Music Man on a Mission
WRITTEN BY JEFFREY NORRIS JOHNSON | PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOHN LINN
A man walks into a bar. One of the cowboys at the bar nods his respect. “How ya doin’, Mark?” “Pretty good for an uneducated person,” the man replies, to chuckles from the group around the bar.
The man is Mark Petersen. To be clear, he is well educated—worldly educated—having earned a virtual PhD in life experience the hard way.Petersen and I had met just a few minutes before, out in the parking lot of the Green Lantern Bar & Grill. We walked in, grabbed a tall table, and started sharing stories about playing in bands over the years. We both have a “chipped tooth from dancers bumping mic stands with their behinds” story. That kind of breaks the ice. Though this was our first actual conversation, I’ve followed his band for years. I’m a fellow musician, and his story is a lot like my own. “You and I look pretty good for a couple of old guys in our 60s, don’t you think, Jeff?” Petersen’s kidding has a detectable Nashville drawl. I’m a bit hesitant to answer. The one-liners get peppered in constantly. If you’ve seen him perform, you know what I mean. It’s kind of a Petersen trademark on and off stage. He has an impressive collection of front man lines he’s collected for years. The front man or woman is the person who sings the majority of songs and leads the band. They pick the song list to get a flow for the night. Important job. Petersen has a virtual PhD in country music too. I don’t award either of these two honorary doctoral degrees lightly.
"I think my story can help someone; they need to hear that they can have a better life. If I can, anyone can."
Petersen plays regularly at the Green Lantern Bar & Grill in Brainerd, Old Milwaukee Club in Ideal Corners, the Roundhouse Brewery in Nisswa, and many other local venues with his band, The Mark Petersen Band. He’s a music man on a mission, dedicated to giving a solid show every night. Coming out of so many deep troubles sparked a living faith in Petersen. An undeniable experience of grace taught Petersen to genuinely care about the people he encounters daily. He puts his faith into action, recognizing and admiring that same kind of caring in action in other people too. A spiritual gift.
Petersen is at peace with his life these days. That aforementioned hard-earned wisdom is apparent in his deep-furrowed smile. Petersen is a recovering addict and alcoholic, but now lives with a deep appreciation for God’s grace. “Addiction is the only disease that tells you that you don’t have it.” Petersen smiles big. “I had to slam that door shut like a garage door, bang, permanent, locked,” he says, his palm slapping firmly on the table for emphasis. When I ask why he agreed to the interview, he says, “I think my story can help someone; they need to hear that they can have a better life. If I can, anyone can.”
He has played guitar since his teens. He watched his aunts and the famous “Yodeling Minnie Renn” play at Brainerd-area dance halls. He recalls, “I quickly observed that they worked four hours a night versus the eight-hour days everyone else had to put in for about the same money.” He also figured out that girls would pay more attention to a guitar player than a tuba player. He was in the orchestra at Brainerd High School and went to state with his tuba. “I’ve always learned quickly,” he says, “good and bad.”
He played in a few local bands. At twenty-one years old, he started playing with Steve Hall in the Southbound 76 band, named for a Union 76 station outside Chicago. In two consecutive years, that group won the Seagram’s Seven Battle of the Bands for Minnesota and North Dakota. Massive exposure for a working band.
Southbound 76’s leader Steve Hall bought a puppet in Tom’s Pet and Hobby store in Brainerd. Hall began using the puppet as the band's emcee. Petersen helped name the puppet Shotgun Red. After all, the puppet wore a red shirt. “Seemed logical,” Petersen says.
With Petersen playing and singing in the front row next to Hall and the puppet emcee, the band gained popularity quickly. The puppet began co-hosting the popular “Nashville Now” television show with Ralph Emery. The band played year-long stints in a Branson, Missouri, theater and had a record-breaking twelve-year run on the main stage of the “General Jackson Showboat”at Opryland USA.
Petersen was also a songwriter for the Ray Stevens publishing company in 1991. He had daily breakfasts with the writing team that included Chet Atkins.
As a musician, I was curious about Chet Atkins, an electric guitar playing icon. Petersen described him as laconic, a man of few words, reserved, but when something came out of his mouth, it was valuable and worth paying attention to.
Petersen had success writing songs for recording artist Sammy Kershaw, hitting the Billboard Hot 100 country charts with “I Can’t Reach Her Anymore” and “Cadillac Style.” He also penned “Refried Dreams” for Tim McGraw, which peaked at number five. Petersen collaborated on a list of hits too long to include. I ask if there’s good money in songwriting. “Are you kidding me? I had a big house, a swimming pool, nice cars, the whole thing. I was miserable.”
Drugs and alcohol snuck in and gained a firm grip, becoming an everyday focus in Petersen’s life. Planning to play required having enough crack or meth for the next show. He needed to use drugs and alcohol to live and play. He even smuggled drugs over a border hidden in a coffee thermos. “I watched through the bus window with terror as the border guard shook the thermos. The drugs weren’t found.” The terrible risks he took in those days still echo for him.
"I want to bring a smile to the faces of God’s children..."
Petersen recounts getting pulled over by a highway patrol in Royalton with crack pipes on the passenger seat, cocaine on the dashboard, and a bottle of whiskey tucked beside him. He describes swerving in the middle of the road with a headlight out at night. Drugs and alcohol in plain sight. The officer asked if he’d been drinking, and he remembers that he answered the officer honestly: “I’m totally messed up.” He woke up in jail. Multiple episodes like that gained him almost a year of jail time. “Jail was time for me to sober up and get my mind strong again. I appreciated having the time to dry out; I was tired of my addicted, miserable, unhappy life. I had to get away from all the people who enabled me.”
A relapse twenty years after getting sober the first time had him passing out and falling off the stage. His current AA sponsor and best friend told the bar owner to call the cops and haul him away. Petersen smiles and laughs, “I hated him for that. That’s real love,” Petersen bows his head. “The hard no-BS truth in your face is critical.” After years of pills, powders, booze, and pot, Petersen has been sober since January 15, 2017. He celebrates with deep gratitude for the grace of God. It’s easy to envision his Jesus wearing jeans and a cowboy hat. It’s abundantly clear that his faith in God is a down-to-earth personal connection.
Many of his current musical accomplices such as Ernie Renn, Wayne Vervalen, and Arlin Britz have worked with him since the ’80s when they were with the Southbound 76 group. Britz was the go-to guy for guitars at the Bridge of Harmony for twenty-eight years. Musicians in the area rely on the music store. Owner Jon Luhrs, an old friend of Petersen, says Petersen is an incredible player. Luhrs has strapped a guitar on professionally too. The Brainerd area is rich in venues and a variety of great performers. Everyone has a lot of respect for Petersen and the band—local legend status.
Petersen loves to perform. “I want to bring a smile to the faces of God’s children,” he says sincerely. In the next breath, with a wry smile, he describes how some of “God’s children” can get a little out of hand. He’s comfortable calling someone out if it's a regular patron he knows. Not on the spot, but privately the next time they meet sober. “I tell them straight up it’s not okay to wreck everyone's night. God knows, for many years, I was that guy, probably worse,” Petersen admits with a shrug. “Both of us have rowed that boat in circles,” I reply. I get a knowing nod.
“I don’t worry now as much as I used to—now with all that drug and alcohol stuff off my head. Being an addict and a drunk is a lot to worry about constantly. You know what I mean?” “Yes,” I answer, “I understand better than most.” Petersen enjoys playing more now. Watching him and his band play makes you feel they could play with their eyes closed. No charts, no crib sheets, smiling faces forward, fingers flying on well-worn guitar fretboards.
To find where the Mark Petersen Band is playing next, check Facebook. Search either mark.petersen.1088 or TheMarkPetersenBand. Guaranteed you’ll hear solid country music from experienced players. The front guy singing and cracking jokes has been to hell and back. He’s alive and picking and deeply thankful for every single minute.
Ernie Renn—Steel Guitar
Guest Russ Austad—Electric Guitar
Guest Jim Henkemeyer—Vibes