For three years in the late 1990s, Michael Peterson’s name and music were inescapable.
Whether it be his first three singles reaching number one on a major chart, earning a Grammy nomination, or being Billboard’s seventh most played country artist in the first half of 1998, Peterson quickly cemented his status as a fixture in 90s country music.
But as quickly as things took off for the Tucson, Arizona native, maintaining that status proved difficult, ultimately deciding to part ways with his record label in the middle of the promotion of his second album.
Peterson never faltered, releasing eight studio albums in the 17 years since his final major label effort on SONY in 2001. Four of the singles from his newest album have achieved top five status on European country charts, including three consecutive number one singles.
Peterson, who is celebrating his 20th year in country music, found a deep interest in music at an early age; digesting a myriad of artists ranging from Merle Haggard to Black Sabbath to The Beatles.
“I can’t really pin it on certain artists or genres,” says Peterson. “I loved the songs, I loved the music; and I loved all kinds of music.”
After taking jobs at Domino’s Pizza and city Parks and Recreation in his early 20s, Peterson took to the newspaper to find work, but found himself being continuously drawn in another direction.
“I remember saying to my roommate, ‘I just know I’m supposed to do music,’” says Peterson. “I didn’t know how I was going to get there or how it was going to unfold, but I just knew it was my path.”
That path became clearer as Peterson began his college years. Peterson, who won a national championship playing football for Pacific Lutheran University, joined a group of inspirational speakers, taking part in hundreds of assemblies per year at schools.
Peterson, seeing an opportunity to open up about some of the struggles he faced early in his life, suggested a new way of connecting with students.
“I said to my boss, ‘Hey, you know, when I share a little bit of my story about some of the challenges I had growing up and how I overcame them, I’d sure love it if I could sing a song too,’” says Peterson. “He thought that was a good idea.”
While a wider audience was hearing Peterson’s singing talent, a former teammate at Pacific Lutheran married pop star Deniece Williams, (“Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late”) eventually introducing Peterson to her record label, Sparrow Records, who offered him a publishing deal, a management deal, and eventually a record deal.
“Suddenly, I was in the music business, and I was writing songs for Deniece Williams’ publishing company,” says Peterson. “A lot of artists that eventually find their way to the bigger spotlight play clubs and fairs and they get on the road in a van and drive from town to town and play a lot of one nighters in a lot of clubs and play a lot of cover tunes. I never did any of that. I just found myself in the music business, writing songs for a major star, and getting a record deal.”
Peterson, who released his first album in 1985 with Sparrow Records, continued writing about 30 songs per year, with dreams of those songs reaching a wider audience.
“I was passionate about writing,” says Peterson. “I was hoping that maybe, someday, something would happen with my songs.”
Peterson took a major step in achieving that dream, beginning to travel to Nashville once a month, where he would meet mentor and lifelong friend Michael Puryear, owner of Final Four Music, a partner of BMG Music. Puryear, feeling an instant connection with Peterson, provided Peterson with crucial guidance in the early part of his career.
“After three or four trips from Seattle, it showed he was serious about music,” says Puryear. “A lot of people will fly in once or twice and say they’re going to do this or do that and try to pursue artistry and try to become great writers, but he came a lot. When he got here, he would work really hard.”
Puryear, a gifted songwriter in his own right, guided Peterson through the transition of writing pop songs to writing country songs.
“When I first met him, he had some cuts by Deniece Williams, and he knew more about the pop style of writing,” says Puryear. “Writing a country song is totally different than writing a pop song. You have a lot more rules; being able to communicate stories. That was one of his greatest obstacles. He was able to pick that up right away, and do it in a real crafty way.”
"If We Are the Light" co-written by Deniece Williams and Michael Peterson: 1986
While improving greatly at his craft, Peterson began attending every open mic night he could, looking to meet people who could help him take his next step.
Those travels would lead to crossing paths with hit songwriter Robert Ellis Orrall, who was instantly sold on Peterson’s talent.
“Michael had a way with words like no one else I’d met,” says Orrall. “He had a fresh approach to writing, both melodically and lyrically.”
Orrall, sensing Peterson’s ability, suggested he try his hand at becoming a recording artist and seek a major label deal.
“I thought Michael had all the attributes of a successful artist: his talent, his charisma, his larger-than-life personality and his determination,” says Orrall. “I did not have one shred of doubt that he would be successful.”
Within three years of being in Nashville, Peterson’s opportunity began to present itself.
“I got a publishing deal with Warner/Chappel, within six or seven months, I got my record deal with Warner Brothers, less than a year from that, my first single, ‘Drink, Swear, Steal and Lie’ came out,” says Peterson. “From there on, it was sort of like a whirlwind.”
“Drink, Swear, Steal and Lie” was the first single from Peterson’s self-titled debut on Warner Brothers. Orrall, who served as a co-producer along with Josh Leo, was confident in the product they had created.
“Going into recording the album, I was confident,” says Orrall. “During the recording of the album, I was even more confident, and when that record was done, I think we all felt like we’d made something very special.”
“Drink, Swear, Steal and Lie,” co-written by Peterson and Paula Carpenter, climbed to number three on Billboard’s country charts, as well as reaching number one on CMT.
Carpenter, a writer for Puryear’s Final Four Music, says she was aware of Peterson before their co-writing session in 1995. Coming out of their session, Carpenter felt the two may have a hit on their hands.
“I think probably by the end of our writing session that day, when we had completed the lyrics to the chorus and the first verse, we both felt like it had a ton of potential,” says Carpenter. “Country music obviously has a history of having those clever turns on words, things you don’t expect, and ‘Drink, Swear, Steal and Lie’ was kind of the ultimate song like that.”
Puryear, who would receive writing credits on two songs on Peterson’s debut, including the fan favorite duet with Travis Tritt, “I Finally Passed the Bar,” guided Peterson and Carpenter to ideas that allowed “Drink, Swear, Steal and Lie” to take form, though not taking any songwriting credit.
“That song was pretty cool. It was such a wonderful, creative take; it was clever, it was a crafty way to write a country song,” says Puryear. “I helped him direction-wise and threw out some ideas that he was able to use. I was a contributor on behalf of my writer. It was for my friend Michael.”
After hearing the finished product, Carpenter became even more confident of the song’s potential.
“When I heard the music Michael wrote for it, I knew it was a hit,” says Carpenter.
Peterson showed no signs of slowing down, with his next single, “From Here to Eternity,” co-written with Orrall, achieving number one status on Billboard and CMT.
Upon hearing Peterson’s idea for the song, Orrall knew they had a special opportunity with the song.
“When Michael described to me the kind of song he wanted to write – a song that someone could actually use to propose to the one they love, I knew right there and then, that if we wrote it right, we’d have a big hit on our hands,” says Orrall.
Peterson says the song took on a life of its own, eventually being named the fourth most popular wedding song by GAC.
“That became bigger than Robert and I; it became a big part of a lot of people’s lives,” says Peterson. “I take a step back and think about what a privilege it is to have been a part of something like that.”
After three more singles from his self-titled debut, including two more top 20 hits, Peterson, Orrall, and Leo began work on “Being Human,” Peterson’s sophomore record for Warner.
“I sensed that Michael was feeling some pressure,” says Orrall. “He had laid down some very large foot prints, but they were his footprints, so I had tremendous confidence in him.”
After the first two singles from “Being Human” achieved top 40 status, Peterson decided to part ways with Warner.
“A lot of people don’t know that. We were on the second single when they decided they weren’t sure they wanted to go forward with that album,” says Peterson. “They wanted to not release that album, after all the work we had put into it, they said, ‘Let’s shelf that record and go make another one.’ We came to an agreement that Warner wasn’t the best place for me.”
Peterson, who holds no grudges against Warner, stands behind the “Being Human” record.
“Hindsight is 20/20 I guess, what would it have hurt if I went back and made another record,” says Peterson. “I believed in that record, but we made the decisions we made. The road just went in different directions, and we decided it was time to move on.”
"Somethin' 'Bout a Sunday," the first single from "Being Human"
Though his time at Warner Brothers was over, Peterson never allowed any doubt to creep into his mind about his career.
“In the midst of that, it wasn’t what I wished for, but I didn’t feel like I was beaten or that I was done,” says Peterson. “I’ve never felt like I was done.”
In the 19 years since “Being Human,” Peterson has continued to release new material, as well as performing over 150 dates per year, and finds the same gratification now as he did when he was topping the charts.
“I’m always grateful for the chance to play music for people and grow as an artist,” says Peterson. “I’ve been able to evaluate myself about the work that I’m doing presently, and not get too caught up about opportunities that changed or things that appeared to be lost, or being in the spotlight or not being in the spotlight.”
Peterson has been just as active in the writing room as he has been in the recording studio over the years, with the rare distinction of earning cuts from Grammy winners and Hall of Famers across six genres: pop, country, gospel, R&B, rock, and latin.
Peterson says the diversity of his songwriting harkens back to the same love of music he had growing up.
“From the beginning of my professional career till now, I have remained open to writing without prejudice towards different genres of music,” says Peterson. “I have accepted and even sought out opportunities to create in different genres because I simply love music and songwriting.”
Peterson has also performed 11 tours and over 150 shows for the troops, something he considers a personal gift.
“What I thought was me giving back to them became a huge gift from them to me,” says Peterson. “It gave me an idea of what my purpose was and how I could try to help that group of people to just be happy that I was there. It really contributed to me, and I feel that in retrospect, that was a gift to me.”
Peterson, who is celebrating his 20th year in country music, released his newest album, “Drink, Swear, Steal and Lie” in January of 2018 on 37 Records. In October of 2018, the album received a Grammy nomination in the category of “Best Country Album;” 20 years after Peterson’s first Grammy nomination.
The album, which features re-recordings of his four biggest hits, covers of some of country’s most iconic songs, and a new song called “Borderline,” has achieved great success in Europe, with three singles reaching number one, including a six week run at the top spot for the re-recording of “Drink, Swear, Steal and Lie.” On October 21, 2018, the re-recording of “From Here to Eternity” reached number one; the third consecutive number one from the new album.
Looking back, Peterson has no regrets on where his career has taken him so far.
“The decisions that I made that I might have made differently were all learning experiences,” says Peterson. “I’m grateful for those learning experiences, because they inform the decisions that I have the privilege to make now.”
Puryear has a simple, yet fitting explanation for Peterson’s staying power over those 20 years.
“I think it’s how he connects,” says Puryear. “It’s how he communicates.”
Carpenter, who makes it a point to listen to “Drink, Swear, Steal and Lie” a few times a year, looks back with fond memories on the song she and Peterson began writing 23 years ago.
“I still love to hear it when it comes on the radio,” says Carpenter. “I think the song’s staying power comes from the surprise when you go from the title to what the song actually says, and of course, Michael’s great voice, smile, and personality.”
Orrall says Peterson still has the same star power that he saw in the 90s.
“Recently I heard Michael perform many of the songs from that first record live with just an acoustic guitar,” says Orrall. “Every word and every note of those songs holds up as well today as they did back then. They really are classic and timeless. And the delivery was pure Michael Peterson.”
Peterson, who plans to start recording a new album in 2019, still sees room to grow, 33 years after his debut album was released on Sparrow Records.
“I love what I’m doing,” says Peterson. “I love continuing to grow as an artist, growing as a singer, and I’m very excited about the future.”
*Images courtesy of Michael Peterson Facebook Page except where otherwise noted*