When it came to country music, Tom Petty preferred the old stuff. The real stuff, like Carl Perkins and Conway Twitty. Over the years, he’d slip a few of their songs into his sets with the Heartbreakers, singing them in the slow-moving drawl he was never able to truly leave behind in Florida.
Petty’s music belonged to a world that reached far beyond the city limits of Gainesville, Florida, where he spent his first 25 years, and Los Angeles, his adopted home of four decades. It was something universal, forged from street-smart Southern sneer, garage-rock grit and the stoned shimmer of California folk-rock. It belonged everywhere, to everyone.
That said, roots are roots. Petty, who died Monday at 66, remained a Southern man – in spirit, if not always location – until his final hour, and the region’s influence never left his music. He sang about Louisiana rain and Southern accents. He swapped harmonies with Willie Nelson and Hank Williams Jr. during a chart-topping, mid-Eighties cover of the Hank Sr. song “Mind Your Own Business.” Later, when rock radio began shifting toward a grunge format during the Nineties, Petty could be heard playing harmonica on songs like “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “Mary’s Jane’s Last Dance,” filling two of the era’s biggest hits with an instrument that predated the electric guitar by more than 100 years.
No wonder Johnny Cash, another Bible Belter whose songs spoke to a wider world, recorded his own 1996 album, Unchained, with Petty and the Heartbreakers as his backing band. When it came to country music, Petty could hang.
He didn’t always dig today’s sound. During the final hour of a five-night residency at the Beacon Theatre in May 2013, Petty told a sold-out crowd of New Yorkers that modern country music sounded like “bad rock with a fiddle.” He doubled down on those comments in a follow-up interview with Rolling Stone, saying, “I don’t really see a George Jones or a Buck Owens or any anything that fresh coming up. I’m sure there must be somebody doing it, but most of that music reminds me of rock in the middle Eighties, where it became incredibly generic and relied on videos.”
Country singers like Eric Church and Jake Owen responded in their own interviews, with Owen calling Petty’s comments “uneducated.” Chris Stapleton, flush with songwriting credits but still two years shy of his own breakthrough as a solo artist, challenged Petty to a co-writing session on Facebook. Petty never responded. He didn’t have to. Historically unafraid to attack the Goliaths of the music industry – whether that meant battling his own record label in court, mourning the decline of rock radio on 2002’s The Last DJ or thumbing his nose at the bros of Music Row – he handled the issue as he’d handled all others: by digging in his boots and letting his music do most of the talking. When his final album, Hypnotic Eye, hit stores in July 2014, it debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 – a place many country artists still haven’t reached.
It’s difficult to imagine a world without Tom Petty. He’d been part of America’s daily soundtrack since the mid-Seventies, carrying the torch of rock & roll throughout. His influence can be felt in everything from the War on Drugs’ hazy heartland epics to Jason Isbell’s sharp, character-driven songwriting. It can also be heard in an entire genre – Americana – whose format echoes the rootsy rumblings of his most acoustic-friendly album, 1994’s Wildflowers.
Finally, it reverberates irrepressibly throughout the contemporary country-music world, where Petty holds more sway than any other rocker. Kip Moore’s echoing, Reagan-era Southern sweep sounds rooted in Full Moon Fever. Eric Church’s Mr. Misunderstood packs a nasally, Petty-worthy punch. Many of Keith Urban’s biggest hits – from “Somebody Like You” to “Long Hot Summer” – worship at the guitar-heavy shrine of Tom Petty and Mike Campbell, while frontmen like Frankie Ballard and Chris Stapleton (who never managed to co-write with Petty, but did accept a personal invitation to open for the Heartbreakers during their 40th Anniversary Tour stop in Chicago) built their careers on songs about American girls and refugees.
These days, some country music does sound like bad rock with a fiddle. Tom was right about that one. But a lot of it sounds like Tom Petty, too.