Rissi Palmer

You don’t “need no kin from West Virginia” to be country – as a Rissi Palmer lyric says – but can you become a country star without Nashville?

Most of Palmer’s press focuses on her time in Pennsylvania, Georgia and New York, as if she was an ultimate outsider. She’s not a “Nashville” story. But she is.

“Oh, I’ve spent plenty of time there. Country music is one of the last frontiers as far as, you have to do it in Nashville,” Palmer told Pollstar. “Whether you live in Switzerland or live in Vermont, you still have to fly out to Nashville to make your record or write your songs.”

Palmer’s background is also countryfied. She was indoctrinated at an early age by her mother, who adored Patsy Cline. When Palmer competed in beauty pageants at state fairs as a young teen, she would sing LeAnn Rimes and Shania Twain tunes for the judges. She eventually became a finalist on “Star Search,” which – through the manager of judge Naomi Judd – led her to a CMT documentary on black country artists.

She also turned down a recording offer from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis who apparently wanted to emphasize R&B in her music. Palmer instead went to Nashville, landed a publishing deal with Song Planet and wrote songs for Faith Hill and Martina McBride.

Eventually, Palmer recorded her debut with label 1720 Entertainment but that didn’t mean she had to skip the essential trial-by-fire on the city’s Broadway Avenue. She’d grab a guitar and sing for the well-weathered crowds at The Stage and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.

“Tootsie’s on a Tuesday is just the place to play,” she said. “It’s the quintessential country bar. People are smoking, they’re drinking, they’re talking. They had a ball. … If you want to be a country singer, [playing a club like this] is what you have to do at least once. That’s where you make it or you’re broken.”

Palmer has had three managers. Actually, four if one counts 1720 chief Terry Johnson, who deftly handled “interim” management duties before she signed with Ron Gillyard and Strategic Artist in October.

“[Gillyard] was part of the missing piece, especially in light of other managers,” she said. “He has the complete package for me as an artist.”

Palmer was already “in talks” with John Huie of CAA. Huie played her music to her future manager and Gillyard liked the music, which – for this story – is a profound statement.

“He liked the music above, ‘Oh, she’s a black country artist’ or anything else,” she said. “I was out in Los Angeles filming a live performance for Yahoo! Music and Ron came to the taping. Afterward, Ron, Terry and I went out to dinner and just talked.

Rissi Palmer

“He said, ‘I’m not into gimmicks, I’m not into tricks, I’m not into smoke and mirrors. And I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t believe you were really talented. So we’re going to make you a country star.’”

Of course, becoming a star, rather than a novelty, requires a lot more work and time.

“I would rather you hear about me little by little until I’m finally on your cereal box, until I just become household,” Palmer said.

Still, the media usually latches on to something novel with each new artist. Guess what it is for Palmer.

“First of all, I’m thankful that people are paying attention at all,” Palmer says graciously, maybe cautiously. “I just wish there were more emphasis on music and artistry. Yes, I am a black woman, it’s obvious to the world and it’s not something I’m trying to hide or shy away from. I just look forward to the day when it’s not a topic of discussion, the day when it’s the six or seventh thing on a person’s list.”

That being said, Palmer is the first black artist to hit the country charts in 20 years, with “Country Girl” besting Dona Mason’s 1987 showing when “Green Eyes (Cryin’ Those Blue Tears)” reached No. 62 on the charts. Meanwhile, the Country Girl EP reached No. 3 on iTunes’s country sales.

Palmer is about to get on a bus and go on tour with Sawyer Brown, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Chris Young and Phil Stacey.

“This will be my first time on a bus. This is all new. Other than clubs and radio appreciation dates, this will be my first time doing meet and greets and merchandising. I’m way more excited than a person should be to get on a bus.”

She said she’s aware that she will have to keep up her natural charm for the hours offstage as well as on.

“You have to be accessible and real. It’s that kind of music. It’s music about life. It isn’t pop-goddess music. It’s about living on a farm or going to church with your family or visiting your grandma or falling in love. Or falling out of love. It’s real topics and real stories so it goes without saying that the artist has to be real.”