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Singer Rissi Palmer breaks color lines with 'Country Girl'

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Rissi Palmer still laughs about the looks she saw on people's faces when she stepped on stage in some of Nashville's honky-tonk bars.

'There's not a lot of black people in these places, so a lot of times it was like, 'Is it R&B night here? What's going on?' she says.

'But then when they heard our set and what we were doing, they'd say, 'Oh, she's for real. Wow.'

As a black woman, Palmer is a rarity in country music. Her song 'Country Girl' marks the first time a black female has been on Billboard's Hot Country chart since Dona Mason's 'Green Eyes (Cryin' Those Blue Tears)' peaked at No. 62 in 1987.

In the song, the Pittsburgh-born and St. Louis-raised singer proclaims that being a country girl is a state of mind, not a product of geography.

The tune is off her self-titled debut album that comes out Tuesday. It's a glossy collection of country-pop on which Palmer co-wrote nine of the 12 tracks, but so far the attention has been less on the music than on the novelty of a black woman singing country.

'I'm hoping that once the album releases and people have time to hear it and live with it and I've done some touring and everything that it won't be a question anymore,' she said. 'I totally look forward to the day when it's, 'So Rissi, tell me about the album' as opposed to, 'You're black. Tell me how that feels.'

She's not looking for favors, she says, just a fair shot. She recalls how Nashville music executives would gush over her demos, then back off when they discovered she was black. Palmer doesn't blame racism, just the realities of the market.

'It was a question of, 'Is this marketable? Is this something country listeners will buy into? ' she said.

Despite its roots in blues and gospel, country music may be the whitest of musical genres. Aside from Charley Pride, it's tough to name a single black country star. Harmonica wizard DeFord Bailey was a Grand Ole Opry favorite, but that was back in the '20s. Ray Charles had success on the country charts, but country wasn't his primary milieu. More recently, country rapper Cowboy Troy made waves, but radio treated him more as a novelty than a legitimate hitmaker.

'Why so few black artists have penetrated the country charts is really a mystery,' says Michael Gray, a historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Gray suspects part of the reason is that relatively few blacks have gravitated toward the genre, which was segregated and marketed to white audiences when it was first commercialized in the 1920s.

Yet the influence of black music and black musicians on country stars is obvious and well-documented, from Jimmie Rodgers to Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and Elvis Presley.

Palmer grew up hearing country around the house and never thought it odd that she should like it - until she became a teenager.

'A lot of times when I pulled into the high school parking lot I'd turn the music down or turn it to a different station,' she said.

The 26-year-old Palmer, tall and attractive, knew from a young age that she wanted to sing, and performed in an entertainment troupe as a teen. She sang Shania Twain and Faith Hill hits and was encouraged to pursue a career in country. Until then, she wasn't sure she could.

'There was no one in country music that looked like me,' she said. 'So I didn't think I could be a country singer because there weren't any other than Charley Pride, and he's a guy. I didn't think it was a viable thing to do.'

When she was 19, she got her first shot at stardom when R&B superproducers James 'Jimmy Jam' Harris III and Terry Lewis (Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey) offered her a deal on their Flyte Tyme Records.

It was the chance of a lifetime, but after much soul-searching, she did the unthinkable and turned them down.

'A lot of people in my family said, 'I can't believe you just did that. That's money.' But I couldn't imagine having to sing something I didn't feel, I didn't identify with and didn't feel sincere about,' she said.

A long gap followed in which she worked menial jobs, sang jingles, wrote songs for a publishing company - anything to support herself while she hunted for a country recording contract.

She was about to give up and focus on being a professional songwriter when a chance meeting led to a deal with 1720 Entertainment, a small, Atlanta-based independent label that started only a few years ago. Terry Johnson, president and CEO of the company, said he was drawn to Palmer not only for her talent, but for her heart and her spirit as well.

'At the end of the day, I've got to believe in the individual as a person, that they're going to have longevity and be able to take all that comes with success. I really believe that about Rissi, and that's what sold me on her,' Johnson said.

Last summer, Starbucks Entertainment distributed a four-song 'Country Girl' EP that put Palmer among the top five best-selling country artists on iTunes, alongside Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood.

Radio has been slower to embrace the song, which has peaked at No. 54 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart.

Jay Frank, senior vice president for music strategy at Country Music Television, which has been playing the 'Country Girl' video regularly, says Palmer has the talent to break through to a mass audience if she finds the right song.

'I think Rissi's raw talent has enabled her to not have anybody look at her music with prejudice,' Frank said. 'When I see comments from what people think of her, it really boils down to the music.'

For her part, Palmer knows she has a lot to overcome. But just as she did in the dank honky tonks in Nashville, she keeps plugging away.

'Aside from the black thing, I'm a new artist - a female artist - on an independent label. A lot of radio people are saying, 'I like it, but is she going to be here six months from now, or a year from now?' she said. 'We're trying to show people that we're here to stay, we're here for the long haul.'