Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers: Live Wires

 
What we have on Live Anthology is what the band sounds like to me. A recording is a brief experience; it's a brief period of time. The real band is the live shows and the jams and the rehearsals.

-Benmont Tench

 

Photo of The Heartbreakers by: Dennis Callahan

The Root of Things

There is a strong sense of history and tradition in Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, where one doesn't need to guess at their lineage. You can hear the primal hip shake and country and blues roots of rock & roll in their music.

Tom Petty by Kevin Scanlon
"There was a wonderful thing going on in the '60s, where everything hadn't been homogenized. There was a lot of discovery. Us white kids in the South were getting most of our knowledge about the blues from hearing the first Bluesbreakers album with Eric Clapton and then reading him talking about B.B. King and going out and getting Live At The Regal [1965] and going, 'Holy cow!' Or it maybe was hearing The Rolling Stones talk about Howlin' Wolf or The Beatles talking about Carl Perkins and then checking that stuff out," says Tench. "That's what was great when you hear people talking about the '60s, all this stuff was crossing and people were really excited and enthusiastic about it and finding their own way to do it. And it's going on now, though I don't really think it's happening on radio from the little I hear. I have a lot of young friends in their twenties who give me mix tapes that have great stuff I've never heard from the '40s, '50s and '60s. The Internet and file sharing now works the way radio used to work when it had this great cross-section of stuff in the Top 40."

"So, that's where we all came from. I was lucky enough to walk into a room and meet Tom and Mike and have them show me songs by so & so and me show them songs by so & so," continues Tench. "For instance, we all loved this band named Daddy Cool, an Australian group that was just fantastic and obscure as you can get. One of the first times I went to Tom's house he said, 'Check this out,' and put on this Daddy Cool record. It was something I'd heard a couple weeks before on the college radio station and was blown away but didn't know who it was. And I'm sitting there with Tom and thinking 'Okay, this is good. This will work.'"

In a nutshell, the Petty and The Heartbreakers sound hums with the Southern overtones of gospel, bluegrass and country but all infused and morphed by a profound love of '60s British Invasion acts. As much as critical darlings Big Star, Petty and The Heartbreakers fused the sturdy bones of American traditional music with the rebellious, pleasantly experimental gusto of The Beatles, The Zombies, etc.

"That's exactly what we are. We grew up in the South around a lot of bluegrass and real country music. And for Tom and the rest of us, when The Beatles and the Stones came along that was our time and it influenced us greatly. I notice when we play that we draw from both of those worlds," says Campbell. "If you really dig deep, especially the Stones but The Beatles too, were drawing from American blues and R&B, so it all kinda ties together."

Benmont Tench by Dennis Callahan
Though many see Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers as the epitome of heartland Middle American rock, the majority of the band hails from Gainesville, Florida. A college town filled with small venues, Gainesville is a fertile breeding ground for bands, and as recently as 2008 Blender Magazine named it the "Best Place to Start a Band in the United States." It is a place with a strong black/white racial mix and a history that touches on the state's first citrus boom in the 1800s, the Civil War, and more.

"Well, the Allman Brothers were from Daytona Beach and Skynyrd was from Jacksonville. Ray Charles went to the St. Augustine School for the Blind. Stephen Stills went through [Gainesville] to go to the University of Florida, as did Faye Dunaway and Bernie Leadon [Eagles co-founder]. It's a wonderful place Gainesville," says Tench. "To this day there's a lot of music. When I walk up and down the main street on late night walks there are all these little storefront clubs or record stores that have bands playing after hours. When I was growing up it was like this too, but when The Heartbreakers came back to woodshed in the disco '70s it seemed pretty bleak. But it's certainly thriving right now."

When it's suggested Gainesville's sort of widespread communal engagement with shared live music is vaguely European, Tench quickly responds, "Actually it's very American. Before there was radio and TV people sat around the house and played. Everybody knew how to play an instrument; it was part of being a well-rounded person in every walk of life. That was entertainment, friendship, relationship, all that stuff. My experience in the last couple years is it's coming back. I live in Los Angeles, where everybody should be in it for the deal, like as a guy I met at a pickin' party pointed out, it's usually people getting together and asking, 'How much are you going to pay me to rehearse?' Well, I've fallen in with a crowd of people who like to just get together and sit around the house and play. It's great. Mike Campbell comes over to my house to play, Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch, Sean and Sara Watkins [Nickel Creek] – it's marvelous. It's not for the sake of anything other than for the sake of playing. It's not a career move."

"My favorite stuff that The Heartbreakers do is at sound checks and rehearsals. Heartbreakers rehearsals are 75-percent sitting around and playing stuff and 25-percent playing what we need to learn to play. So, it's always been about that, to me, and it's really wonderful that I've found people who think like that today, people who sit around and play acoustically; things I don't know," continues Tench. "Tom Leadon from Mudcrutch is one of those people. When he's around he and Campbell are a crazy scene with the numbers that they know. They've sat around on a Sunday with me and played songs and it's just so cool! Tom Petty will bring in some old thing he knows or just found and show it to us. That's the deal: Our band is not stagnating by any means. Everybody always learns something new and brings it in."

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