Ralph Sylvester Peer
May 22, 1892 – January 19, 1960
Ralph S. Peer is credited with creating the business of country music, in 1923 making a regional hit of Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” b/w “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow.” Peer’s genius lay in his recognition of strong markets for styles of music outside the popular mainstream, and as he had done with “race music” (a term that Peer took credit for coining and which denotes music made to be sold to African Americans), Peer’s success in finding audiences for hillbilly music helped shape the progress of a major genre of American music.
Ralph Peer was raised in Kansas City, Missouri, around the records and gramophones in his father’s shop in Independence, a Kansas City suburb. By the time he was 18, Peer was working for Columbia Records, and in 1919 was hired by Okeh as assistant to the company’s production director, Fred Hagar. After the pair produced a hit with what is widely considered the first race record (Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”), Peer travelled to Atlanta on the advice of Polk C. Brockman, a local record and phonograph dealer, and there recorded, among others, Fiddlin’ John Carson. Although not initially impressed with Carson’s music, Brockman’s success in selling the initial pressings of the record convinced Peer that a market for “hillbilly” music existed, and that this might help the lagging recording industry, recently beset by the emergence of commercial radio.
Within two years Peer had left Okeh for Victor Records, which agreed to let Peer work without a salary, in exchange for copyright control on songs published by his artists. Peer therefore pushed his musicians to write their own material, and with his discovery and subsequent management of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, built a music publishing dynasty (Southern Music) that by the 1940s included jazz, pop, and classical music, viewing these forms, ironically, as more “legitimate” than the hillbilly and race records that define his history. Peer died in 1960 in Hollywood, California.
Tony Scherman, “Ralph S. Peer.” Encyclopedia of Country Music. Paul Kingsbury, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. p. 410-411