SALT LAKE CITY — On an overnight drive from Utah to Colorado, Chris Petersen sang along to the radio to help pass the time. His pup, Syd, rested comfortably on the seat next to him.
Until Chris LeDoux’s “Look at You Girl” began to play. At that point, Petersen was no longer a solo act. Syd’s repeated howls punctuated the melody.
“I couldn’t get her to stop,” Petersen recalled in a recent interview. “She just went crazy.”
Petersen and his dog have shared many singalongs since then. Syd, now 5, doesn’t join in on every song. But you can count on her to howl along to “Look at You Girl.”
“She can’t resist that one,” Petersen said.
Which is why the Cedar City-based country singer chose to audition for “America’s Got Talent” with that song. And because the competition show shifted to operating virtually amid the coronavirus pandemic, Petersen was able to audition the way it all started: from the driver’s seat of his truck, with Syd by his side.
The pair won all four “AGT” judges over with the unexpected duet, which aired July 14.
“Do you think the dog is actually singing along with him or telling him to stop?” Howie Mandel joked with the other judges. “I think you’re exactly what the world needs right now. You put a smile on my face and warmth in our hearts.”
The show’s next round airs Tuesday night, with 60 acts being judged, according to Talent Recap. On an outdoor set, the socially-distant judges will watch acts on a giant movie theater screen. And some acts will make it to the live shows, set to begin Aug. 11, without performing again.
Will Petersen make the cut?
“I don’t know if they’re going to have me back or anything,” he told the Deseret News. “They could call us tomorrow and say, ‘Hey, you’re on the next episode,’ or they could just not call us at all, and that’s it.”
Ahead of Tuesday night’s round, Petersen chatted about the virtual audition — unprecedented territory for “AGT” — and how he conquered a longtime fear of singing in public.
‘The world got crazy, fast’
Petersen had plans to go to California. He had an audition scheduled for mid-March. But ahead of the big moment, things shifted. Flying changed into driving. There wasn’t going to be a live audience; only judges. And then, the biggest change of all: There would no longer be an in-person audition. All of this happened in a matter of days.
“The world got crazy, fast,” said Petersen, who was packing up his truck when he got the news that his audition would be virtual. “We had like a one-day notice.”
The change was so last-minute Petersen said he didn’t get much direction from “AGT” in terms of setting up his at-home audition and getting in sync with technology.
“I want to say they (the producers) were as caught off guard as I was,” he said. “Nobody was prepared for what happened. Nobody was super ready for it, and so we all just did the best we could (meanwhile, fellow competition shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice” were still working with pre-filmed footage).”
In some ways, going virtual helped Petersen. It took some of the pressure off, and he knew Syd would be comfortable. But the country singer, who enjoys a good crowd, said auditioning virtually was also “a little bit of a letdown.”
“I love being on stage. I love seeing peoples’ faces, I love seeing people dance on the dance floor,” he said. “It’s just a rush and I love it. It’s harder to connect with somebody virtually.”
And there was at least one miscommunication during the audition — Simon Cowell mistakenly called Petersen by his dog’s name, asking, “What’s your full-time job, Syd?”
“At first I legitimately thought he was talking to my dog, and I was thinking, ‘OK, he wants to know what my dog does,’” Petersen said with a laugh. “Then after I started answering the question, I realized he maybe was talking to me, but oh well. I just went along with it. It made for a good laugh.”
Petersen is happy with how it all turned out. Going into the audition, his goal was to make people smile. And based on the judges’ reactions — and the comments that have since flooded social media — the country singer knows he did at least that much.
And for him, that’s enough. After all, it was seeing people smile that kept him on a stage and helped him push through his fear of performing.
Pushing through fear
Petersen doesn’t always sing with his dog.
He’s opened for country stars Collin Raye and Ned LeDoux. Last year, he teamed up with Nashville producer Trent Willmon to release the album “Cowboy Coming Home.” It climbed to the top 10 on the Billboard Mountain Region Heatseekers Chart in all genres.
“I feel like I can hold my own,” Petersen said with a laugh.
Growing up in Morgan, Petersen was drawn to the cowboy lifestyle — a passion that continues today with his art and photography company, Diehard Cowboy.
“I didn’t choose country music, that’s just who I am, that’s what I relate to,” Petersen said. “That’s my lifestyle. That’s authentic to me, and so that’s why I sing country music.”
But for a long time, Petersen only performed for his inner circle of close friends. Eventually, though, he wanted more people to hear his music. To do that, he needed to get on a stage and sing for a crowd.
“I was terrified, but I was determined to do it,” he said. “I ended up just telling myself, ‘I am going to overcome this fear no matter what.’”
So Petersen found an open mic night in Cedar City. He performed almost every week for a year. From there, he formed a band. Now, what was once feared is loved.
“I’m so glad that I kept pushing through my fear, because if I hadn’t, I never would’ve known the satisfaction that comes from seeing people smile down in the crowd,” he said.
These days, Petersen performs as much as he can. He does shows in Utah and travels the Mountain West to keep his schedule filled. And amid the pandemic, his band has continued to play live music with socially distanced shows and outdoor events in the park.
“There’s so many great fans that love country music (in Utah). We just need to develop the (country music) scene a little bit more,” he said. “We love sharing music, and we’re going to continue to do that however we can.”