Palmer also remembers the years that her father struggled to provide her with a healthy, happy lifestyle while suffering from the loss of his wife and maintaining a demanding work schedule. "My dad is my hero," Palmer told CBB. Palmer's father remarried in 1990 to Darlene Carpenter, a native of Sewickley who worked as an elementary school teacher, and the following year the couple had a son, John Loran Palmer.
Palmer's family remained in Pennsylvania through 1993, where she attended parochial schools. "It was very clear as a child, to everyone, that I wanted to be a singer and entertainer," Palmer told CBB. In 1984, when Palmer was three, her parents enrolled her in dance, choir, and voice and piano lessons. In 1985, Palmer got her first public performance at Antioch Baptist Church in Sewickley, singing "Jesus Loves Me," while standing on the milk crate to reach the microphone. "I was hooked after that." she added. In 1994, Palmer's family moved to Grover, Missouri, a town located near St. Louis.
Began Touring as an Entertainer
In 1995, while involved with a youth group at the First Baptist Church of Chesterfield, Missouri, Palmer was asked to compete in the Miss Missouri Hal Jackson's Talented Teen competition. Palmer competed in the talent show in both 1996 and 1997, where her performance was noticed by Ray Parks, a choreographer and producer for Team 11, a singing and dance troupe composed of youth between fourteen and twenty-one that performed for corporate functions, school presentations, and as part of St. Louis's Channel 11 programming. Team 11 was Palmer's first employment opportunity, and she told CBB that she felt "rich and famous at sixteen," given the small stipend the troupe paid to its performers.
In October of 1998, Palmer accompanied Team 11 to the Arkansas State Fair, where she decided to perform a version of Shania Twain's "Any Man of Mine." Palmer vividly remembers that performance, which was given to a crowd composed primarily of farmers, as a key moment in her career. "When it was time for us to perform, the stage was covered in feathers and bird poop," she told CBB. After the show, she said that "a man came over to me and said "Girl, I wasn't sure what you were about to do, but you're pretty good at that. You might want to think about doing that for a living."" Palmer added, "I guess you can say that was the beginning of my official career!"
While performing with Team 11, Palmer met Dana Lyons and Leslie Leland of Us Girlz Entertainment, a Georgia-based promotions and artist-management company. Palmer left Team 11 in 1999 and traveled to Chicago, Illinois, where she enrolled in DePaul University. But after her first semester, she left school to pursue her music career full time. In early 2000, she relocated to Atlanta to work with Lyons and Leland.
Though Palmer was drawn to country music, she felt that she would not be accepted by mainstream country audiences because, as she told CBB, "There are no black women country singers." Regardless, Lyons and Leland encouraged Palmer to pursue country music and brought country artist Deborah Allen to the studio to work with Palmer on a professional demo album, which she began shopping to country labels after 2000.
Though mainstream country labels were reluctant to accept her, Palmer was offered a recording contract by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of Flyte Time Records, who were the producers of successful rhythm and blues (R&B) artists Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey. Jam and Lewis wanted Palmer to alter her style to conform to a more urban, pop appeal. "While I love pop and R&B, that's not what I want to sing," Palmer told CBB. "I couldn't imagine having to sing or write about something I didn't believe in." After contemplation, Palmer decided to reject the offer and continue to pursue a country music contract. "My genuine love for country music is what motivated my decision."
Obtained a Publishing Deal
Palmer stayed in Atlanta until 2001 and then moved to New Jersey, where she worked at various jobs to supplement her income. In 2001, Palmer was approached by representatives of the Nashville-based Song Planet music publishing company, which offered her a publishing deal helping to write songs for country artists. Palmer remembers her time with Song Planet, from 2001 to 2003, as a "pivotal" moment in her career, because she was able to develop her skills as a lyricist while having the opportunity to work with a number of established country music writers. "In many ways I feel like this was my version of college," Palmer told CBB.
At a Glance …
Born Rissi Inez Palmer on August 19, 1981, in Sewickley, PA; daughter of Johnny and Donzella Palmer. Education: Eureka Senior High School, Eureka, MO, 1995-99; DePaul University, August 1999-November 1999.
Career: Team 11, St. Louis, MO, performer, 1996-99; Us Girlz Entertainment, Atlanta, GA, performer, 1999-2006; Song Planet, Nashville, TN, writer, 2001-03; recording artist, 2005—.
Addresses: Office—1720 Entertainment, 6045 Atlantic Blvd., Atlanta, GA 30071.
In February of 2002, Palmer traveled to New York to perform at the Sugar Bar, after being told by Lyons that scouts for the reality television series Star Search were recruiting at the venue. Palmer was selected by scouts for the show and within a few months she was in Los Angeles preparing for the competition. Palmer told CBB that she remembers Star Search as "the most trying experience of my career, thus far." Palmer lost her voice due to vocal fatigue during the semifinals and eventually lost in the final round. Though she was disappointed with having lost the competition, she believes the experience and exposure were extremely positive for her career. Bob Doerschuk of Great American Country stated that the show's judges were sup- portive of Palmer's performances, especially country music star Naomi Judd, who said, "There are only two kinds of music, good and bad—and Rissi is good."
After the competition, Palmer was asked to record songs for the ABC television special Dance Fever, and shortly thereafter she was one of several artists featured in Country Music Television's special Waiting in the Wings: African Americans Journey in Country Music. Despite her increasing exposure, Palmer was still lacking in a record deal and, somewhat discouraged by her progress, was considering pursuing a career as a songwriter.
Signed with a Major Label
While visiting Los Angeles in 2005, Palmer met Bernard Alexander, general manager of 1720 Entertainment, who, after a conversation with Palmer, took her demo album to label president Terry Johnson. Johnson decided to offer Palmer a recording deal, and two months later she was in the studio recording material for her debut album. "1720 has done so much for my career," Palmer told CBB. "Terry's philosophy is the artist comes first, and he helps to manifest major career and financial opportunities for us. I am allowed and encouraged to be hands on in my career."
Palmer's first single, "Country Girl," was released on a four-song collection produced by Starbucks Entertainment and available exclusively through iTunes. In 2007, the song debuted on the Billboard Country Singles Chart at number 58, a historic moment as Palmer became the first African-American woman to reach the Billboard rankings since Dona Mason's song "Green Eyes" reached number 62 in 1987. By August of 2007, Palmer's album was one of the five best-selling country albums on iTunes. Palmer's self-titled debut album was released in October of 2007 and included twelve songs, of which nine were originals composed by Palmer.
In June of 2007, Palmer achieved a long sought after goal when she was asked to perform at the Grand Old Opry theater in Nashville, which is arguably the most famous and important venue for country music in the United States. In an interview for Newsweek's Jamie Reno, Palmer said of her appearance, "That was truly one of the most amazing moments of my life…. It was extremely emotional. I cried several times that night. I feel like it was a milestone in my career, it was validating."
"Being ‘country’ is more about a state of mind and how you live your life—not so much where you're from or the color of your skin," Palmer said in an interview with Margena A. Christian of Jet magazine. In Palmer's estimation, being an African-American country singer has been both a blessing and a challenge. "It definitely causes people to sit up straight and pay attention, which has been very beneficial in getting people to listen to my music," she told CBB. "However, it puts a huge amount of scrutiny on me. I find that my sincerity and authenticity are questioned a lot." Palmer thinks that many feel her decision to sing country music is a "gimmick," but she fervently believes that once people experience her music they will know that it is genuine. "I've been blessed in that I'm judged primarily on my talent more than anything, that's all you can really ask." When asked her hopes for the impact her music and story will have on her listeners, Palmer said to CBB, "I hope that in pursuing this unconventional career path, I show that staying true to who you are and what your heart desires can pay off and also that people of color, especially young women, don't have to fit in the boxes that society has picked out for us. The possibilities are truly limitless."
Rissi Palmer, 1720 Entertainment, 2007.
Jet, September 10, 2007.
Newsweek, August 24, 2007.
Tennessean, August 26, 2007.
Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2007.
"As a Black Woman, Rissi Palmer Is Country Rarity," MSNBC Online,http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21307946/ (accessed December 16, 2007).
Doerschuk, Bob, "New Artist Spotlight: Rissi Palmer," Great American Country,http://www.gactv.com/gac/nw_cma_close_up/article/0,3034,GAC_26068_5761155_,00.html (accessed December 16, 2007).
Additional information for this interview was obtained through an interview with Rissi Palmer on October 23, 2007.
—Micah L. Issitt
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