Producer Rick Rubin wasn’t a Tom Petty fan growing up. “I usually liked more edgy music,” he tells Rolling Stone. But he fell in love with the singer-songwriter’s first solo outing, 1989’s Full Moon Fever, after “Runnin’ Down a Dream” entranced him. “The consistency and quality of songwriting on the whole album sucked me in,” he says. “I listened to it all day every day in my car for a year.”
Rubin eventually met Petty through Warner Bros. chairman Mo Ostin, who had suggested Rubin – who was then best known for working with Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Cult – work with the lead Heartbreaker. It would lead to a particularly fruitful creative relationship. Throughout the Nineties, they worked up “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” for Petty’s Greatest Hits, Petty’s triple-platinum solo LP, Wildflowers, the Heartbreakers’ soundtrack for She’s the One, and the dark-hued Echo LP. In 1996, Rubin also produced Petty and the Heartbreakers as the backing band for Johnny Cash’s Grammy-winning Unchained LP.
Looking back on his time with Petty, Rubin is struck by how hard the late singer-songwriter worked. “When we first met, I was impressed with his dedication to writing,” he says. “He wrote constantly and called me to come and hear new songs often. There is a poetry about them that spoke to me.”
Petty’s songwriting ingenuity was nonstop, Rubin says, especially in the time surrounding Wildflowers. “I remember when Tom lived in Encino and I would go to his house to listen to demos he was working on,” he says. “One day, between cassette recordings of songs he was working on, he began strumming the guitar. After a couple of minutes of strumming chords, he played me an intricate new song complete with lyrics and story. I asked him what it was about. He said he didn’t know it just came out. He had written it or more like channeled it in that very moment. He didn’t know what it was about or what the inspiration was. It arrived fully formed. It was breathtaking.” (Rubin doesn’t recall which song it was.)
Once the songs were written, Petty would put the time in in the studio to make sure they were perfect. “Tom was a consummate craftsman,” Rubin recalls. “He knew as much about recording as any producer I’ve met. He had a workman-like rigor in the studio. He never settled.”
There was a high level of quality to that album that stuck with Petty. “Not long ago, I was with Tom and he spoke of Wildflowers,” Rubin recalls. “He said, ‘I’m afraid of that album.’ I thought it was a strange comment. I asked what he meant. He said it’s daunting for him to think about it because it’s insurmountable. He didn’t think he could do it again, so it reserved a haunted place in his psyche.”