by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
Rissi Palmer’s song “Seeds” — the first track off her album “Revival” — grips the listener in the first 20 seconds, coming on with whisper of a plea, “don’t believe what you’ve been sold,” over muted acoustic guitar riffs as her voice builds toward momentous, soaring chorus.
The song on its own is nothing short of profound. But in the context of its music video, produced by Emil Gallardo and Ed Massey, experiencing “Seeds” is life changing.
As Rissi sings, “they can bury your body, but never touch your soul,” the young, Black man walking causally down a dusty road is stopped and threatened by a policeman pointing a shotgun at his face, before the footage cuts to Rissi, strumming her guitar in a more traditional front-porch country montage.
Because I watched this video in early 2021, on the heels of 2020’s racial reckoning in the United States, and the global, and pivotal, push for social justice, I assumed the song was new. It captured this moment in history, through music, in such a compelling, and urgent way. It made me want to take the streets (again) and protest for change.
Yet the sad irony is that the song wasn’t new.
“Seeds” was actually penned nearly six years before the murder of George Floyd, on the heels of another eerily similar tragedy in Ferguson, Mo., the Aug. 9, 2014, shooting and killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr.
And as I pushed “play” again, letting the lyrics, music, and visuals soak in, I knew I needed to hear more from the artist who has spent the better part of 20 years navigating the ups and downs of an industry traditionally associated with white men in pickup trucks. Whether it’s her cheeky (but serious) breakout hit “Country Girl” or the intimate, string-heavy “Soul Message,” Rissi Palmer’s music tugs at the heart and inspires change.
We recently sat down with the mom (of two young daughters) to talk about her second full-length record, “Revival,” and her new radio show Color Me Country Radio with Rissi Palmer, which debuted on Apple Music in August 2020.
Rockmommy: Hi Rissi! For those who are not familiar, can you tell us a little bit about your music career?
Rissi Palmer: I came up in the 80s and 90s, so I listened to artists like Trish Yearwood and Faith Hill. I loved Dolly Parton. We listened to a lot of country, a lot of R&B and a lot of pop growing up so my influences are pretty diverse. And I love stories. I was a big storyteller when I was a kid, and I used to tell these long crazy stories that would make my friends laugh. What I love about country music is the songs, the storytelling.
Rockmommy: Which musical storytellers are you drawn to?
Rissi Palmer: Wynonna Judd is one of my favorites. I loved her song choices — she didn’t always write all of her songs but I loved her song choices — and I loved her strong, strong voice. Especially what she did with The Judds, with her mom. Also, she’s a vocal beast … she can pretty much sing anything and it would sound amazing.
Rockmommy: Fast forward to the early 2000s… pre-2007. What was it like getting into the country music industry?
Rissi Palmer: Here’s how the story went. I grew up in St Louis, and I went to college in Chicago and while I was in Chicago I started working on my demo. Midway through my freshman year of college, my managers were like, ‘we want to shop you for record deals but we need you to be available for meetings.’ So that means you’re going to have to leave school. So I sat down my parents and said, ‘if you let me do this now, when I’m young, if it doesn’t work out in two years, I’ll go back to school.’ And their philosophy was, ‘you’re only 18 once.’ They knew this is what I always wanted to do.
Rockmommy: So what happened next?
Rissi Palmer: Then when I turned 19 I got my first publishing deal in Nashville, so I started spending way more time there, although I didn’t move officially to Nashville until I was 26, seven years later. My publishers would treat me awesome. I would stay with them, and I would stay for, like, a couple weeks at a time.
I’ll say this: Those that were in the trenches with me … my publishers and the other writers, they were wonderful. But because I was the only person of color — I didn’t know of any other people of color doing country music — I felt this self-imposed need to fit in. I didn’t want to stick out for any reason, I didn’t want my songs to stick out.
Then, when I started taking meetings, I realized, it wasn’t going to be, ‘oh you’re Black, you’re cool.’ One of the meetings I took before I had a publishing deal… the producer played my demo, while I’m in the hallway, listening to their reaction. They’re like, ‘OK, nice … what’s the catch?’ So then I walked in, it was like, ‘oh my God, oh my God.’ And then it turned into, ‘well, we have to find songs for Black girls, for someone like you.
Rockmommy: I can’t believe they would say that!
Rissi Palmer: They would get stuck on ‘how do we make her relatable?’ and ‘how do we present her to our listeners in a way that’s palatable to them?’ I learned early on there obviously must be an issue. It was hard not to take it personal. And for a long time I did. It felt like it was me, like I was the problem. It’s taxing on you mentally on ways you don’t really think about.
Once I was signed, we started doing the radio tour and that sort thing. Radio tour is not fun. It can be at times, but for the most part it’s not. You’re sitting in this room and the radio people are judging you and deciding whether they want to play you, and sometimes it has nothing to do with the song, but how they feel about you personally. I had some great people in radio but then I had some horrible people, people who said to my radio promoter, ‘don’t even bother bringing her in because we’re never going to play her.’ It was a lot.
Rockmommy: Just wow. Are there still assumptions about what country music fans want among record producers today?
Rissi Palmer: In the industry at large, I still think it’s a pretty pervasive thought. I think there are innovative people and people that want to try to do different things as evidenced by the fact that Darius Rucker has a career … one of each of those people signed to a major label for every 15 blonde girls or 20 guys in baseball caps. You can’t have 20 Mickey Guytons.
Rockmommy: Because of this dynamic, are Black, indigenous, and/or Latinx artists afraid to try to make it in country?
Rissi Palmer: There are tons of artists of color, and the moment I started the show (Color me Country), my inbox flooded. In the very beginning, artists of color are the same as white artists. When they decide to go into a career in music, they do it because they love it. They’re not thinking about the odds against them.
Then once you get in, you see the hurdles behind the scenes. A lot people think that racism is a white hood and torches and a cross, that things are blatant. When you don’t see it blatantly, you think everything’s fine. It’s only when you add up little things, the little micro-aggressions, the little oblivious things people do, it starts to weigh on you. I think that after trying to climb the mountain for so long, and seeing no return on investment, that’s when you see people quitting, and changing their trajectory.
Rockmommy: How did you decide to start your show, Color me Country?
Rissi Palmer: I started doing interviews with artists in [Spring 2020], when quarantine started, with plans to start a podcast. I wanted to talk about my experience in country music… and talk to others about their experiences in being ‘the other’ — a [forum] where people could tell me things they might not necessarily tell a journalist because they know that I’ve been there.
I didn’t know George Floyd was gonna happen, that we were going to go through this reckoning. Suddenly this little thing I had planned to start, this podcast, was included in The New York Times. Then another friend of mine introduced me to Apple Music, literally the week before I was supposed to launch the podcast on my own. They offered me a deal to do a radio show, which meant I would be able to include full songs.
Still, mission is exactly the same, to make stories public to raise awareness. I hear people discovering the show, saying, ’I didn’t know Black people sang country music!’ I’m trying to normalize this, because we’ve been a part of this since the beginning. This whole story that country music is white man’s music is patently false.
Rockmommy: Can you tell me about the song ‘Seeds’ came about?
Rissi Palmer: ‘Seeds’ was actually written in 2014: I grew up in St. Louis, watching how everything unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, after the murder of Michael Brown. I felt powerless, because I wasn’t there. I was in North Carolina. But I saw this quote, ‘they try to cut us down, but they don’t know that we were seeds.” So I thought, ‘OK, this is the great place to start for the song.’
Rockmommy: Can we talk about ‘Revival?’ Is that a revival … of you?
Rissi Palmer: Yeah! This is a revival of me. I did a project in 2014, of back porch sessions, and this is the first full-length album I’ve done since my debut. I’m older … I was the same age my mom was when she died, right when the template [for being a mom] was about to become obsolete. When we started recording the album, I was pregnant with Nova. Every song of that album is a snapshot of my marriage, where I was as a mother, where I was as a Black woman.
Rockmommy: How has being a mom influenced your work, or challenged it?
Rissi Palmer: It’s really funny to approach this now, and see just how my perspective is different. When I started out, everything was very focused on me. Everything is very ‘me, me, me’ when you’re an artist. You’re very much into your look your sound. Now that I have the girls, I have to prioritize, of course, [their needs]. I approach motherhood a lot different then some people do because I lost my mother when I was very young. My mom passed away when I was 7. She was sick for the last two years of her life, in a hospital in another state. So I knew that if I ever had children, they would be my first priority, and make sure that whatever I did would revolve around them, rather than them revolving around me.
I’ve tried to find ways that my music and my art can be something that we can all do together, that they can do with me. That’s why I did a children’s album in 2013, because I wanted to do something to commemorate my daughter’s birth and do something we could enjoy together. All my music I do with, in my mind, ‘my girls are going to hear this.’ It doesn’t necessarily stop me from saying things, but it means I am very truthful.
They’ve made me, in turn, become a more intentional artist, and make smarter decisions, in regards to my time and what I can do and what I can’t do. They make me mindful. I suddenly went from being this very self-focused artist to thinking, ’how can I change this corner of the world that we’re all in together?’
In every way they make me better. It’s hard. It’s hard to juggle and I’ve had to sacrifice a lot of time that I used to devote to my art.’ My time is very valuable. I can’t be all over the place that I used to be. I’ve had to become really resourceful with my time.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.