When Holler asked me to interview Rissi Palmer about the beautifully non-stop career ascension she is currently enjoying, I told them it wouldn’t be a normal Q&A between a journalist and an artist. It would absolutely lack any and all objectivity because, at this point, our fates are pretty tightly bound, Rissi’s and mine. Not only are we good friends, but we are also colleagues at Apple Music Country, each with our own show, and co-conspirators in a pair of grant funds we founded and run that support marginalized artists in roots and country music.
So, when I told Rissi that Holler gave me this assignment, asking for a no holds-barred conversation between two friends pushing to diversify country and Americana, she said, “You could just publish one of our text threads.” She wasn’t wrong, but that would have had a bunch of emojis, gifs, and shorthand references. Instead, we took the time to use our words and speak our truths because this music is at an absolute crossroads right now. It can either shake loose from its deeply racist past, make long overdue amends, and embrace a beautifully diverse future or it can cling to Confederate flags, continue its cultural appropriation, and ignore racial slurs.
Personally, I’d rather be on (and by) the side of someone who is pushing for equity and justice through everything she does. Though that activism wasn’t necessarily apparent on her 2007 self-titled debut, the album landed three singles on the country charts to make her the first Black woman in 20 years to do so. And while Nashville still refused to fully embrace her, legal wranglings kept her bound up for far longer than she would’ve liked. Once she broke free and returned in 2019 with Revival, Rissi had a much clearer idea of who she was and what she wanted. That clarity has only grown crisper since, as evidenced in her wonderful show on Apple Music Country, a new exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, a commentator gig on CMT, and an incredibly bright horizon.
If you’d rather take a nap than talk to me, I would understand. You’re on quite a roll, friend. Are you making the time to take care of yourself in between everything that’s going on?
No, not like I should. Part of taking care of myself is fostering my art, which is not really being fostered right now because of everything. So Wednesdays and Fridays are now writing days.
For the new record which is part of the bright horizon.
Wonderful. Well, let’s set the stage for the people: A year ago, you were playing shows around North Carolina and starting to do interviews for what you thought would be a little side project podcast called Color Me Country. Then the pandemic hit which cancelled your shows and I tipped off Apple Music about you. And now you’re in a museum exhibit, you’re on the morning news, and you just returned to the Grand Ole Opry stage after 13 years. And this is where I quote you, “Girrrrrrl…” What in the world is happening?!
I mean, so really this is all your fault. Really. It’s your fault. [Laughs] It’s been like a series of people that come in and they’re like, “Let’s just like turn this into…” It was a nice little shower and now it’s a hurricane and now it’s an earthquake and now it’s a volcano. And you were one of those people, man. You came in and, just all unassuming and what not, “My friends are going to email you. Just look out for an email.” Yeah. And then everything went from there.
Listen, this is everything that I’ve always dreamed about, and I had no clue, at the same time. It’s the job that I have been preparing for all my life that I didn’t know was going to come my way and so…
Or was even a possibility.
Or was even a possibility. Yeah. I didn’t know.
Like I said, it was just going to be me talking to my friends. And it’s something that my best friend Shellie had been telling me to do for years. And I was like, “Girl, don’t nobody want to hear me talk.” And then, when quarantine happened, it just made sense because I was like, “Well, I know everyone’s going to be at home, so we’ll just do it.” And I had no idea.
And now here you are. And, I gotta say, your set at the Opry was brilliant, not just because you sounded and looked great, but because you stared them right in the eye with the three songs you chose. You did not blink. Tell me about that.
Well, I come back to all these things and maybe that’s why God, the universe, whatever you want to call it… I think that’s why maybe I’m getting a chance to revisit a lot of this because I’m extremely intentional now and everything is done, like, we have thought about it — down to the color of the dress that I wore and all of it. There’s a reason for everything.
And I knew that, if I had this opportunity and there was a possibility it would be another 13 years before I got to do it again, you were going to get to know who I am now. It’s not the young girl that’s just going come and sing “Country Girl” for you and be cute and wear her little dress. There’s intention and there’s meaning, and I’m going to give it to you. I’ll give it to you with a smile, but I’m going to give it to you. And that’s kind of what I’m on right now. That’s kind of what all of this is. And so activism is a part of it now.
It was part of it then, too, you just didn’t know it.
I didn’t know it. Yeah. And acknowledgment is a big thing. So, when I leave the stage, you’re going to know who I am, you’re going to know what I believe, and you’re going to know Linda Martell, and you’re going to know some history. That was the strategy going in. As soon as they told me three songs, I knew right off the bat what songs they were.
With all the opportunities suddenly opening up for you, Mickey Guyton, Breland, and others, it’s hard not to be suspicious. Did both the Opry’s invitation and the Hall of Fame exhibit feel genuine rather than performative?
Country Music Hall of Fame, for sure, was genuine because I appreciate the work that they’re trying to do there. They’re working very hard to be inclusive in the history, and it’s evident in the exhibits. It’s evident in a lot of the work that they’re doing behind the scenes that the public is not even aware of yet. So, no, I have no doubt they were very intentional about what they’re doing.
And I was looking at the lineups that the Grand Ole Opry has for the next few weeks and, again, I know some stuff that the public doesn’t know, and so I think they’re very intentional. It’s small steps, but they’re very significant steps. So, no, I didn’t feel like either invitation was performative.
Good. You and I have talked before about how we’re okay being tokenized, if that’s a first step toward real inclusion. Because we know that, once we get in the door, we’re going to hold it open for our friends to flood on in. And, if we stick together — BIPOC with queer and disabled folks — making sure we are all always at the table, then we are undeniable. I am so grateful to Apple Music for letting us both do that with our shows because we are changing people’s lives. And I’m going to throw Hunter Kelly in here with us with Proud. So, talk to me about the table we’re building over there.
Yes. I can’t say enough good things. I’m at the point… just put the tattoo on my forehead. It’s fine. Just put the apple because I cannot say enough good things about what they’re doing at Apple Music right now. And it’s no mistake that there are five shows that are helmed by people of color on Apple Music Country. And then with your show and with Hunter’s show, it’s one of the most inclusive things that I’ve ever seen in Nashville, to come from Nashville and come from country music in a really long time.
We have to throw in Auntie LJo… Leslie Jordan with Hunker Down Radio.
Yes yes yes! And they have international shows with the Shires. It’s a really cool, diverse, interesting lineup that they’ve created. And you and I and Hunter speak about this often, we’re just gonna jam everything that they let us. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah, we’re like the kids with the candy just stuffing our faces until they take the bowl away.
Until they take it away and they tell us that we can’t anymore. And so I think between just the three of us, not to mention the other people, but just the three of us, we just we need more time. [Laughs] That’s really just what we’re trying to say. We need more hours.
We do. We do.
But it’s good. When you work intentionally, I think that it shows what you’re able to accomplish and what you can get in and what you can make room for if you just put the effort in.
A principle I keep going back to, when I see people being intentional and for myself, is something I heard Dr. Ibram Kendi talk about which is, you are either actively working for anti-racism or you are passively enabling racism. There is no neutral in this. So all the folks in country music who did not condemn, as you like to call it, “the n-word heard around the world,” are passively enabling racism… if not actively enabling it, like a few folks did. And like this festival coming up in June is doing. That tells you all you need to know about them, doesn’t it?
Yeah. I say this and I’m going to keep saying it: I think the industry has done a good job, as far as trying to show that they’re wanting to be inclusive and all that. I’d give it a B-. I give it a C+ / B-. And there were reactions that I would have never guessed would have happened. And so there are institutions that I know of personally that are working to try to rectify a lot of this damage.
However, that culture? The culture is toxic. Shoot, Morgan Wallen even told the people to stop defending him and let things run their course. The culture is toxic and, if you just go read the comments on his record, the reviews on his record, some people are just buying it just because he said it and because people were upset. And so that needs to be dealt with. That needs to be openly condemned. If anybody wants to know why people of color and LGBTQ people feel like they can’t come to a country show and feel safe or why they don’t feel comfortable blasting it out of their cars when they’re driving. That’s why. That’s what everybody needs to focus on next is the changing of the culture.
There’s so much work to do in that regard. So I want to talk about the different levels of anti-racism work: ally, accomplice, co-conspirator. I think I first learned about this from a BLM organizer. The way I understand it is, an ally doesn’t get in the way of your work; an accomplice helps you with your work; and a co-conspirator does their own work. So, while being an ally is a good step, it’s only the first step. And we need to keep going from there. Otherwise, BIPOC folks are still doing all the real work to dismantle white supremacy and it’s not their job. Right?
Yeah. [Laughs] Yeah. We marched, we fought. And by “we,” I mean my mother, my father. It’s not even that far removed. Everybody’s like, “Oh, it was such a long time ago.” No, no. My mama and my daddy had separate water fountains that they had to.
Oh, we had separate white and Black proms when I was in high school in the mid-80s in Louisiana.
Wow. So, yeah, this isn’t new. And this isn’t that old. I think it’s not as hard as people think it is.
That’s the thing. I’m not asking you to stand in front of my house with a rifle to protect us. I’m not asking you to kick in the doors and be like, “That’s it. We’re taking over Warner Bros. Nashville.” That’s not what I’m asking. It’s something as simple as, when you see someone saying something that is extremely incorrect, you correct them. You don’t have to be a smart-ass about it or anything. You just say, “Actually, that’s not true” or “I’ve seen something to the contrary that you may be interested in.” As simple as that. It’s not these huge moments of grandeur. It’s the very mundane, boring things that happen on a regular basis that you just see and you’re like, “That’s not right. Let me fix that.”
Yeah. Exactly. Let’s be real: Whiteness is at the top of the privilege pyramid.
So, what I have come to understand is that white people have an absolute moral imperative to speak up, to inform other white people, and to uplift BIPOC people any chance we get. That’s the only way we get to equity which is different from equality, which some people might not understand. So let’s break that down: If a white man has $100, a white woman has $50, and a Black person has $0, then giving them all the same payout of $1 does not make them equal. We have to level the playing field first by building equity for those at the bottom which is where reparations or “grants,” as we like to call them, come into the conversation. Tell the people what we’re up to with all of that.
Well, first, I want to say this before we get into that: The work of uplifting everybody on the hierarchy is everybody’s work. I recognize that, as a light-skinned Black woman, I have the palatable look that a lot of people find pleasant and non-threatening and all that. And so I have to look out for my brothers and sisters who are darker than me and may not have the same opportunities because of that. All that to say, it’s everybody’s work. Everybody’s got a privilege at some point, some place.
Yes. There’s a hierarchy. I’m a white, queer person. My whiteness is higher on the hierarchy than my queerness so I have that work to do. We all have to reach back and pull others up.
Now, in reference to what you just said. First of all, you gave me a Rainey Day Fund grant which helped with my show in the very beginning, when it was just the Rissi show, before Apple came into the picture. And so, you’ve been throwing bags of money at me for a long time. [Laughs] So Kelly calls me in December and is like, “How do you feel about doing something like Rainey Day for Color Me Country?” And I’m like, “That’s a brilliant idea.”
So, between the two of us, with Rainey Day covering BIPOC, LGBTQ, and disabled artists in roots — marginalized people, basically — and then Color Me Country reaching out to artists of color who are pursuing country music, we’re trying to make sure that not having money is not the reason why you’re not creating and why you’re not existing in these spaces.
And so, whether you need to pay your rent, whether you need to pay a medical bill, or you need to get a demo done, just whatever… we got you covered. You don’t need to fill out paperwork. I don’t need an essay. You don’t need to write out your hopes and dreams for the next five years. I’m overwhelmed. I did not realize until today that we had given out 18 of them.
Yeah. And that’s just Color Me Country.
I’m a terrible secretary. I just was going through and I realized, as I was putting pictures together, that that was the case. And that just kind of blows my mind.
And now with St. Brandi [Carlile] coming into our fold…
By the time this posts, we’ll have a whole new chunk of money in our account.
Yeah. From CMT, the Looking Out Foundation, Fiona Prine, and Brandi Carlile. Thanks, again, to Kelly being like, “How about you give me some money?” [Laughs]
[Laughs] “Hey, friend… over here. We could use some of that…”
[Laughs] “Heard you got some spare bags…”
Exactly. We’re not going to be greedy or anything.
But closed mouths don’t get fed. So I’m thankful for people like you that are like, “I’ma ask” because I’m not the best at that. That’s not my gift. I’m thankful to have you be my partner in this.
It’s a great partnership because you make the good out-front spokesperson, which is just not my jam. The poor Rainey Day Instagram has maybe 10 posts and it’s been around for two-and-a-half years. [Laughs]
[Laughs] That’s alright. What you lack in social media posts, you make up for in great ideas and what the kids say is “chutzpah.” You got it.
Let’s keep it going because that’s the work. We both made this point to someone on Instagram the other day that BIPOC and queer folks want to be part of Americana and country music as audience members, but they’re not going to be until they see themselves reflected on the stage. So doing the work we’re doing, both in front of the scenes and behind the scenes, to get more diverse faces on those stages, that’s what will change the audience. But we need some help on that toxic culture thing. That’s where those institutions need to step up. That’s bigger work than you and I can do.
100 percent. Honestly, that’s not a country music… they don’t have a monopoly on that. That’s an American… that’s unfortunately one of our imports or exports, this toxic mess. And this lack of “We don’t want to talk. We don’t want to have nuanced conversation about anything.” And it’s horrifying. We like to cling on to the buzz words. If I hear “cancel culture” one more time, I do think I’m going to jump off my porch.
[Laughs] You’re going to cancel some culture?
I’m going to cancel some culture because it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard before in my life. I can think of people that have been canceled. I can think of immigrant children that have been canceled. I can think of Muslim people that haven’t been allowed in our country that have been canceled. I can think of civil rights leaders who have been CANCELED, like, effectively done. You go cry in your corner and count your money and be quiet until everybody has forgotten what you did. And don’t call it cancel culture. And shut up. Those are consequences.
When I saw a post the other day that actually called it “consequence culture,” I was like, “That’s what it is.”
Yeah, that’s it. I don’t want to hear it. It’s either consequence culture or we’re course correcting, because we shouldn’t have been doing that dumb stuff in the first place
Let’s replace colonialism with consequences.
What a novel idea.