Bucking Pop Music Labels: Colleen Peterson

August 2015 

Photos are all courtesy of Nancy Simmonds.
Photo courtesy of Nancy Simmonds

The newspapers couldn’t figure out how to classify Colleen Peterson’s singing when she was first making her way in the music business in the late 1960s. Neither could the record industry. Sometimes she was listed under folk, other times she was classified as blues, other times she was categorized as country. When asked to provide her own description, Peterson offered a new coinage: CRB, country rhythm and blues. But truth be told, Peterson said to me in 1977, she didn’t want to be categorized at all. “I want to show, right now, that I’m versatile.”

Her versatility, to my mind, was her greatest strength. But it took a long time for the message to get through to the industry. In 1968, when Peterson was 17 and performing with a folk-rock quartet that also included Bruce Cockburn, a Toronto music trade magazine had named her Canada’s most promising female vocalist. (Anne Murray came second in the poll.) Seven years later, Peterson was all set to quit the business. She had spent a few months in Nashville, banged on doors that wouldn’t open, and felt like the country music capital was telling her to go home and pay more dues. “So that’s what I did.” She returned to her native Ottawa and found herself back playing the same folk clubs where she had first performed 10 years earlier as a 15-year-old amateur.

“That’s when I almost went to Canada Manpower (the employment agency now called Service Canada),” she told me. “I told my manager that I was going to play my last gig.”

Her manager, however, urged Peterson to continue. He pulled her out of the coffeehouses, put her into the universities, got her some television exposure, and signed her to her first recording contract, with Capitol in the United States. Her first solo album, Beginning to Feel Like Home, featured the hit song “Souvenirs” and brought Peterson a 1977 Juno Award for best new female vocalist in Canada. The irony, of course, is that she had received similar recognition nine years earlier when she was performing with the folk-rock group Three’s a Crowd.

The 1977 Juno led to a second Capitol album for Peterson. The first album, recorded in Nashville, had emphasized the country side of Colleen Peterson, with lots of banjo, fiddle and steel guitar accompaniment. But it hadn’t done particularly well in the States, selling only 1,000 copies. So Capitol asked her to record a more contemporary album in Los Angeles while it tried to decide whether it still wanted to promote her as a country artist.

The second album, Colleen, struck me as having a decided country flavour as well. It had plenty of bluegrass and country-pop touches, with accompaniment provided by session musicians who had worked with the likes of country singers Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. But Peterson resisted the categorization when I put it to her. “I’m not strictly country,” she insisted. “I’m trying to stay away from that label if I can.”

The American country fans seemed to agree with her. Her second album did no better in the States than the first. The word among the industry experts was that Peterson just wasn’t country enough, meaning she didn’t sound enough like Juice Newton or Janie Fricke to be marketable as a country artist. So Peterson switched gears for her third album, Takin’ My Boots Off, and gave her music more of a pop dimension. But it wasn’t pop enough for the experts, or the fans, and Capitol dropped her. “They didn’t see any progress after three records,” Peterson told the Ottawa Citizen. “Even though I felt it all came together, they didn’t think it would be a commercial success, so they just didn’t back the album. You could say I was bitter about the whole thing.”

Peterson was living in Nashville when the second and third Capitol albums came out. With no new record deal in the offing, she took a job as backup singer for the Charlie Daniels Band and started pitching her original songs to other performers. When I spoke to her in 1977, her songwriting had been still in the development stage. But when Anne Murray picked up a Peterson song, “Carolina Sun,” and included it on Murray’s Keeping in Touch album, Peterson began to have more confidence in her writing. In 1984, she signed a publishing contract with Warner Brothers and saw her material recorded by Roger Miller, Sylvia Tyson, Ronnie Prophet and others.

In 1988, Peterson put out her own album – her first in 10 years – of songs she had written by herself or in conjunction with fellow Canadian Cyril Rawson. She paid for the production costs herself and said jokingly that if she was going to do another one, she would have to win the lottery first. Titled Basic Facts, it didn’t do much better than Peterson’s previous three albums.

Peterson finally said goodbye to Nashville in 1992 and moved to a farm near Peterborough, Ontario, close to where her mother was living. Commercial success had eluded her during her 15 years in the States, mainly because Nashville never bought into Peterson’s traditional, folk-rooted, fundamentally Canadian concept of country music. But as the Vancouver Province’s John P. McLaughlin noted in 1993, her recordings from the 1970s and 1980s had been “pretty much what country radio is playing today.”

In 1993, Peterson contacted Sylvia Tyson and suggested they sing as a duo at a festival of female performers at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. By the time they got on stage, Cindy Church and Caitlin Hanford had joined them and Quartette was born. The collaboration was a success with the audience, and the foursome continued to perform together over the next three years. Their music, emphasizing their vocal harmonies, encompassed the sounds of roots, traditional, folk and country music. “I’m so glad Quartette doesn’t have to fall into any category,” Peterson told the Province’s McLaughlin. “The thing I have fought all my career for is I don’t want to be categorized. This is the music I do. And Quartette doesn’t get pigeonholed. And I think, finally! This may be the just desserts that you wait for and, if it’s had to be this kind of wait, that’s fine.”

Peterson only had a few short years to enjoy the freedom of being able to sing and record her kind of music with friends she loved and respected. In 1995, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She continued to perform while undergoing chemotherapy and surgeries, and died in October 1996 at age 45. “As hard as she tried, Colleen Peterson simply could not play by unwritten industry rules, could not dance to its sell-your-soul tune, could never compromise what she considered a God-given gift,” her friend Judith Fitzgerald wrote in The Globe and Mail.

In 2003, the Ontario Arts Council established the Colleen Peterson Songwriting Award in her memory. It is given annually to an emerging professional who writes and performs material similar to what Peterson did with Quartette. In 2004, Peterson’s friend and writing partner Nancy Simmonds collected 20 songs they had written together and recorded on eight-track cassette as demos, and released them on a CD titled Postcards from California.

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015



Postcards from California: http://www.colleenpeterson.com/Colleen_Peterson_Website/POSTCARDS_FROM_CALIFORNIA.html


Quartette: King of the Cowboys, 1994



Peterson switched gears for her third album, Takin’ My Boots Off, for a ’70s pop sound:


Brian Brennan

Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut. 

Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca

Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.


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