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Michael Peterson '80 'makes the big time' in country music

B Y   K A T I E   M O N S E N   ' 9 6

Michael Peterson '80 is opening for the likes of Willie Nelson and LeAnn Rimes, but his biggest dream -- headlining a hometown crowd at the Puyallup Fair -- finally came true this fall.

You could hear it in his voice, a grin as big as belt buckles in Nashville. Michael Peterson '80 was glad to be home.
      While many alumni across the nation traveled to their alma maters this fall, Peterson's homecoming celebration was extra-special. As one of the newest stars in country music, he had the chance to return to his home state and sing on center stage at the Western Washington Fair in Puyallup.
      Headlining at the September fair was a dream Peterson filled after two decades of waiting. All the years he went to PLU, he said, he visited the fair and longed to take the stage.
      Peterson's dream-come-true performance is just a small part of the gigs he plays now. Busy with his new stardom, he'll probably be on the road 200 days this year, opening for stars such as John Michael Montgomery, Willie Nelson, LeAnn Rimes and Martina McBride at the rate of 15 shows a month.
      In addition, the single "Drink, Swear, Steal and Lie" from his self-titled first album, hit the top-10 charts with gusto last spring. The song -- an original love song co-written by Peterson that puts a positive spin on words commonly associated with country music -- claimed a place as the fastest rising debut single by a debut artist in recent country music history.
      Peterson has made his mark not only as a singer, but also as a songwriter. He co-wrote all but one of the titles on the album.
      Arriving at this point of newfound fame took time, however. The journey began in Peterson's childhood. A true Westerner, he was born in Tucson, Ariz., but did most of his growing up in Richland, Wash., on the banks of the Columbia River. There, Peterson's most significant musical influence came from his grandmother. She had a deep passion for music, and she introduced him to singers such as Willie Nelson and Roger Miller through her huge record collection. What's more, she spent time listening to Peterson play his own songs.

"I'm a 15-year overnight success."
--Michael Peterson '80

"She taught me so much," he said. "She instilled in me the belief that I had music in me that was worth hearing."
      It was this self-confidence that carried Peterson to PLU, along with his love for football. In his first semester, he sang with University Chorale and played football under coach Frosty Westering, but his busy schedule became too much to handle. For the first time, Peterson had to choose between music and sports, and he picked football. It was this very choice, however, that would lead him back to music -- and his success.
      Peterson -- a psychology major with an elementary education minor -- held a starting spot as left offensive tackle in football for two-and-a-half years, and he was on the field when the team won a national championship.
      After leaving PLU, he spent 12 years developing and performing assemblies in public schools, touching the lives of a million students. "I wanted to address the issue of having a purpose in life bigger than yourself," he said, describing how he combined music and message to instill positive ideas in students.
      "It was a special time in my life," Peterson said, "But my ultimate dream was to utilize a country music platform to accomplish the same things."
      Several years down the road, into Peterson's life walked former PLU quarterback Brad Westering '80, a friend of his from Lute football. Since graduating from PLU, Westering had achieved success as a producer for singer Denise Williams. He shared that success by giving Peterson his first professional opportunity as a songwriter. Peterson helped with Williams' first album after the early '80s hit "Let's Hear It for the Boy," and co-wrote a pop album for CBS.
      "I got bit by the song-writing bug," he said. "It was a dream come true."
      Peterson began traveling to Nashville once a month to work with established songwriters.
      His mentors included Josh Leo and Robert Ellis Orall, who encouraged Peterson to write and record his songs. Peterson moved to Nashville in August 1995 to concentrate on his song writing and, encouraged by Leo and Orall, penned more than 70 songs in less than a year. The pair became co-producers of Peterson's debut album by May 1996, and the rest is history.
      "I'm a 15-year overnight success," Peterson said.
      "Frosty used to say, 'Make the big time where you are,' and 'Learn to really enjoy the trip,'" Peterson said, pointing out the lasting effect of Lute football philosophy on his life. "I loved what I did for 12 years, and I love what I'm doing now."
      Is it hard to stay humble with all this fame? Not especially, says Peterson. "Many people think humility is self-effacing, but it really is having confidence in what you do," he said. "I enjoy reveling in my success."

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