COLOR HER COUNTRY: Rissi Palmer’s Color Me Country Artist Grant Fund was designed to support aspiring country artists of color. (Photo provided)

Grammy-nominated artist and “Color Me Country” radio show host Rissi Palmer is curating a new performance series at The Carolina Theatre of Durham. The inaugural Center Stage: The Wavemakers Series launches Jan. 25 with Southern fusion singer-songwriter Denitia.  

“I love this community and Durham especially is a community that is extremely open to new and interesting art and music, so it seemed like the coming together of all these things that I’m really excited about,” Palmer said. “Giving opportunity to people, paying them fairly and giving them an opportunity to shine.” 

The series was created to celebrate diverse voices and provide a platform for discovering new artists from a variety of backgrounds and musical styles. The participants are hand-picked by Palmer, who is a resident of Durham, North Carolina.

Center Stage is a commitment to the artists and community with quarterly performances. It’s meant to foster an inclusive space where distinctive voices shine and audiences discover something original. The series allows patrons to explore the artistry and songcraft of each artist through live performance and an interview conducted by Palmer. 

“It’s really important for people to know you like that,” Palmer explained of the interview portion. “Artists can sometimes be very one dimensional in that you hear them on the radio or only see them on stage. One of the things I’ve learned through performing over these years is that people really like stories. They want to know the story behind the song. What inspires you? What makes you tick? Why should I buy into you?”

The Carolina Theatre of Durham is happy to play host. 

“We believe Durham is the cultural capital of the Triangle,” said Joe Student, senior director of live events for the Carolina Theatre. “Arts-loving patrons of this region expect the Carolina Theatre of Durham to be a showplace for the very best in arts and entertainment programming, as has been the case for nearly a century. For this series, we’ve entrusted the curation of that programming to Rissi Palmer, a talented artist who is both part of the creative ecosystem and the geographical community.”

Encouraging inclusion and diversity is part of the mission. The 1,323-capacity venue opened in 1926 when prejudicial Jim Crow laws were enforced throughout the South. For 37 years, the venue was segregated. Black patrons were forced to use a separate ticket window and access was restricted to the balcony. After years of pressure and protests, the city of Durham desegregated the theater on Aug. 5, 1963. A free Confronting Change Exhibit at the theater honors the leaders who stood up against segregation and fought to make the theater accessible to all. The venue, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, is operated by the nonprofit Carolina Theatre of Durham, Inc. under a management agreement with the city.

“Larger than the series, this whole segment of my life/career is about paying things forward,” Palmer said. “And making sure that people that come after me have an easier time. There were a lot of people who opened doors for me at the beginning of my career. And a lot of people who continue to open doors for me and to say my name in rooms that I’m not present in.”

Palmer has been an advocate and voice for underrepresented artists throughout her career. She highlights country artists of color and those who have been overlooked by mainstream country music through her radio show, “Color Me Country with Rissi Palmer” on Apple Music. Her Color Me Country Artist Grant Fund was designed to support new country artists of color who are just beginning to build their music careers. With Center Stage, she is bridging genres and embracing the opportunity to showcase unique talent. 

“I love that they were open to the people I wanted because this is a business of buzz,” Palmer said. “It’s nice to have some names that may not necessarily be a part of the mainstream but are just as important, just as relevant. I feel blessed and honored to be asked to do that.”

The first performer in The Wavemakers Series, Denitia, is also a recipient of Palmer’s 2023 Color Me Country Artist Grant. Denitia’s music fuses elements of country, folk and rock informed by her southern heritage. Her sound has garnered her critical acclaim and recognition, including being named a 2023 AmericanaFest Showcasing Artist, being named to the 2023 Black Opry + WXPN Artist to Watch Residency and being featured in The Nashville Scene’s 2023 Country Music Almanac. 

“We intend to book this curated series on a quarterly basis in conjunction with Rissi Palmer and with respect to her — and the selected artists’  — availability,” said Student, who helped create the series. “We won’t force a booking each quarter, but we plan to schedule four Center Stage shows per year.”

The series has an affordable base ticket price of $25. And the Carolina Theatre will partner with other local music and artist-centric groups and organizations to help raise awareness of the artists and the series. 

“Often our headlining artists are well-known names with proven commercial appeal,” offered Student. “For this series, we acknowledge the selected artists will likely be talents who are yet to be discovered by a wider audience.”

“The thing that I love about working with the Carolina Theatre is their willingness to put the artists first,” Palmer said. “That was a really big deal. More so than ticket sales. More so than having a big name. They really are trying to be at the forefront of supporting artists on their way up as opposed to meeting them at the top. It’s adventurous. It’s risky. But it’s a cool thing that they are allowing me to do.”