America

Alice Randall Made Country History. Black Women Are Helping Tell Hers.

The country singer Rissi Palmer could not understand why Alice Randall was emailing her.

By fall 2020, when Palmer received the message, Randall was a Nashville institution, not only the first Black woman to write a chart-topping country hit but also a novelist whose books undermined entrenched racial hierarchies. Palmer herself was no slouch: “Country Girl,” her 2007 anthem of rural camaraderie, had been the first song by a Black woman to infiltrate country’s charts in two decades. She had just started “Color Me Country,” a podcast exploring the genre’s nonwhite roots and branches.

But 11 years earlier, Palmer had fled Nashville, hamstrung by contract disputes, with “my tail between my legs,” she recalled recently in a video interview from her North Carolina kitchen.

Randall, however, was very interested in Palmer — and her history. Working as a writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University, she had urged the school’s Heard Libraries to acquire Palmer’s archives: notebooks, sketches, a dress worn during her Grand Ole Opry debut.

“I’ve been in this business since I was 19. I made the charts when I was 26. I’ve had these items the whole time,” said Palmer, 42. “No one has ever called me and said they had value, until Alice. There are more important people, but she saw value in me.”

Randall also saw something of herself — and a glimpse of gradual progress — in Palmer. After breaking a Nashville color barrier when her treatise about being an overworked mother, “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl),” became a 1994 hit for Trisha Yearwood, Randall quit writing country songs.

In her book “My Black Country,” which shares its name with her new compilation, Randall posits a sharp rejoinder to the standard country origin story.Credit…Arielle Gray for The New York Times

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