Ralph Peer—a record producer and engineer, talent scout, and music publisher whose death in 1960 ended a half-century career—reminds me of John Hammond, Sr. Like Hammond, who championed artists ranging from Billie Holiday and Robert Johnson to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Peer knew good music when he heard it; and thanks to his eclectic tastes, he heard it all over the place.
He is credited with recording the first country music song and even, according to this anthology’s notes, with coining the term “country music.” He made the first recording by and for African Americans, and he discovered or promoted such blues singers as Blind Willie McTell; jazz artists like King Oliver, Fats Waller, and Louis Armstrong; country singers such as Bill Monroe, Bob Wills, and Lefty Frizzell; and Latin artists like Perez Prado. He also produced the pivotal 1927 Bristol Sessions, which introduced both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family; and he published such classic American songs as “You Are My Sunshine” and “Stardust,” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
The Roots of Popular Music: The Ralph S. Peer Story—a new 50-track, three-CD set that documents Peer’s career—is a wild ride. If you’re not as much of a genre hopper as he was, you might want to skip it in favor of CDs by the artists here who suit your tastes. But if you’re as open-minded as Peer was, you’ll savor this, because the material is as consistently fine as it is varied.
The first disc, which focuses on regional roots music, makes room for everything from vintage blues like “Crazy Blues,” by Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds, to tenor Mario Lanza’s soaring, operatic “Granada.” Also here is lots of classic country music, including Jimmie Rodgers’s “Blue Yodel No. 4 (California Blues),” the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side,” Floyd Tillman’s “I Love You So Much It Hurts,” and Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time.”
Disc two, which documents the transition of regional roots music into national pop, delivers more country but also early rock such as Elvis Presley’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” the Platters’ “The Great Pretender,” and Buddy Holly’s “Everyday.” Billie Holiday’s heart-stopping “You’ve Changed” is here too, as are Ray Charles’s exquisite “Georgia on My Mind” and Latin gems by Perez Prado and Los Indios Tarajaras.
A third disc delivers songs recorded in the years since Peer’s death. Among them: Willie Nelson’s “Born to Lose,” Julio Iglesias’s “Ella,” the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and Bob Dylan’s reading of Jimmie Rodgers’s “My Blue-Eyed Jane” (previously available only on a Rodgers tribute album).
Some of the segues here—from Tillman’s roots country to Lanza’s opera, for example—remind me of the free-form New York radio programs I listened to in the 1960s: you might get the Doors or Pink Floyd one minute, Hank Williams or Mozart the next, because these long-gone stations did their listeners the courtesy of not pigeonholing them as people with a taste for only one genre. I wish we had more such stations today, but at least we occasionally have albums like this—and producers like Peer.
My only quibble with this package is that the slim hardcover book it includes could have provided much more information than it does. I suspect the reason it doesn’t is that you can find more detail in Barry Mazor’s Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music, the 2015 book that inspired this anthology Still, it would have been good if the compilers had included at least some info on each track, starting with the nature of Peer’s involvement with it.
That said, I highly recommend this set, which delivers one great performance after another while providing strong evidence of the important role that Peer played in 20th-century music.
America, Heritage: Home Recordings/Demos 1970–1973. I like America as much as the next person, but let’s face it: their numerous catchy hits notwithstanding, the group’s discography does not constitute a particularly significant chapter in rock history. So I chuckled when I first saw this collection of home recordings and demos. “What’s next?” I thought. “Outtakes and alternate mixes from the Archies?” This set is better than I expected, though. The performances are less slick than the group’s better-known recordings, and that’s a bit of a plus at times. On the program: songs that turned up on America’s first three albums, including “Ventura Highway”; several previously unavailable tunes; and an amiable acapella reading of “A Horse with No Name,” the group’s first and biggest hit.
Laura Benitez and the Heartache, With All Its Thorns. This self-produced third CD from Laura Benitez doesn’t attempt any musical revolutions, but that’s just fine with me. Though she incorporates Cajun, honky tonk, and south-of-the-border influences, this is basically mainstream country rock—not far from the territory mined by artists like Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and, more recently, Whitney Rose. Like all those artists, she has a gorgeous voice; she also writes well-hooked, lyrically deft, mostly upbeat songs with titles like “Whiskey Makes Me Love You,” “The Fool I Am Right Now,” and “Something Better than a Broken Heart”; and she features a first-rate backup band that employs guitar, fiddle, bass, drums, accordion, and pedal steel.
Sofia Talvik, When Winter Comes. For about a decade now, singer Sofia Talvik—who is Swedish but has musical roots in Americana folk—has released a Christmas single every year. Now she has compiled remastered versions of them all on one CD, which also includes a new track for 2017. The set embraces one traditional number (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”), but the other 13 tunes are Talvik originals. As a press release notes, her songs “all reflect the darker side of Christmas.” “Cold Cold Feet,” for example, is about a single mother who’d like to celebrate the holiday with her kids but can’t because “they won’t eat unless she’s working.” Talvik is far from the first artist to deliver melancholy music for the holidays, of course—others range from Sonny Boy Williamson (“Christmas Morning Blues”) to Elvis Presley (“Blue Christmas”) to Simon & Garfunkel (“7 O’clock News/Silent Night”)—but she is a welcome addition to the list.