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Interview With 'Color Me Country' Radio Host Rissi Palmer

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, by now, most people probably know that Black and brown musicians heavily influenced - indeed, helped create - American country music. But by now, it's also become clear that with a few exceptions, the contributions of these artists to the genre have been ignored, downplayed and even actively resisted.

But a new show on Apple Music hopes to change that by placing a spotlight on the contributions of these musicians. It's called "Color Me Country," and it's hosted by singer Rissi Palmer, and it features music and interviews with Black, Latino and Indigenous country artists.

Rissi Palmer is the one to do it. In 2007, she became the first Black woman to hit the Billboard Country chart in 20 years with her song "Country Girl." And she's one of only a handful of Black female artists to make the country charts since its very beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTRY GIRL")

RISSI PALMER: (Singing) Don't need no kin from West Virginia to have it in ya (ph). Show the world you're a country girl.

MARTIN: And here she is. Joining us now is Rissi Palmer.

Rissi Palmer, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

PALMER: Oh, my gosh. Are you kidding? I'm so excited to be here. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations on the show. What gave you the idea for it? Was it it one of those pandemic brainstorms?

PALMER: (Laughter) You know what? Honestly, it came from, of all places, Lil Nas X and "Old Town Road." And around the time that Billboard decided that it wasn't, quote-unquote, "country," I started reading a lot of the things that were coming out - think pieces, you know, in music magazines and stuff. And I noticed that whenever they talked about artists of color, they only mentioned five people. And it's always the same five people. It's Charley Pride, Darius Rucker, Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown and Mickey Guyton.

And so it started out as a Twitter thread. And I just went, like, 10 minutes. I Googled Black women and artists of color, women of color that charted on the Billboard country charts and had any success in country music and put it on Twitter, went to go make lunch and came back. And, like, people had added to the list, and people were retweeting it and that sort of thing. And so I realized that that information was - people were interested in that. And I decided that I wanted to turn it into something.

MARTIN: You've told us so much there that we need to unpack...

PALMER: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...First of all. First of all, remind people of what happened with Lil Nas X. I remember his song "Old Town Road," especially the remix with Billy Ray Cyrus, was a monster hit. But tell us about the backstory there. Tell us again just as briefly as you can, like, what happened.

PALMER: Sure. Well, basically, Lil Nas X put out this song. And it was going - it went viral, and it was actually starting to climb the country charts. And then that was the moment that people at Billboard decided that it did not contain - and this is a quote - it did not contain enough elements of country music in order to be considered a, quote-unquote, "country song." So then they had it taken off the country charts.

And I just was, like - I was blown away that this was the hill that they decided that they were going to die on. Like, with all the country artists that use trap beats and make mix tapes and rap and all of that, like, this was the moment that they decided to put their foot down. I thought that was really interesting.

MARTIN: And it's interesting that, for example, a recent guest on your show was Darius Rucker, who is probably one of the most prominent Black country artists of the moment. I'm sure a lot of people know his name, certainly know Hootie and the Blowfish. I just want to play a part of your conversation with him. And he's talking about his first experience with country music radio. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLE MUSIC SHOW, "COLOR ME COUNTRY")

DARIUS RUCKER: I wanted people to play my music for my music. If you like the song, please play, and if not - you know, don't play it because I'm Black, and please don't not play it because I'm...

PALMER: (Laughter) Right.

RUCKER: But he didn't say he wouldn't play it. Nobody said they wouldn't play it. What was said was, I don't think my audience will accept a Black country singer...

PALMER: (Laughter).

RUCKER: ...Just like that. I love the song, think it's country, love it, and we'll play it tomorrow. But I don't think the audience will accept a Black country singer. And I was, like, wow, really? I thought music was, like, notes and words and chords (laughter). You know...

PALMER: Right.

RUCKER: I didn't know music was color. I found that out today.

MARTIN: Did you go wow when you heard that? Because I think of - I don't think that I've heard Darius Rucker speak so bluntly about those kinds of experiences before.

PALMER: No.

MARTIN: Did you go wow when you heard that?

PALMER: Oh, my gosh. No, I - it's funny. When we talked, I got - I told him this too in the interview. Like, I got a little emotional because I didn't realize for a long time, I internalized a lot of the experiences that I had while I was doing this, while I was doing radio tour and while we were promoting singles and stuff. I internalized a lot of it because I was like, well, maybe it's just me. Maybe this is happening because it's me.

And it was reassuring and then, like, horrifying at the same time that no, no, it happened to other people.

MARTIN: Have you felt throughout your career that you've had to make a choice between singing the music you want to sing and saying what you want to say with it? Because "Country Girl" does have a message in it. I mean, "Country Girl" basically says you don't have to be this particular type to be country, to feel country, to be - you know, you don't have to fit this little narrow identity. So it does say things.

PALMER: I felt it more so when I was younger, when - like, in 2007, when "Country Girl" was about to come out, and when we were shooting a video, I mean, like, down to us trying to decide how I was going to wear my hair. I've been wear my hair natural since I was 17 years old. And, you know, it's big, and I love it. And as - you know, as Black women, we - it's a journey to acceptance, to accepting your hair in the way that God made you.

And so, you know, I remember I was debating about that, the record label trying to decide if I should have straight hair or if I should wear my natural hair. And this just wasn't white people at the label. This is Black people, too. And we were all sitting there having this discussion about what would be acceptable and what wouldn't be acceptable.

And, you know, we had issues choosing love interests for video. Should she be with a white man? Should she be with a Black man? And often, I was just by myself because nobody could decide what would be acceptable.

MARTIN: Wow.

PALMER: And so it was hard in the very beginning - I'm not going to lie - because I was asked to be - you know, you're asked to be, like, this very neutral person. And I feel passionately and strongly about the things that I care about. And I have found greater freedom the older I get.

And as an independent artist, I don't know that I want you to be a fan if you're going to hate the things that I love. Like, if you can't accept me for all the things that I am as opposed to, like, this one-dimensional character that you want to buy into because you've heard them on the radio, then you probably - you shouldn't be a fan.

MARTIN: Well, tell us about the show's name, "Color Me Country." Where did that come from?

PALMER: "Color Me Country" is me paying homage to the foundation on which my house is built, and that is Linda Martell. Linda Martell was the first Black woman to ever play the Grand Ole Opry. She released her first album - "Color Me Country" came out in 1970. And she only released one album and was basically blackballed and left country music, changed her name and lives in...

MARTIN: Wow.

PALMER: ...South Carolina now. Yeah.

MARTIN: Why was she blackballed?

PALMER: Rolling Stone has a really amazing article about Linda Martell that I hope all the listeners will check out because it explains everything. But the cliff note version is, she was signed to Plantation Records - yes, Plantation Records. And when they signed another artist, a white female artist, Jeannie C. Riley, they decided that they were going to put everything behind her and take resources away from supporting Linda, which is something that happens a lot in the record business.

And she moved on and started working on new music. And they decided, well, not only are you - are we not going to do anything with you, but no one else can do anything with you.

MARTIN: Wow.

PALMER: So she was basically shelved and just treated so poorly that she just was, like, not only am I leaving, I'm leaving. Like, I'm not doing music anymore. And she left.

MARTIN: Well, you're - so you're really bringing things up for people that I think it's kind of history hiding in plain sight, in a way. You're bringing things to the fore that were there but weren't discussed in these experiences. And you're kind of - you're not only showcasing new artists, but you're also bringing forward this history that has just been there that I think people have not faced.

PALMER: You know, I'm a history person. And in doing research for these shows, there are so many Black artists, there are so many Indigenous artists, there are so many Latinx artists who were worthy. And for whatever reason, they just were not given the - what I believe to be their due.

And I believe in giving people their flowers when they can enjoy them. And if we're going to have these kind of conversations, and we're going to try to be honest, and we're going to try to be equitable, then we have to acknowledge the past. We have to acknowledge the wrongs that were done in the past. We have to acknowledge the people that pioneered in the past. Like, you just have to. Like, that's the only equitable, fair way to move forward.

MARTIN: That is Rissi Palmer. You can hear her show, "Color Me Country," on Apple Music right now.

Rissi Palmer, thank you so much. And happy holidays to you.

PALMER: Thank you. It's been an honor. Happy holidays to you as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEEDS")

PALMER: (Singing) When they bury our trees, push them up through concrete, going to make them see these roots run deep 'cause (ph) we are seeds. When we rise up, nobody can stop us. No one can knock us. No hate can stop us. We are seeds. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.