Ralph Peer was born in 1892 (1892-1960) in Independence, Missouri, son of a furniture dealer. Surrounded by the cabinet-sized radios and record players in his father's store, Peer fell in love with the new medium, and when he was eighteen years old he went to work for the Columbia Phonograph Company in Kansas City. He served in the U.S. Navy in World War I, and upon his return took a job with the General Phonograph Company, where he distinguished himself as an ambitious climber of the corporate ladder.
A Bright Idea
Eventually Peer earned the directorship of General Phonograph's lackluster recording division and its Okeh record label. Changing musical tastes and the round-the-clock availability of music on the radio were starting to take their toll on the sales of such luminaries as Enrico Caruso. Peer had a bright idea: "[He] was one of the first people to figure out that there was a big listening audience out there and they didn't want to just listen to Caruso," says Mark Zwonitzer, author of the Carter family biography, Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? "He was going to the places where they were making the people's music."
Old Songs Made New
Peer's first hit recording of Southern music was fiddler John Carson from Atlanta, Georgia, whose first recording of The Little Old Log Cabin and The Old Hen Cackled sold more than 500,000 copies nationwide. In 1924 he began recording songs by the West Virginia musician "Pop" Stoneman, focusing on hits about the Titanic and other famous disasters. "What Peer loved about Stoneman," says Zwonitzer, "was that he didn't do just the old traditional songs that everyone knew. He had made something new of the Titanic poem."
$1 Million in Royalties
In 1926 the blue-chip Victor Company, maker of the Victrola record player, whose artists numbered among them the great Caruso himself, lured Peer away from Okeh. Like Okeh, Victor's record sales had been falling, and the company saw hillbilly music as a potential fix to the problem. Peer was no saint, and he was in the business because he smelled money, not because he loved music. He had a gift for giving the American people what they wanted to hear, and in the process he made a lot of money for Victor -- and a lot for himself as well. In a deal that Victor must later have rued, he had agreed to work without salary on the condition that he receive a cut of the royalties for every record sold and every song played on the radio. Peer was making $1 million a year at a time when the average American family earned $700 per year -- and when he was paying artists like Stoneman a mere $3,000-$4,000 per year.
In July 1927 Peer headed south to make some more records with Stoneman, and decided while he was there to hold an audition and recording session in Bristol, Tennessee, for other aspiring Southern musicians. Held in an abandoned hat factory, these were the famous "Bristol Sessions," after which the town would later become known as the "birthplace of country music." In Bristol he "discovered" the Carters, whom he added to his stable of hillbilly greats alongside Victor's best-selling artist, Jimmie Rodgers.
Well attuned as he was to the value of publicity, Ralph Peer placed an ad in the local papers saying, "The Victor Company will have a recording machine in Bristol for ten days beginning Monday to record records," and inviting all comers to present themselves. Reading the ad -- and seeing in it the potential fulfillment of his musical dreams -- A.P. packed himself, Sara and Maybelle into his brother's car, and set out for Bristol. It took a day to drive the 26 miles from Maces Springs, and when they got to Bristol they found the hat factory turned recording studio deluged by hopefuls from the surrounding hills.
The Carters recorded four songs one evening, and two the following morning. Sara led in her beautiful alto, the voice that had first captivated A.P., while A.P. chimed in from time to time in his bass. The women provided the instrumental accompaniment, Sara on her autoharp and Maybelle at the guitar. It was unusual for a musical group to have a female lead singer, and this gave Peer pause, but he liked their music, and they went home $300 richer for their efforts. The Carters recorded six songs in Bristol that day:
Poor Orphan Child
Single Girl, Married Girl
The Storms Are on the Ocean
Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow
Little Log Cabin by the Sea
That November, Victor finally released a monophonic 78rpm record with Poor Orphan Child on one side and Wandering Boy on the other, followed a few months later by The Storms Are on the Ocean and Single Girl, Married Girl. Despite Peer's uncertainty about the Carters' music -- and the songs' gloomy topics -- the records sold so well that Peer wrote to the Carters asking them to come to Camden, New Jersey, for a second recording session.
A Year's Harvest
In May 1928 the Carters set out for New Jersey, where over the course of two days they recorded a dozen or so songs, including such classics as Wildwood Flower, the anthem of country music named by National Public Radio as one of the 100 "most important American musical works of the twentieth century," and John Hardy, later covered by such country greats as Flatt & Scruggs, Doc Watson, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. At $50 per song, the total take amounted to $600 for the twelve songs they recorded, as much as they could make in a whole year on the farm. They split the money three ways, and with their winnings A.P. bought 70 acres of land and moved Sara and their three children into a larger farmhouse on which he spent an extravagant down payment of $233.