The Petersens – The Enduring Bluegrass Family Band Gone Viral

There’s nothing more wholesome, heartening, grounding, and historically elemental to the country and bluegrass realm than the family band. When it feels like the world is upside down, hearing or watching a family band perform can be a great way to help you find a compass point and equilibrium. Hearkening back to a time when families and friends were often locked away in rural America with nobody else to entertain them but themselves, it’s not just the blood harmonies, or the prodigy talent, or the preservation of tradition that makes these outfits so compelling and enjoyable. It’s how they embody a sense of hope and simplicity that gives the experience a unique warmness you can’t get from anything else but family itself.

But there is also a certain fatalism that comes with the family band experience, especially when it starts when the children are so young. Often as the kids age, they find other interests, go off to college, move away, and start families of their own. It’s still a stitch in time that was important to that family and their fans when it was around. But the shelf life of family bands sometimes keeps you from getting too attached.

That is one of many things that make The Petersens out of Branson, Missouri so unique. Sticking together through life’s changes, from when they were younger kids to now young adults who’ve cycled through their college years (youngest member Julianne just started college this year), they’ve held on to their motivation and magic, and made bluegrass music the family business.

Hatched by the father when the family attended a bluegrass festival and was inspired by so many families bonding over the music, they sent the oldest daughter Katie to a fiddle boot camp at the fest, and bought the 2nd oldest daughter Ellen a banjo. Being a military family that moved around often, it was a way to bring the family closer together. Who knew it would morph into something that continues to employ the respective members today.

The Petersens play regularly in Branson’s music theaters, and tour when they can, including throughout the United States and Europe. Of course the pandemic has put a damper on many of these performance opportunities. However after making the smart and timely decision to start releasing high quality videos of their performances on YouTube, The Petersens have not only been able to sustain through the shutdown, they have significantly expanded their fan base and taken their music international, fueled by high quality videos, and folks looking for something comforting and familiar to help get them through the pandemic and political turmoil.

Another barrier hindering many family bands is their lack of originality, relying more on recitation as opposed to unique interpretation. The Petersens challenge this as well, and in a couple of ways. Yes, their repertoire includes a lot of well-recognized songs, and those are the videos that have gone viral from the family. But their keen sense of arrangement renders their bluegrass covers of popular standards something unique unto themselves. They also include original songs written by oldest sister and bandleader Katie Petersen, including one of the band’s signature songs, “California.”

Another thing that’s cool and unique about the Petersen’s is how each member brings something cool and unique to the table. They’re not regimented automatons. Katie Petersen is just a great fiddle and lead player who plays a unique 5-string fiddle. Ellen Petersen is the rock of the band behind the banjo, with her effortless delivery that once had her shining in an American Idol audition. Son Matt Petersen brings the male voice to the outfit so they can perform country classics from guys like George Strait and Ronnie Milsap, and is also the comedian and sometimes emcee of the band. And the youngest, Julianne Petersen, might be the most character-filled and unique of the group, with a famous dimple and a distinctive cadence to her vocal deliveries. She was also the one responsible for convincing the band to start posting their performances on YouTube.

Each Petersen also fulfills a business role in the band. They book their own shows, release their own music, do their own marketing and publicity. There’s no big label or booking agency behind them. That may be the reason you’ve never heard about them unless you stumbled upon one of their videos, or stumbled into one of their shows. Word of mouth and the virility of impassioned performances is what they rely on to help spread the word, and it’s been working very effectively. They’re also joined by their mom, Karen Petersen on upright bass, and dobro player Emmett Franz, who is an adopted member of the band and played in his own family band growing up called The Franz Family, touring with them for 20 years.

The band’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” has now received nearly 10 million views. Their rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” has over 6 million. And all of this is solely based off of organic appeal boosting them in the YouTube algorithm. But don’t base where to start discovering the magic of The Petersens based off of views. Their wide array of offerings span traditional country and classic pop, to more contemporary standards. They’re all such great singers, each performance is perfection. But they’ve also done live streaming performances, and jam sessions around a kitchen tables like they did with Ger O’Donnell (see below), which proves that The Petersens aren’t just trained monkeys, but true musicians.

The Petersens have also released multiple albums, and launched a Patreon for people to support their performances. You can currently see them perform Tuesday through Thursday at the Little Opry Theatre in socially distanced matinee shows most every week in Branson featuring bluegrass and Gospel. But if you’re looking for videos to help you unwind, and give you a little shot of hope and inspiration, digging into The Petersen’s YouTube feed reveals and abundance of riches that hopefully won’t be ending anytime soon.

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