October 22, 2023—Sixteen years ago, Rissi Palmer became the first Black woman in 20 years to have a song reach the country music Billboard chart. Despite this historic feat and rave reviews about her music, Ms. Palmer was pushed out of the industry a few years later in a dispute with her record label. But rather than be defeated by the industry pushback and an ongoing attempt to erase the contributions to the genre by artists from marginalized communities, she pursued her own independent music career; she launched the biweekly program, “Color Me Country™ Radio with Rissi Palmer;” developed a country artist grant fund for BIPOC artists, and started a music festival.
In an essay written by Ms. Palmer for the Nashville-based newspaper, the Tennessean, the genesis of “Color Me Country™ Radio with Rissi Palmer” was the 2020 deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. The title of the program pays tribute to Linda Martell, who was the first Black woman to have commercial success and play the Grand Ole Opry. Ms. Martell’s album, “Color Me Country, has been the foundation upon which women of color have pursued their careers in country music.
About launching the program, Ms. Palmer wrote: “It was time to tell these stories, including my own, no matter how painful or ugly. And it was time for country music to see itself—complicated, omitted history and all.”
Since the launch of “Color Me Country™ Radio with Rissi Palmer”, there have been a few Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives within the country music industry. Most notably, Country Music Television (CMT) and the artist management company mtheory launched an Equal Access Development Program to provide funding, training, and support, as well as access to mtheory’s management services, to help them further navigate and grow careers within country music. Six artists of col or were chosen for the inaugural program: Madeline Edwards, Miko Marks, and Valerie Ponzio; and music management professionals Charlene Bryant, Kadeem Phillips, and Marques Vance. You will find information about the Cohorts at this link.
In addition, Ms. Martell was honored with CMT’s Equal Play Award, and a total of 10 Black women have been included in the 2022 and 2023 CMT Next Women of Country class. There also has been an influx of BIPOC artists into country music and panels and discussions on race.
Earlier this year, the PBS American Masters series, “In the Making,” featured Ms. Palmer and opera singer J’Nai Bridges in a documentary about their efforts to break down barriers in genres of music that have been historically unreceptive to artists of color. And Ms. Palmer is back on the road with Miko Marks, performing inspiring, soul-infused, country music they recorded together.
I salute the courage, tenacity, and commitment of Ms. Palmer to build the table and bring the chairs for artists of color in country music to have both a platform and a voice. Her work is a fantastic example of launching an inclusive movement that changes the game.
Country music and country radio still have many issues with which to grapple. The industry’s reputation for banishing artists who speak out against the genre’s conservative politics and male-dominated structures continues to make headlines. Most recently, one of its rising stars, Maren Morris, the winner of several Grammy and CMA awards, announced she was leaving country music. She has been known for promoting allyship amongst white artists and being outspoken on issues involving women, the LGBTQ+ community, racial justice, and industry access for artists of color.