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Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music

By Barry Mazor

Chicago Review Press, 320 pages, $28.95 hardcover

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver, March 2015

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The influence and impact of the career of Ralph Peer on popular music worldwide is in inverse proportion to his notoriety or name recognition outside of the artists he impacted and those who read liner notes and credits. Peer was a music publisher, part of the "business" side of the music business; as such one might not expect his biography to be all that exciting or revealing, but author and longtime music critic Barry Mazor makes even the mundane seem monumental while relating Peer's story.

Country fans may know Peer's name via the famous Bristol Sessions, where a young Ralph Peer recorded both The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers for the first time, setting in motion the modern genre of country music. Mazor spends some time with this portion of the tale, debunking myths while filling in details that make the story all the more intriguing. The extended look at his business and personal relationship with Rodgers in particular is insightful, if heartbreaking.

It's this method of both correcting and then expanding history that makes this such an interesting exercise; Peer's business career may not seem the stuff of legends, but the many ways he changed the music industry certainly qualify for some kind of notoriety.

In addition to country music, Peer's early recording efforts took in blues, jazz and gospel music forms - anything regionally popular he found that could possibly translate to a larger audience. For Peer, it was a commercial enterprise; he was looking for hit records. For us, that means a large swath of Americana got preserved on wax that might otherwise have gone by unnoticed and unheard.

Mazor doesn't stick to just the expected American roots music part of the story. He is also inclusive of Peer's efforts internationally that almost singlehandedly spearheaded the Latin music craze of the mid-20th century, and he covers a great deal of Peer's many struggles to build his business and his family life while at the same time straddling historic events such as the world wars and rise of communism, with its artistic backlash.

Much of the action revolves around changes in the media landscape, just as it does today with the shift into digital. Peer was central in the formation of BMI as a performing rights organization alternative to ASCAP when the latter attempted to flex its powerful reach to squeeze out more profits; the fallout changed radio playlists, reverberating to this day.

That's what makes Peer's story so important, that his actions and efforts have impacted the music industry in such a way that the effects are still with us, still relevant and still needed. Mazor's extensive research, including access to hours of archival interview tapes of Peer, sheds new light on this important yet little known person who affected so much of the music we all listen to today.