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Country Music Artist Rissi Palmer is 'Still Here'

Rissi Palmer practicing at Wirebird Studios in segment for PBS American Masters film.
Wirebird Studios
Rissi Palmer practicing at Wirebird Studios in segment for PBS American Masters film.

In 1969, Linda Martell was the first Black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. It would be decades before there was a second Black female solo artist to perform at the Opry. Her name is Rissi Palmer and she lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Rissi Palmer’s path to stardom is featured this Friday night on PBS' "American Masters – In the Making."

WUNC’s Leoneda Inge spoke with the film’s director, Dilsey Davis, and Country Music artist Rissi Palmer about those first steps on the Opry stage.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Palmer: “We had a ball. It was like the Blackest it’s ever been!”

Inge: “The Blackest The Opry has ever been! From there, I’m sure you felt the sky was the limit. I mean, where else was there to go in the Country Music world and that’s the genre that you chose with your storytelling and your music.”

Palmer: “I definitely blame it on being 20 and the naivete. I was just like, 'clearly I’ll be Carrie Underwood next year, so this is fine.' You just assume that because things are going so well that they’ll just continue to go that way.”

Inge: “But it didn’t go that way.”

Palmer: “No, it did not.”

Inge: “It did not go that way and when I see you, “Still Here,” the name of the documentary. Wow! What strength. You almost had to reinvent yourself.”

Palmer: “Yeah! But you know what? It was a blessing because I was so reliant on other people to do things for me that being on my own and having to start from scratch really was a character-builder. And all those places where I felt insecure or scared or couldn’t speak up for myself, I suddenly had to be my own advocate.”

WUNC's Leoneda Inge, country music artist Rissi Palmer, and film director Dilsey Davis pose for a selfie outside WUNC's studios in Durham, North Carolina.
Rissi Palmer
WUNC's Leoneda Inge, country music artist Rissi Palmer, and film director Dilsey Davis pose for a selfie inside WUNC's studios in Durham, North Carolina, on March 17, 2023.

Inge: “We also have with us this award-winning filmmaker. All of our children have gone through Walltown Children’s Theatre in Durham, North Carolina. I don’t think we knew who each other was, but we do now. Then, Dilsey Davis, you hear this about Rissi. What made you take on this project?”

Davis: “There was this opportunity with the ‘American Masters, In the Making’ project, and I read it and Rissi came to mind. I happen to reach out to her and say, 'Hey, do you have time for a call?' And so we did a Zoom call. She was actually in Mexico celebrating her birthday. So, we wound up talking on Zoom for an hour and she just shared a lot of information I did not know. Like Rissi and I have been friends, through Walltown, but just understanding the highs and the lows. And then also, her desire to lift up other people. And then I started looking a little deeper into country music and the stats around country music and realizing that for women, play on the radio had declined. It used to be 2 to 1, men to women. Then it had gone to 10 to 1. And then, looking at Black women, it was like 0.3% of Black women get radio play. For me, it was about shifting and changing the narrative around Black people and country music. Because I think it is really important for people to understand that Black folks, as we talk about in the documentary, have been a part of country music and have helped shape country music from the very beginning.

Inge: “I can’t imagine having cameras following me around all the time trying to tell my story, especially the parts I wanted to keep private. But now the world will know when this documentary hits PBS American Masters. So tell me about the experience of telling your story.

Palmer: “I laugh because that’s one of the things I tell Dilsey all the time, 'I don’t ever want cameras following me again! No!' One of the things I loved about working with Dilsey is that she is also a mother. And she is also a wife and a decent, wonderful human being. So, it was never tabloid-like. It never felt nefarious whenever cameras were there, like they were trying to catch something... It was never like that. It was always very careful, like stop, are you good? Like are you okay today? I am very grateful and thankful for the care and the respectful way that she depicted my personal life. Like my children and stuff like that. I love my girls and everybody knows about my girls. I don’t try to hide them. But they are also not public people.

Inge: “I think they get that from their father.”

Palmer: “Yes, Bryan is the same way! And so, they’re not celebrities. They’re not trying to be in the public eye. I’m very protective of that part of my life.

Inge: “I know you’re an older accomplished woman now, but were there any doubts? I know you were singing and dancing and performing probably as a tiny girl. What do you tell some young women, especially women of color?

Palmer: “Well first of all, when I go to Walltown I see so much of myself there. Just the cute, smiley faces and the excitement about the arts and being a part of all that. I feel the future of the arts is in real capable hands. But whenever I talk to new artists, there’s two things that I always say to them and one of them is, 'always have faith in yourself. And believe in it no matter what.' I am 41-years-old and most people don’t get a first act and somehow I’m getting a second act and that’s pretty amazing. It’s not because I’m the most talented. It’s not because I’m the most beautiful. It’s not because I’m the most funny or any of those things, it’s because I show up everyday and focus on this thing, this purpose, this task that I feel like I have been given. The universe has no choice but to give it back.”

Rissi Palmer will perform with "Dawn Landes and Friends Reimagine The Liberated Woman's Songbook," Friday, April 14, 2023 at the AJ Fletcher Theatre in Raleigh, NC.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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