Blacks in country music are rare.
America's most well-known black country singer is Charley Pride, whose crossover hit, "Kiss an Angel Good Morning," garnered him a Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year award in 1971 and Male Vocalist of the Year in 1971 and 1972. In 1967, he was the first black performer to appear at the Grand Ole Opry since DeFord Bailey, who appeared between the mid-1920s and 1941.
Throughout the legendary Ray Charles's career, he recorded in various genres, including a style known as "country soul." Several years ago, a self-described "blackneck" named Troy Coleman, better known as Cowboy Troy, exploded onto the scene with an audacious blend of country music and rap he dubbed "hick-hop."
But Rissi Palmer, whose self-titled debut album was released last October, isn't dabbling in country music, nor is she trying to invent a new style; however, she's not your typical country singer. Palmer, 26, said when country music radio programmers find out she's black, they inevitably wonder, "Is she really country?"
When I first heard of her, I wondered the same thing, assuming her brand of country was a hybrid of country-ish R&B. But Palmer's no crossover queen. She's the real thing, twang and all. She famously turned down a deal offered by R&B producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (who fueled Janet Jackson's success), because they wanted to turn her twang into a pop/soul sound.
The first black woman in 20 years to have a single land on Billboard's Hot Country Music Songs, Palmer's "Country Girl" debuted at #58. For someone so new to the scene, she's had a remarkable press and promotional run. "Country Girl" was part of Starbuck's "Song of the Day" free digital music promotion. Palmer made her first Grand Ole Opry appearance last summer. She talks about it in this YouTube clip. Last year she landed on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, People, Parade, Rolling Stone, and Jet, and she appeared on CNN's "Young People Who Rock."
Rissi Palmer is a blend of contemporary and traditional country. At the same time, its soul and blues influences are evident. All 12 songs, nine of which Palmer co-wrote, are well-crafted melodies, with just enough soul and blues overtones to appeal to listeners who may be indifferent to country music. Instruments that characterize the genre—banjo, Dobro, fiddle, and pedal steel guitar—are heard throughout.
Palmer eases the listener into the album with "Hold On To Me," a song Faith Hill once considered for one of her albums, and drives right into fast-paced "Country Girl," her signature song. She sets the record straight:
"You don't have to be a Georgia peach from Savannah Beach to say/From Arkansas to appreciate a Southern drawl/Don't need no kin from West Virginia to have it in ya/Show the world you're a country girl."
Palmer said she wrote "Country Girl" halfway through recording the album, because she felt she needed a song that defined who she was. The Pittsburgh-born/St. Louis-bred singer told Country Music Weekly that the song is "about how you don't have to be from the South to be a country girl. It's a set of values and morals you grow up with."
Slower songs like "Anybody Out There," a plaintive ballad about longing for that elusive soul mate, and "Hurt Don't Know When To Quit," a Wynonna Judd-sounding track about the pain of a breakup, show off Palmer's clear, pitch-perfect voice. She hits every note with precision. The fast-paced "Mr. Ooh La La" features a strong hook and demonstrates Palmer's vocal versatility.
Listening to the sweet harmony of "All This Woman Needs" and infectious chorus in "Flowers On My Window Ledge," it's obvious Palmer loves this kind of music. The R&B-influenced "Love You Like A Woman" doesn't dim her born-to-sing-country aura. She imprints her style on a remake of the late Patsy Cline's "Leavin' On Your Mind," an evocative country music classic. (Cline was a favorite of Palmer's mother, who died when she was seven.)
I was delighted to discover that Palmer is a Christian (she thanks her "Lord and savior Jesus Christ" in the liner notes), and "I'm Not Of This World" is a not-so-subtle shout-out to her faith:
"Slave to my cravings/Is what I used to be/Played with fire/Didn't mean a thing to me/Then I discovered my soul is not my own/Glory be the day when I come home/Cause I am not alone/So I will rise above/Cause I'm not of this world."
Palmer lists artists like Cline, Phoebe Snow, India.Arie, and Prince among her musical influences, but nobody will challenge her country creds after listening to this album. If you intensely dislike country music, you won't like Rissi Palmer. If you love the genre, or you're at least willing to give it a try, Rissi Palmer won't disappoint.