Before Ralph Peer, What Was There In Country Music?
As he sat onstage in the Ford Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Ralph Peer II could talk about his global publishing empire that spanned eight countries and copyrights from present day stars including Jack White, Beyonce and Jason Aldean.
But this day was not about the former Country Music Association president and Chair who liked to say that he was the only non-Nashvillian to have been a lifetime member of the CMA.
Today was about his father, Ralph Peer, the man who helped to form the original CMA that led to the creation of the Hall of Fame. Peer, often referred to as “The Father of Country Music,” is the subject of author Barry Mazor’s book “Ralph Peer And The Making of Popular Roots Music.”
“Before Ralph Peer, what was there in country music?” Mazor asked somewhat rhetorically, turning to Country Music Hall of Fame’s chief historian John Rumble and the younger Peer.
“The short answer is there was nothing.”
“I came to the conclusion,” Mazor continued, “that there is no single person who did more to change the music we hear, especially toward the direction of what I’m calling popular roots music–the popularization of music from cultures which have been pretty much ignored in mainstream music before he came along. It changed everything from the records that were made, the music that was published and eventually the music on the radio and television that you could hear.”
I first learned about Ralph Peer reading the book “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone,” Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg’s biography about the Carter Family, the first family of country music. I remember the flutter I felt walking down State Street in Bristol, Tennessee on my way to see the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. When I crossed the street and the state line separating Virginia and Tennessee, I looked up to see a sign that read Ralph Peer Street. Peer, who was working as an artist & repertoire man for RCA Records, is widely recognized for recording the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Willie McTell and Benny Morton in the famed Bristol Sessions in July 1927, a day often referred to as “the big bang of country music.”
Mazor traces the origins of country music to 1910 in a song called “The Arkansas Traveler” by a vaudevillian studio performer impersonating someone from Arkansas. In 1924, three years before the Bristol Sessions, Peer went to Atlanta for something new called “location recording” and recorded a local contest winner named Fiddlin’ John Carson, one of the performers playing a new kind of music called “hill country music.” Mazor calls Carson’s “Little Old Cabin Down The Line” the “birth certificate of country music.”
“It still matters and I think it’s right that Bristol is the birthplace of country music,” Mazor told the studio audience, saying its importance cannot be underestimated. “It’s the birthplace of country music that went beyond its own border and led us to this room in this building today.”
Peer spent twenty-five years discovering artists and another twenty-five as a music publisher, establishing the independent family run peermusic. Peer got his start in the music business at the age of ten when he would go into town searching for parts for “talking machine” record players sold by his father’s hardware store in Independence, Missouri. The store would set-up public displays and invite people to come and see the miraculous new cylinder machines that played recorded music.
When Peer went to work, he began a novel experiment going to find local musicians and music that was being made in local communities. Later appointed head of the Okeh label’s race line which advertised its “Negro Records,” he stepped foot into barbershops and beauty parlors searching for music popular in commnities.
The music business was built on sheet music sales and much music was ignored because the people who were interested didn’t buy sheet music. Said Mazor: “The fact that you didn’t need to read music to buy a record hadn’t occurred to them.” Mazor said the industry was no more interested in African-American blues or what came to be known as country. “It was all low class and not for sale.”
The race line set in place the discovery of for country music which fit with Peer’s inquisitive nature and willingness to see what else would work. According to Mazor, Peer didn’t go looking for country music but came upon it. Peer believed that country records could be made not just for country people but, as he says, country records for a lot more people.
The times were also changing. The emergence of radio, recordings and film created a new multi-media world in need of stars. Mazor calls the Bristol Sessions the day Peer brought the Carter Family out of folk music into show business.
It was around this time that Peer became interested in music publishing, beginning a second career that would last until his death in 1960. Peer helped influence the growth of recorded and music licensing by establishing the organization that eventually became known as BMI, helping to propel the roots music by Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Flatt and Scruggs that had been ignored.
In the Fifties, both sides of Elvis Presley’s single “That’s Alright Mama” (written by Arthur Crudup) and “Blue Moon of Kentucky (penned by Monroe) were published by Peer and licensed by BMI. Mazor believes the formation of BMI was almost as significant in music as the Bristol Sessions.
The book began with Ralph Peer II’s wife Liz organizing countless letters and archival materials. Mazor, who had previously written a biography about Jimmie Rodgers, said he couldn’t say no when approached by the Peers and spent four years on the project. The book reveals Peer’s relationship with the late Rodgers who he managed and kept money flowing to until the singer died of tuberculosis at the age of 33. It also reveals Peer’s ingenuity, once considering creating a national apple pie distribution company while he was in between recording jobs.
As a boy, the younger Peer took a steamboat to Meridian, Mississippi, the birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers, for its annual festival honoring the late singer. Ralph Peer II was only seven when his father died and he wouldn’t come into the family business until much later. The key impression that his father left and lasted through the years was about the personal relationships he had with his composers.
Peer knew artists like Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson on a first name basis. Ralph Peer II would come to know that his father had an openness to human life and a willingness to go places where others hadn’t. His father took the same trust he developed with the Carter Family in rural Virginia to composers in Mexico and other countries as he brought their music to the world.
“That speaks of a very important individual,” he reflected.
And with the words that every father desires to hear, he said the following.
“I’m very proud to be his son.”
(This article originally appeared in For The Country Record)