Rissi Palmer Finding Her Home in Country Music

Singer-Songwriter's First Album Gets Attention at Billboard and iTunes

Rissi Palmer moves effortlessly between the arcana of Internet marketing and the face-to-face simplicity of the Grand Ole Opry — and her adaptability has paid off. When her self-titled album was released recently, it debuted at No. 56 on Billboard’s country chart, a significant achievement for an independent artist with no high-charting singles to give her momentum.

Palmer has made full use of the Internet to gain visibility and credibility, including creating a much-visited MySpace page and tying into Starbucks promotions that distributed samples of her music through iTunes. Two weeks after releasing her album, it climbed into the Top 10 on iTunes’ country sales chart alongside titles by Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts and other multiplatinum acts. On the more traditional side, Palmer has made four Grand Ole Opry appearances so far this year.

“As a new artist, you can’t afford not to be Internet savvy,” she says. “It’s imperative. Many of those people who know about me and know about my music would never have heard of me had it not been for the Internet. You get to touch so many people without having to leave your home.”

Rissi Palmer, the album, features nine songs that she co-wrote with such award-winning composers as Ed Hill, Shaye Smith, James Dean Hicks and Frank Myers. Palmer also does a gorgeous cover of Patsy Cline’s 1963 hit, “Leavin’ on Your Mind,” a song that was one of her late mother’s favorites.

A native of Sewickley, Pa., Palmer began singing literally in infancy. “My mom made a baby book for me,” she notes. “At 24 months, it said ’Happy baby sings constantly.'” In church, she recalls, “I was the loudest kid in the choir.”

Although she enjoyed listening to country music as a child, she doubted that her fortune lay in that direction.

“When you’re a child, you react to something that’s familiar and looks like you,” she muses. “And there was nobody [in country music] who looked like me. Just being a kid, you don’t see black country singers. So you don’t think that’s a possibility for you. You see black pop singers. You see black R&B singers. You see black rockers. So you say, ’If I’m black and I want to sing, then I probably have to sing R&B.’ That was kind of the mindset a long time for me.”

When she was 12, Palmer and her family moved to Eureka, Mo., a small town just outside St. Louis. At 16, she joined a singing group called Team 11, which was sponsored by a St. Louis television station.

“That’s actually when I started performing country music,” she says. “The group was kind of like the Mickey Mouse Club. We would do Top 40 songs … no matter what the genre was. This was in the late ’90s. Shania Twain and Faith Hill were big at that time. So we used to do a lot of that stuff. It was fun. I’ve always loved country music, but that was the first time I ever thought that maybe I could perform it.”

After high school, Palmer went to college in Chicago for a year. During that period, she journeyed to Nashville and arranged for country singer Deborah Allen to produce a demo of her singing so she could shop it for a record deal.

“It got some interest,” Palmer says, “but I was really starting to just kind of figure out who I was as a vocalist.” She did, however, through the intervention of her production company’s Web master, score a songwriting deal at the age of 19 with Nashville’s Song Planet music publishing company.

Palmer dropped out of college near the end of her first year. “I was leaving school pretty much every week to go and record or do something else that pertained to my career. It became clear to me it wasn’t going to work that way, even though I was still maintaining good grades.”

From Chicago, she moved to Atlanta and then to New York, all the while coming to Nashville for two weeks each month to write songs.

“I had a lot of jobs aside from publishing,” she says. “I was a new writer, so I wasn’t making a lot of money. I worked for a women’s clothing store and eventually became an assistant manager. Right before I got my record deal, I was working as a secretary for a mortgage firm.”

Under her deal with Song Planet, Palmer wrote most of the songs that eventually surfaced on her debut album. While her songwriting was proceeding well enough, she was having absolutely no luck in finding a record deal.

“A lot of new artists, I think, and old artists can relate to this,” says Palmer. “There’s a point in your career when nobody’s interested in you. That’s kind of where I was. I’d pretty much seen every major label record executive in the United States of America. There was always a lot of interest because, of course, I’m a black country singer. But at the end it would be like, ’I don’t know if this is marketable’ or ’I don’t know what to do with her.’

“So I’d gotten to the point where it had gone dry for a while. I decided, ’Maybe I’m not supposed to be a recording artist. Maybe I’m supposed to be a writer.’ It was at this point she decided to move from New York to Nashville to focus entirely on writing. But there was one more detour. “My manager had the idea at the time,” Palmer says, “to go out to [Los Angeles] for a couple of weeks and see what we could get started out there.”

At a party in Los Angeles, Palmer and her manager met an A&R (artist and repertoire) representative of Atlanta-based 1720 Entertainment, an independent label being distributed by the Universal Music Group. They gave him a demo of Palmer singing and accompanying herself of guitar. He took the demo to his car and played it while the party was still going on. Then the rep sent it on to his boss, who invited Palmer to meet with him in Atlanta. Two days after the meeting, he offered her a record contract. “And just that quickly my life changed,” she says.

Much has been made of Palmer’s race — such as her being the first African-American female in 20 years to chart a country single (“Country Girl”) in Billboard — and she admits she has mixed feelings about it.

“I wouldn’t say that I resent it,” she says. “I’m looking forward to the day when the only thing that’s being discussed is the album — the actual music — as opposed to my race. I understand it is something rare, and it is something different, and it is something that’s not happening every day. I get that. But if my career’s as successful as I hope it will be, we’re going to reach a lot more firsts.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.