Margo Price on Tom Petty's Influence: 'His Music Defied Genre'

Country barnstormer recalls hearing late rocker's "Mary Jane's Last Dance" for the first time

Margo Price recalls hearing Tom Petty's music for the first time. Credit: Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Margo Price will never forget the first time she heard Tom Petty on the radio. She was ten years old at home in Illinois, desperately searching for something "real and raw" amongst the indulgent hits of her childhood.

"I very specifically remember hearing 'Mary Jane's Last Dance,'" Price tells Rolling Stone Country. "I thought, 'how did this slip through? How did it get there?' He was so good at writing something that was catchy but that you felt like you had heard and known your whole life. I think I taped that song off the radio and played it over and over and sang it into my hairbrush. It was so cool, and so mysterious. I don't know what he was talking about, but he was talking to me."

Since then, Price has counted Petty as one of her prime influences, informing her frank and honest songwriting approach that discusses the simple gestures but complex emotions of American life. She spent the morning after his death sitting at her kitchen table, strumming his music. "We just went through the songbook," she says. Price has covered Petty before, most memorably this April in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she offered a solo version of "Mary Jane's Last Dance," a song that was originally titled "Indiana Girl," while the audience loudly sung along.

"He was singing to a girl in Middle America who was maybe a little poor, or a little different," she says of Petty. "And he had the ability to romanticize that and make it feel like it was all OK. He was so good at taking every day images, like on 'Free Fallin',' he was just talking to me: about horses and Jesus and Elvis and mama. Just a sparsely written song, but he made those imagines so powerful. His music defied genre, and it defies politics."

Petty died Monday, October 2nd, at the age of 66 after suffering cardiac arrest.