Vanderbilt sociologist was pioneer in academic study of country music

Richard A. “Pete” Peterson, one of the first professors to research country music from a sociological perspective, died Feb. 4. He was 77.

Peterson, a professor of sociology, emeritus, at Vanderbilt University, was founding chairman of the American Sociological Association’s culture section. His wide-ranging research interests included the music industry, popular culture, musical genres and the aging arts audience. Some of his work focused on the impact of digital technology on popular music and the changing grounds of status distinctions in the United States.

“With Pete’s passing, Vanderbilt has lost a great scholar and a beloved colleague,” said Carolyn Dever, dean of Vanderbilt’s College of Arts and Science. We still benefit from his fascinating research, but Pete will be greatly missed.”

Professor of Sociology Gary Jensen is a former department chair and colleague of Peterson. “I greatly appreciated the fact that, in addition to Pete’s specialty courses, he was willing to teach Introduction to Sociology nearly every year of my 15 years as his chair. He truly cared about graduate and undergraduate students.”

Peterson, who was born in Moussourie, India, began studying country music long before it became a major musical format on radio. As a young boy, he heard barn-dance programs on his grandfather’s farm in Ohio. Peterson received his bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College before earning his master’s and doctorate at the University of Illinois.

When he arrived at Vanderbilt in 1965, Peterson found that the center of country music production was just a few blocks from campus. He began a scholarly quest to explore the development of country music and the reasons that Nashville was chosen over other cities as the industry’s center.

Peterson developed friendships with many veterans of the music business and attended numerous concerts and recording sessions, observing performers such as Chet Atkins, Waylon Jennings, Hank Snow and Charley Pride. He also went on the road with the Oak Ridge Boys while they were a gospel group and worked at Fan Fair, a weeklong series of performances and other events dedicated to country music fans.

The culmination of Peterson’s extensive research into country music and the sociology of culture was his Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity, published in 1997 by the University of Chicago Press. At the time, the late Eddy Arnold said that Peterson “appreciates the importance of country music and respects how it achieves that importance.”
Peterson co-authored Age and Arts Participation 1982-1997, a report finding audiences for all art forms, with the exception of opera, are growing old faster than the general population.

More recently, Peterson co-wrote with Jennifer Lena “Classification as Culture: Types and Trajectories of Music Genres,” published in 2008 in the American Sociological Review. “Pete loved students – hearing their ideas, watching them mature, influencing their work and welcoming them into his home with his wife, Claire,” said Lena, an assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt. “I was so lucky to be one of those students who he mentored.”

Lena noted that while Peterson was known in Nashville for his book on country music, sociologists knew him best for his work in the production of culture. “Essentially he claimed that elites’ tastes in music were diversifying during the 1980s. This both inspired similar analyses of cultural tastes by sociologists working around the globe and influenced a shift among arts administrators toward more diverse programming. The advent of ‘classical pop’ concerts owes a debt to Pete and his research.”

Peterson served in numerous administrative positions over the years, including chair of his Vanderbilt department and director of Vanderbilt-in-England during the 1980s. He also had been a Mellon Research Fellow at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina.

He served as editor or associate editor of several journals and publications, including International Journal of Empirical Research on Literature, the Media and the Arts. In addition, he was a former consultant to National Public Radio.

Peterson’s hobbies included sailing, music and photography. He is survived by his wife, Claire Clark, and three children, Michael, David and Ruth. The family is planning a memorial service on campus.

Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS

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