So tell me, Mr. Petty, what do you think will happen next
That’s all American made
— Margo Price, “All American Made”
Woven into the fabric of American rock ‘n’ roll music are the songs of Tom Petty. He wasn’t merely a voice for his generation, instead his music transcended generations, becoming a voice for an entire nation and a reflection of its culture.
A Florida native, Petty’s words somehow managed to capture the essence of the Southern U.S., the spirit of the heartland and the freedom of California. No matter where you grew up across the 50 states, there was something present in Petty’s music that spoke to you. Whether you spoke with a “Southern Accent,” were with those Indiana boys on an Indiana night or had a long day living in Reseda, you could relate to something Petty was trying to convey.
Petty’s music has the ability to feel ubiquitous and timeless, like it was always there and will always be part of the ether. To this day, despite having written a scathing critique of the homogenization of radio playlists, flipping through a radio dial will before long land you on a Petty hit. That’s partly because you could fill an entire Top 40 chart with nothing but Petty hits.
One after another, from the onstart in 1976 with “Breakdown” and “American Girl,” Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers wrote and recorded an arsenal of songs most acts only dream of. They are, after all, the band that included a new song on their Greatest Hits album and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” quickly became among their most popular hit singles.
What struck me after his passing this year wasn’t just the sheer number of tributes performed by musicians from across genres, but it was the diversity in the choices of songs that were covered in Petty’s honor. Everyone it seems, including many of our most revered musicians, has a special attachment to any number of Petty’s songs. The covers were played not only to pay tribute to Petty, but to honor the songs themselves and the impact they made.
Maybe “Refugee” reminds you of your adolescent angst, maybe “You Wreck Me” recalls a hurtful breakup, “Running Down A Dream” might evoke scenes of summer road trip, perhaps “Won’t Back Down” got you through a depression and memories of an old friend are conjured by “Wildflowers.” Petty’s music was there, providing an audio companionship to so many of our shared experiences.
I was able to see Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Dogs With Wings Tour in 1995. The concert was memorable for a number of reasons, their beloved tunes mixed alongside new-at-the-time Wildflowers selections, including a massive gold-painted winged dog flown over the audience during “It’s Good To Be King.” Petty and his mates put on a show, driven largely by the music they were making together on stage, it was the true engine of the performance. My final time seeing Petty in person was last year with Mudcrutch featuring some of his Heartbreakers band mates. Though the songs they played might not have been as well-known or easily sung along to, the passion for performing and connecting with the audience was tangibly present.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t take some time to address The Heartbreakers. The incredibly talented group is the epitome of professional musicians. Men who constantly show up, get the job done, and deliver memorable performances both onstage and in the studio. What lies ahead for Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, Scott Thurston and Steve Ferrone remains to be seen but I hope we’re lucky enough to hear them make music – together or separately – again sometime soon.
The Heartbreakers wrapped by all accounts a successful 40th Anniversary Tour just days before their front man unexpectedly passed away from cardiac arrest on October 2. Soon it was revealed Petty had soldiered through the tour while performing with a fractured hip. Consummate professionals, Petty and the band showed up night and night out and the shows went on to the delight of fans across the country. Perhaps the only remaining question is just what would happen next in the career of the Rock And Roll Hall Fame band.
Margo Price’s lyrics above were written in 2014 but seem just as poignant now.
“I think there’s nothing more American than Tom Petty,” Price told Terry Gross in a recent Fresh Air interview. “So when I started writing those later verses there I thought he’d be the person who’d know what actually is all American made.”
Price’s album All American Made was coincidentally released on what would have been Petty’s birthday this year and Price dedicated the record to him. The question posed in the title track’s lyrics remains unanswered but it’s clear countless memorable life experiences from people of all walks of life and from every region of the country will be soundtracked by the music of Tom Petty.