The Petersens’ Ellen Petersen Haygood: Masters of Bluegrass and Gospel (Part 2)

John FarrellBy John Farrell12 Minutes

John Farrell: How do you decide what songs you are doing, who’s going to be the lead vocals on a song, and how it’s arranged?

Ellen Petersen: Katie heads up a lot of that. She’s kind of our musical director. Emmett, our dobro player, and my mom are also really good sounding boards for her.

I’ll hear a song and say, “Oh, I think that would be a good fit either for me or for someone else.” Our voices are pretty different. Normally, we can hear a song and know this is the person that’s going to sing it or this person if we want to go a different direction.

We’ll sit down and Katie will chart out all the chords, get the lyrics together, and have a bass arrangement. When we show up to rehearsal, we have the chart in front of us, and we give it a shot.

Sometimes they’ll be like, “Hey, Ellen, try this song.” And I’ll try it and I might be like, “Ooh, that is terrible. But maybe if a guy sang it and we changed the key over here it would work.” We just bounce ideas off. It evolves slowly.

JF: You mentioned Emmett, your dobro player. In one of your YouTube videos someone mentioned that he lives an hour away, but he’s up there all the time to rehearse and perform with you. How did Emmett become a member of your band because that’s a huge commitment on his behalf?

Ellen: It is. I had not really been a huge fan of the dobro before Emmett Franz. He is one of the best, and what he’s able to do with his instrument is fantastic. He started playing the dobro because he was also part of a family band called the Franz Family. They’re super-gifted. He’s the fourth of five kids and his older siblings, he says, took all the good instruments. So, he was left with the dobro. But then he really practiced hard and developed a wonderful ear and knack for it.

His siblings grew up and got married. He was playing a lot with Chelsea Moon — a really gifted vocalist — and some other groups, but they were all touring out of California. He got really tired of the commute. He started looking around for local groups and found us. He reached out, but at that point my family was not making any money playing music. I was handling the emails at that point, and I got an email from him. I was like, “I would love to have you, but we just aren’t looking to add anyone else right now.”

There’s just no way we could have done that, but then Julianne went away to a camp and my mom went with her and we were down two instruments. So, I reached back out to him and was like, “Hey, we need a really good instrumentalist to help us out this week.” He made us sound so good that we were like, “Ooh, we need him back.”

We would have a show here and there where we were getting paid enough and we could hire an extra musician. We started that. And then in 2017, he went full-time with us. He actually just moved to Branson within the past year. So, he no longer has that commute, which is really nice. We rehearse currently three times a week and we have one show, but normally during the season, we’ll rehearse twice a week, have three shows, and then if there are any weekend shows. It’s still a really big time commitment, but it’s all of our full-time jobs, so it’s better than a lot of alternatives.

The Message Behind the Music

JF: I’m glad to hear that he’s closer by. What is the message you want fans to take most from your music?

Ellen: You mentioned that your organization’s mission is to introduce people to Christ, and I think we would love to show people Christ through our music. We don’t claim to be a Christian band. We are Christians and we do play a lot of Christian music, but we also play a lot of other music. Because of that, we’ve been able to go play in some pubs in Ireland, and through being invited into these places that are not branded Christian or that exact medium, we’re able to play some really sweet hymns and some songs that reach people that would never have heard that before.

A lot of what we’re able to do is because we are a family. I don’t think there’s a lot of families that are able to work together and still enjoy each other’s company and cheer each other on. The Lord has somehow given us that gift. If we’re able to use that to encourage people, make people smile, and show them God’s love, that is our greatest compliment. We have a lot of people that love our music and don’t know the Lord and will tell us that to our face. But they love our gospel show because they love the hope that it brings, even though they may not exactly know what that hope is yet.

JF: Having listened to both your secular and gospel music it’s hard to pick a favorite. All of you each have distinct voices that blend so well together, but you all sound awesome individually. It’s evident that you all play so well off each other’s strengths. Is that something that comes naturally or something you had to work on crafting over the years?

Ellen: Singing together was really natural. It’s hard anytime I play with someone that’s not my family. If something’s happening and I look at them, it’s weird. But I can look at Katie and know exactly what’s about to happen. I’m like, ‘Oh, she has something wrong with the fiddle string.’ I know that I need to take an extra break just by looking at her eyes. But I’ve grown up with her. I’ve worked with her. I’ve played a lot with her. Same with my brother. It’s just a different level of being able to know someone and then work with them really well. So, that’s been cool.

I honestly love the different styles that my sisters have and Matt and Emmett, as well, who is a huge powerhouse that brings a whole different dimension. So, singing together is really natural, and I like different styles of vocalists than my sisters do. At first, it was like, “Why are we listening to this person?” But now I can see what a gift it was for them to listen so much to that person because that helps kind of define who they were going to be stylistically as a vocalist. It’s been cool seeing all the different musical styles that we like and then how they kind of work together randomly in the same group.

Expanding the Fanbase

JF: Since the pandemic began your family band has posted a lot of videos online and a lot of people, myself included, have been introduced to your music. How has the pandemic affected your plans but at the same time increased your fanbase?

Ellen: It was our tenth year of doing shows in Branson in 2020. So, we actually had four shows planned a week and several tours. We were going to be on a cruise with Charlie Daniels, Sara Evans, and Trace Adkins. We had a lot of big plans.

When everything started shutting down, we started something called Patreon. I think it was really humbling to see how much the Lord was able to use our music to give people hope. They’re sitting at home. They’re not allowed to go out, but they can turn on this video of a family that they don’t know and feel like something’s normal again just by watching a family play music together.

I don’t think we realized the impact of what the Lord was doing until we opened our show back up and started playing live. Our first week that we opened back, we had people drive incredible distances and say, “You got me through the pandemic. I was stuck at home, and I was in a really dark spot. I would turn on YouTube and watch your family, and it would bring me light.”

We know that that’s not our family. The Petersens didn’t do any of that, but we were able to see how the Lord used us. YouTube just suggested our content to a lot of people. It wasn’t anything that we did. It was just the algorithm. I truly believe the Lord used a kinda normal family to bring some normalcy back to a lot of people who had their lives take a very different turn.

For more information on The Petersens, visit their website.