The Petersens’ Ellen Petersen Haygood: Masters of Bluegrass and Gospel (Part 3)

John FarrellBy John Farrell14 Minutes

John Farrell: It’s interesting that the algorithm YouTube uses introduced you maybe accidentally to some people, because that’s exactly how it happened for me. I was actually going to Inspiration TV’s YouTube channel and one of your videos came up as a suggested video.

Ellen Petersen Haygood: A lot of the people that YouTube suggests us to are heavy metal fans or never enjoyed bluegrass in their entire lives. And YouTube is like, “Hey, go like the Petersens.” Some of the comments we get are like, “I’m an atheist heavy metal fan. Why am I watching the fifth video of this family?” I’m like, “I don’t know, but I’m happy you’re here.”

It’s just been very fun. Most of our fans don’t live in the U.S., which I think is really cool because I think – and especially when we’ve traveled we’ve seen this – when they meet someone from the U.S. they think we’re all like valley girls from some Hollywood sitcom. I think it’s so fun that people are introduced to people from the U.S. that are from Missouri.

My family is not normal. We have several problems, but we’re just a family. We have a lot of people who are like, “Hey, I can’t wait to come visit the United States and go to Branson.” I think that is awesome because the U.S. isn’t just New York and LA and Chicago. It’s a lot of the Heartland Midwest area. So, if we’re able to introduce that side of the states to some people that would have never seen that side, I think that’s a really cool thing.

Taking Music and the Gospel to the World

JF: You mentioned about going to Ireland and I know you’ve also traveled to Finland. How did those opportunities come about and what were some of the highlights of those trips?

Ellen: So, Ireland came about … my brother was actually going with a couple of his friends and I was like, “Oh, that sounds fun.”

I had known a band that had toured over there recently, and bluegrass is a very small world. So, I reached out to a friend that knew that band really well. I said, “Hey, can you get me in contact with them? I want to talk to their booking agent.”

They were able to put me in touch with a person that booked their shows. So, we kind of tagged along on my brother’s trip with his friends. We played in some libraries and some small churches. It was so much fun just how much people in Ireland respect music and entertainment. Playing in pubs and then churches that are centuries years old was super, super magical. We loved that. Then we came back with the rest of the family.

We have done that and now we have super great friends that live there because we’ve toured four times.

Finland happened actually because of Emmett. They were looking for the Franz family and found out that they weren’t playing anymore, but that Emmett was playing with the Petersens. So, they reached out to us.

It’s an outreach event that a church does where they bring over an American band and they build a Western village and they all put on their cowboy hats and their Western belt buckles and try out their Texas accents and bring over an American band. We were a part of that.

One of my favorite memories of Finland was the first show we did. It was not a part of the festival. It was in a different part of Finland. We didn’t know this, but five minutes before the guy coordinating the event leaned over to Matt and said, “Hey, just so you know, none of these people here speak English. They only speak Finnish.”

We have to tune our instruments in between songs, change keys, and all that fun stuff. So, Matt has to talk to stall for us, which is what happened. And Matt was like, “What am I supposed to say?” He still said everything that he normally says and they just smiled back at him. It was so funny.

JF: You didn’t have a translator or anything like that?

Ellen: No, we didn’t. It was a very small church in the middle of Finland. Afterwards, the people would come up to tell us we did a good job. We would just look at them and smile, and they would just look at us and smile. It was just a moment of appreciation.

Just doing that with your siblings and watching my brother talk to people who don’t understand a lick of English was very entertaining for an entire show. I loved that.

American Idol and Discovering Her Calling

JF: That’s awesome! So, talking a little bit about yourself. You mentioned that you had auditioned for American Idol and made it into the Top 48. What was that experience like?

Ellen: It was a really great experience for me. I think the Lord used it most of all to confirm that music was what I was supposed to be doing.

I was currently working in Oklahoma City. I was living there and driving back to Branson every weekend for the show because it was just a Sunday show. So, American Idol kind of happened through that experience and it was really cool because I was living in Oklahoma City and nobody knew me. But, Branson was a little bit – I’d go to Walmart and someone would be like, “How far did you make it?”

It was really cool to kind of be removed from it. It was also very enlightening to see how easy it is for people – I was 22, 23 during the whole thing – you have these producers and everyone saying, “Say, ‘This is the most important moment of your life. If this audition doesn’t go through, you don’t know what you’re going to do.’” That just was not true for me.

I loved playing in my little family band. This was not a huge moment in my life. It was a great experience, but watching how easy it is for people who don’t have true purpose to get caught up in all of those things. Some of them do believe that they’ve kind of lost that purpose, that they don’t have value anymore. And that is not at all where my value stood. I had a great life. The Lord was my purpose.

I’ll never forget when I got cut. It was the stage where you walked down the really long green mile and the judges are waiting at the end. That’s where I got cut. They told me to ditch the family band and move to Nashville, which of course I was not going to do. That did not sound like fun at all to me.

But I heard the Lord so clearly saying that He had something so much better for me than all of that. That didn’t mean money or fame or anything like that, but it is really cool to see how that’s become true and how much more fun I’m having playing music as a part of a group than being Ellen somewhere by myself. That has absolutely no appeal to me, but confirming that music was what I was supposed to be doing.

So, it kind of helped me quit my job in Oklahoma City and move back to Branson and really give music a shot.

JF: That’s great to hear about the purpose and that you knew what God wanted you to do. A lot of times I think people hear His voice, but don’t necessarily heed His voice because it’s not always what their worldly self wants and it’s not always the easy path either.

Ellen: Yes. A hundred percent true.

JF: So, a couple of years earlier, when you went to College of the Ozarks, you majored in chemistry. So, I’m assuming you’re doing nothing with chemistry now. Was it your plan to do something in chemistry before the music opportunity presented itself?

Ellen: A hundred percent. My dad’s a physician so I grew up watching him do medical mission trips. Medicine was a tool he could use to get into places that would not have necessarily brought him in.

I’ll never forget we went to Ecuador on a medical mission trip, and he was able to share Jesus with people because he was a doctor and they needed his help and they wanted to listen to him. That always had an appeal to me. And I loved math, but I didn’t want to major in math either. So, chemistry is kind of math applied scientifically, and with some purpose. So, chemistry was a good fit.

I loved going to College of the Ozarks. I was working with my degree in a breast cancer research lab in Oklahoma City. So, I was kind of using it after college when the American Idol thing happened.

Katie and I both majored in chemistry, and I think the Lord used it to keep us humble and to learn how to do things that you’re not good at, but keep doing them. We learned a lot of life lessons, but I kind of have an anxiety attack if I see a periodic table of elements. I have very much removed myself from that study. But yeah, I had a vision for it.

It’s cool also to see how the Lord has used music to do exactly what I wanted to do with medicine – bring me into places that wouldn’t have necessarily brought me in to share the gospel and give a voice to help speak into people’s lives and bring them hope. So, I’m still able to do things that really meant something to me, I just never would have imagined doing it with a banjo.

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