Rissi Palmer had a brief brush with the country-music mainstream in 2007 when her song “Country Girl” made it onto Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Its success makes her one of only three Black women, alongside Linda Martell and Mickey Guyton, to have ever achieved the feat with a solo recording.
“If that doesn’t tell you everything that you need to know about the business, I don’t know what to say,” Palmer says in the opening moments of her new documentary Still Here, which begins airing March 24 at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS stations.
Still Here traces Palmer’s journey from aspiring singer-songwriter through her fraught days in the country-music industry to the present, where she’s an Apple Music Country radio host, activist, and mother who still writes, records, and performs. It’s an often candid examination of the way the music industry likes to devour its young, but ultimately shows its protagonist to be uncommonly sturdy as well as uncommonly generous.
Prior to her Nashville experiences, Palmer was, as she puts it, “one of those hungry, naïve artists.” She’d been working with the St. Louis-based Us Girlz Entertainment but looking for a direction when they all realized she wanted to try country. They couldn’t get anyone to bite, and even her own team made her doubt her worth.
“I was stupid thin, working out all the time. I was really hard on myself, really, really not good to myself for most of my 20s,” she says, breaking into tears as she relives this memory and confesses that the people around her often reaffirmed her negative self-image.
Palmer eventually landed at the Nashville indie label 1720 Entertainment, which launched “Country Girl” on radio. What seemed like her big shot turned out to be a bust, and she became involved in a protracted legal battle that landed her back at square one — no ownership of her website or masters.
When she regrouped, her life had changed. She’d become a mother, and wanted to be present for her children. The demands of a career in music and the entertainment machine began to conflict with what she held most important.
“There is no such thing as having it all,” she says. “Anybody who tells you that is a liar. Something always suffers.”
Palmer does the best she can by doing things her own way. There’s a brief history of Black innovation and contributions in country music to set up how her Apple show Color Me Country got started, plus several present-day writing and recording sessions. She also touches on her video for “Seeds,” which took a hard look at police violence against Black people. If time constraints weren’t an issue, Still Here could’ve taken these subjects even deeper.
It’s fitting that the song that gives the documentary its title, a swampy affirmation of survival, isn’t a solo recording. “Still Here” features Miko Marks, who was working in Nashville around the same mid-2000s timeframe as Palmer, when the two were often pitted against each other. Their act of solidarity and friendship — they’ll be touring together this spring — is a powerful, radical one that defies the expectation to compete and points to Palmer’s future aspirations.
“We’ve got enough established tables, with not enough seats,” she says. “I would rather be at my own table with all the people I’ve assembled that I love and trust and respect rather than have the one seat at a table that I’m not sure I can trust or respect anybody that’s sitting next to me.”
The message in Still Here is not one of triumph over the industry, but of resilience and of intentionally making space for others. For marginalized communities trying to get by in the music business — and, in particular, in country music where the system is designed to keep them out — creating new avenues together is the only sure way to continue moving forward.