Rissi Palmer broke records in 2007 when she became the first Black female country singer in decades to rock the Billboard charts. Her hit song, “Country Girl,” took the world by storm, expressing a message of being true to yourself and not worrying about the stereotypical boxes people may put you in.
Fifteen years after writing this groundbreaking song, Rissi has recorded an acoustic version exclusively for Verily which we are thrilled to share with you, along with a brief interview below from a phone call I had with Rissi this week. Some voices have a power to uplift and heal, and I think you’ll agree, Rissi’s is one of them.
Mary Rose Somarriba: What was it like writing “Country Girl” all those years ago?
Rissi Palmer: The main thing was obviously, at the time, I was one of very few Black women doing country music. And I wanted to address it. . . . I felt like, “Let’s just go ahead and talk about it,” and then it’s comfortable to talk about it, because I have addressed it.
In writing the song, there was a line in there about me being Black, and some thought maybe I don’t need to have it in there; maybe I don’t need to check all these boxes to be able to be put in one of those boxes. And we decided to go the route of expressing how it’s more a state of mind—how you feel, the way you do things. That was the idea behind the song. And I sat down with my writers Sarah Major and Shannon Sanders, and we wrote the lyrics.
MRS: What kind of feedback do you remember getting from listeners when “Country Girl” was released?
RP: People who loved it, loved it. It spoke to a lot of people. I remember getting letters from people from as far as Europe saying, “I’ve always considered myself a country girl, and I love this song.” And another, saying “I’m Black, and seeing someone like you singing a song like this makes me feel very empowered and confident in my country background, too.” I still get feedback. It’s a song that resonates with people.
MRS: Do you think in some ways, there’s a “country girl” every woman can tap into?
RP: I think that’s where we all come from—we come from the land—it’s very natural to feel that! We’re on borrowed land and borrowed time. And so I think we all can connect to it. I think it’s natural.
I don’t want to get super political, but when you start corporatizing things and marketing things and branding things, that is where you get into who can lay claim to certain qualities like “country,” and so on. And that doesn’t really apply in real life.
MRS: Similar to women’s media!
RP: Right! Most women don’t look like the women in the ads. Most of us are not that size, but that’s what’s marketed to us—ideals—and so that becomes the standard.
MRS: In a world with so many confining stereotypes for women, what would you say to women trying to tap into their authentic selves?
RP: I think that, Lord, I can only speak for me. And I can say that in my life, the times where I have just been myself, unapologetically—meaning, I didn’t try to change to fit into the situation, I didn’t try to downplay parts of myself, but the moments where I was being 100 percent me—are the moments where I’ve been most successful. It’s the part of me that I can sustain, because I can always be me. I don’t have to try to do that—I don’t have to go on a diet, change my hair, change my clothes, change the way I talk—I’m just being me. And those are the times I’ve been most comfortable, the most free, and the most successful.
I think that’s true for everyone, and not necessarily in an entertainment way, but in life. Anytime you’re just being yourself, and you tap into what it is that is your unique purpose, your unique self—those are the moments when you find you’re happy, that you’re free, that you’re not holding back, and you’re not second-guessing yourself—you’re just being yourself.
MRS: Any thoughts on the impact of “Country Girl” on your career, as you approach its fifteenth anniversary?
RP: The song means more to me than I could have known. It’s a song I wrote when I was 24 years old; I’m almost 40 now. And so it may not be exactly the same way I’d say it now, just being older and probably a better writer, but I think the sentiment still holds true.
I didn’t realize how prophetic that “Country Girl” was going to be for my entire career. It kind of defines everything I do now, especially the work I do with my radio show [Color Me Country on Apple Music]. I’m talking to any and everybody from all these different walks of life, and the one thing we have in common is this love for country music.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the song set the tone for the way the rest of my career went, and has gone, and is continuing to go. I’ve allowed myself to be a voice for people who feel they don’t necessarily fit all the qualifications of being “country,” and what that means, and what that looks like. And because of that song, I’ve been able to speak with those people and speak for them in some cases. The song has kind of taken on a lot of different meanings at different points in my life.
MRS: As a final note, can you share a word on how music affects your life?
RP: On a regular basis, music saved my life. In literal and figurative ways, music got me through. I share it with my children; now it’s a family thing.
In times of social unrest and social injustice, even today—whenever I think about these things, I think about a song that fits the moment. And if we don’t have a song, then I want to write it. That’s why in moments of adversity, we see things that deserve attention, and among those things I think we need to keep the arts in mind.