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In Studio with Rissi Palmer
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Rissi Palmer in studio at UNC-TV

From playing the Arkansas State Fair as a teen—at just 16—to the Grand Ole Opry alongside such country royalty as Pam Tillis and Vince Gill, Rissi Palmer's signature Southern Soul has carried her through a career spanning some three decades. This summer, Palmer graced UNC-TV with an intimate, in-studio performance of favorites and new material before an appreciative audience. Her latest album, Revival, is set to be released later this year and is the first of her albums to be made outside of Nashville, written and recorded right here in her own backyard—Durham, NC. Enjoy highlights from our time with Rissi Palmer, and be sure to catch her In Studio performance premiere this Thursday, September 12, at 9:30 PM, on UNC-TV.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

UNC-TV: You were raised in Pennsylvania and Missouri, but your parents come from Georgia. Were they your first introduction to country music? What were they listening to?

RISSI PALMER: My parents were definitely the introduction. My mom specifically was a country music fan, so we listened to a lot of Patsy Cline when I was a kid, a lot of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. I was born in '81, so a lot of the '80s stuff was going on—Kenny Rogers and all that sort of thing. They were definitely my first introduction.

The definition of country music is a hot topic. Was your song "Country Girl" an answer to what makes something country?

I was thinking about this last night because I was like, They'll probably ask me that. It's funny that you did. When I sat down initially to write that song, I had already started doing press and a lot of the press was, "So you're Black and you're in country music. How's that going?" That kind of thing.

Initially, [the song] was about me being Black. When we sat down with the producer, one of my co-writers on the record, he was like, "You know, you could make this more universally something people could relate to, opposed to one specific type of person." We started talking about how Shania Twain is from Canada and Keith Urban is from Australia. What I wanted to do was just say that it's more a state of mind than it is a literal state, and that's where the chorus, the focus of the song came from—trying to think more globally than just Rissi. What is something that everyone from Pennsylvania or everybody from Missouri that's not a "country girl" could relate to? And can listen to music and still consider themselves to be just as country as somebody riding a horse? That's where the idea of the song came from.

How did you end up at the Arkansas State Fair at 16?

So, the Arkansas State Fair. I used to sing with a group from Saint Louis called Team 11. It was like a Mickey Mouse Club-type of thing. At the time, myself and another singer, we were the youngest ones, and we ranged from the age of 15 up to 22 and all different races, all different sizes. There were dancers and singers. We would do covers and that kind of thing. That's how I ended up at the Arkansas State Fair. They would book us out for fairs and such. We played a Mercedes Benz car show in Michigan, and I was singing in all kinds of crazy places. We would sing at the opening of a can. We sang everywhere. But, yes, that is how we ended up right behind the livestock show at the Arkansas State Fair. They were judging chickens and pigs—and then us.

Your music pulls from so many different genres of music, including gospel, Southern rock, R&B and, of course, country—what you call "Southern Soul." What does country bring to your sound and songwriting?

Well, I learned how to write a song in Nashville. The thing that I've always loved about country music, the thing that I always try to remain true to, is the storytelling aspect. I feel like one thing that country music and R&B music have in common is honesty. I try to remain very honest with who I am, what I feel, what I'm thinking, and what the story is. I learned all of that writing in Nashville. To me, what remains very country about what I do is the songwriting part of it…the storytelling.

What are your thoughts on modern country?

There's actually some very cool stuff coming out of Nashville. I know that you hear certain people, like critics, have issues with some of the modern country music, but I think there is some really awesome stuff. Because it is so wide open now, there are these nice little subsets. There is a nice subset of what I consider soulful country, like Chris Stapleton, Maren Morris, Brandy Clark and Ashley McBryde. People like that. Those are the artists that I like and that I listen to and that I think are pretty amazing. There's a lot of really good stuff. You just have to listen for it. It's not always on the radio. A lot of the time, you have to go looking for stuff like Kacey Musgraves. Kacey Musgraves has probably the biggest career in country music right now, but she's not getting radio airplay like other [artists].

How did your great-grandmother's back porch help shape your sound?

It was the first place where I made people listen to me sing. They were kind of a captive audience. It was the first place that I got comfortable standing in front of people and asserting, I am a singer, and this is what I do. Also, at her home, there was only one radio station that was local, and it played everything. She lived down the street from a church, so Sunday mornings you could hear the choir singing. The radio station was playing country and then there was an R&B song, a pop song and a Gospel song. I kind of feel like I am an amalgamation of all those sounds: church, radio and my own sounds that I was making.

The biggest thing was it gave me the freedom to be myself. There wasn't like, "Rissi has to sing this type of music and this is all that she can do." It was like, "Rissi, sing this song and this song." I used to sing Whitney Houston songs. I used to sing Randy Travis songs. The family would just give me requests, and I would sing them. They definitely created this monster. They made me who I am, and they made that album, and this sound real. That's why I named it Back Porch Sessions. It was really there. Thirty-some years later, this is what happened. This is the sum of all of that.

A huge milestone for any artist is to play the Grand Ole Opry. What was it like taking the stage and standing where Patsy Cline, one of your mother's favorite artists, stood?

I cried. They let me go out on stage before everybody got there. I remember walking out and just standing there, and I was like, I can't believe that I am here. I remember watching it on television and seeing all these artists and not necessarily thinking that was something I could do. It was something I could hope to do but not necessarily something where I thought, Oh, for sure, I'm definitely going to do that.

It was kind of surreal. Pam Tillis was there the night that I played. Vince Gill was there that night. All these people that I've listened to and idolized and loved and memorized their songs and that sort of thing are here, and I'm with them. I don't want to call myself a peer because I am totally not on the level, but it was validating, it was surreal, a dream come true. It was terrifying, and it was amazing. It was something I'll never forget for the rest of my life. If I don't ever do anything else, I played the Opry.

Don't miss In Studio: Rissi Palmer, Thursday, September 12, at 9:30 PM, on UNC-TV.