The Petersens’ Ellen Petersen Haygood: Masters of Bluegrass and Gospel (Part 1)

John FarrellBy John Farrell15 Minutes

JF: Your dad got the idea to start your family bluegrass band, The Petersens, at a bluegrass festival. I’m curious how that conversation with you and your siblings went? How did he broach the subject of starting a family band, and were you all receptive to it?

Ellen: We’ve always done a little bit of music. My parents met in Campus Crusade, and my mom is really gifted musically. She grew up playing the trumpet and then she did a lot of music theory. When we turned seven, it was never really an option. We were all enrolled in piano lessons. So, we grew up playing music, and my dad and mom were always playing the guitar and singing.

I guess it wasn’t as weird as it would have been to most families to just have that kind of sprung on them. Once we took piano lessons for two years, we were allowed to choose the instrument of our choice. My brother and I actually quit piano as soon as possible and did not regret it. My two sisters, Katie and Julianne, still play the piano today and are really good at it. Katie is my older sister – she’s the oldest of all of us – she chose the violin.

We went to this bluegrass festival in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania – we were homeschooled – so it was kind of one of those real-life history lessons where we go and experience the battlefield. My mom grew up on bluegrass. So, when they saw there was a bluegrass festival, we had our RV and they thought it would be fun to go check it out and see what it was like. My dad saw all these families hanging out together, sitting in front of their tents or campers doing stuff together.

That’s always been a really big deal to my dad – not segregating kids out by age groups because I think he saw the things we did, like YMCA sports and everything else, segregated by age. One parent’s taking a kid over here and the other one’s taking a kid over there.

He saw a family all doing something together, and that was a really big deal to him, especially music wise, since it’s something that we already kind of did. So, he bought me a banjo at that festival. There was never really a discussion.

My parents can see what would be good for us even when it does not sound fun to a 13-year-old girl. He found me a banjo teacher, which was really hard since he was in the Air Force. As soon as we would find someone who was a good fit and close enough, it felt like it was already time for us to move to a different base. So, learning was a little bit hard.

Then my brother started taking guitar. They found these books called Band in a Book. It was the tablature and music notes. So everyone was learning the exact same song for their particular instruments. We would all say, “Okay, this week, we’re going to learn the ‘Wildwood Flower.’” We would all have to take our little book and learn our part, and then we would put it all together. My mom was really big in helping us make sure we were all on the same chords and all that. It was just a slow process.

We never would have performed in front of other people, but my dad realized unless you have a goal or something to work toward, there’s really no motivation. What’s the point of us learning these songs when there’s no deadline or anything? So, he found a little bluegrass gathering. They called it “University Bluegrass.” This is when we were stationed in Ohio.

If you played, you got free beans and cornbread. Our parents were all about that. We stood up on stage for the first time and played our songs. We were awful, but it was very motivating because he signed us up for the next week. So, either we were going to sound awful again and be embarrassed or we were going to practice and sound better. He’s always been really good at putting us at a level that we’re not quite ready for as a great motivation for us to learn our words. You don’t want to look like a fool on stage. That’s how it started.

Then we really fell in love with it. It was something that was really special for us to be able to do together. It created this really cool bond, especially with us moving around so much and it being hard to create long-lasting friendships. Now that we’ve been in Branson for a long time, it’s been really cool to actually put down roots and do that.

Doing it as a family was truly a Godsend for us. My dad is a big visionary, and he knows what to do.

JF: It’s like the sink-or-swim method — “You’re going to go out onstage and either learn how to perform or fail.”

Ellen: That’s exactly right. Also, my dad raised us being able to really believe in ourselves, too. It wasn’t like we would get off stage and he’d be like, “Wow, I can’t believe you messed that up.” He was always like, “Wow, you guys did so good.” Super encouraging. That was a really good twist.

Sometimes families are brutally honest in the wrong way, but that definitely wasn’t my dad. It was sink or swim, and then, “Oh my goodness, you guys are awesome. You’re going to be on the Grand Ole Opry.” It was a great combination of both.

JF: After watching some of your YouTube videos, it’s evident how supportive you all are of each other. For example, the smiles you and Katie have when Julianne plays or sings. You can tell by your mannerisms and facial expressions how supportive and proud of each other you all are.

Ellen: I think that’s a huge blessing as well, because a lot of families work together and they just see all the negatives. But I have a front row seat to see everything that my siblings go through, and I’m still their biggest fan. Like how my brother’s been able to take over the business and help us all provide for ourselves through this thing. Watching Julianne grow up and balance school and always being on stage and overcoming stuff. And Katie, it’s really cool to see the back-end of things that other people don’t necessarily see from the public viewpoint.

I love being able to see them all shine. I honestly love my siblings’ voices too. It’s really fun, especially Julianne, because we watched her not be able to say words to now being able to sing in front of people. It is really sweet to be a part of it. I enjoy it.

JF: Going back to something you said earlier, you mentioned that you only took piano for two years and then you got to choose something else. Did you go directly into banjo or was there a crossover instrument?

Ellen: I actually learned the drums, which is not allowed in bluegrass music. I really wasn’t that good at them either so it wasn’t a huge sacrifice for me to give it up. I chose the drums and then totally quit that whenever the banjo was handed to me.

Music is something I really do love and I enjoy playing it, but without the family aspect I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t for my current situation. It was never a natural thing for me. So, as soon as I was handed another instrument, they’re like, “You’re playing that.” I was like, “Okay, forget the drums.”

JF: Before you officially started singing together as The Petersons had you and your siblings ever sung before in public?

Ellen: My family was always doing music, singing around the campfire. We would go camping all the time and do that. And when my older sister and I were very young, my mom was asked to help do special music for their church. She said, “Well, I’ll just bring Katie and Ellen up with me.” She said we did exactly what we had practiced. We were very young. She saw that everything went according to plan in front of people. She was like, “Oh, well, that was good.”

JF: Was she mildly surprised?

Ellen: Kids are just such a gamble. I think she was like, “Oh, they did it.”

Our homeschool group would have these international days where we would each pick a different country. My mom would have us learn a song. I remember we did France one year and we sang a song in French. She would have us do little stuff like that.

We would sing at family funerals or other occasions that weren’t really full-on performances, but something where a little special music was needed. My parents would volunteer their three kiddos. We did that, and choirs here and there.

JF: If someone who had never heard your family’s music before asked you to describe your sound or your music, how would you describe it?

Ellen: That has always been a really big challenge for us because we are a bluegrass band, but we have a lot of people that enjoy our music that aren’t necessarily bluegrass fans. The best way I can describe us is we’re just American roots music. It’s all acoustic. There’s nothing plugged in or electric. We just play songs that remind people of their roots. It’s a very acoustic feel.

JF: How and when did you start performing at the Little Opry in Branson, Missouri?

Ellen: We had lived in Branson for a couple of years. My dad retired from the military, and we’d been playing at an amusement park called “Silver Dollar City” that’s in town. They had a bluegrass festival, and they had us out every now and then.

We entered a Gospel Sing-Off competition. My family ended up winning that and the owners of the Little Opry Theater were there and asked if we wanted to have a show. Katie was in her second year of college and I was getting ready to start college. So, we just did one show a week – every Sunday night at 5:00 p.m. It was truly the only time I would see my entire family because Matt was still in high school, Julianne was in school, my dad was working, and my mom was holding everything together at the house. But we would all get together once a week and play that show at the Little Opry Theater as a hobby, and because we enjoyed it. Nobody was making any money doing that.

Then I auditioned for “American Idol” in 2015 and that kind of gave us a little bit of recognition around Branson. It brought attention to our show. That’s when we started adding more than one show a week and actually started doing it more full time. So, that was really nice.

For more information on The Petersens, visit their website.

Featured Image Credit: All Glory Be to Christ – The Petersens (LIVE)