Tom Petty: More Country Than Most, and An American Music Icon For Everyone


This story has been updated.

Amid the tragedy and heartbreak that many woke up to on Monday, October 2nd, as we all stared at our television screens and computer monitors to the the images of horror coming from Las Vegas in what would eventually be declared as the biggest mass shooting in American history, somehow, inexplicably, amid all the chaos and heartbreak, we are now being asked to somehow digest the death of what many will fairly decree as one of the greatest American music artists of all time. Today, there is also heartbreak for the Heartbreaker.

According to numerous reports, Tom Petty was rushed to the hospital Sunday (10-1) night when he was found in his Malibu home unconscious, and not breathing, having suffered from cardiac arrest. They were able to get a pulse on Petty as he was rushed to UCLA Santa Monica Hospital where he was placed on life support, but on “do not resuscitate orders,” the plug was pulled.

Thomas Earl Petty, who from his early work with his local band Mudcrutch, to his time with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, to endless collaborations with the most iconic voices, songwriters, and music performers in the history of popular music, influenced everything we know about life and culture that can be carried in a song. Only Tom Petty could stand beside one of the Beatles in the form of George Harrison, one of the most legendary voices to ever grace the world in Roy Orbison, and arguably modern history’s greatest songwriter in Bob Dylan, and consider himself a peer. And more importantly, they were proud to be counted as peers of Petty in the Traveling Wilburys period.

Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, he dropped out of high school at 17 to form his first band Mudcrutch. He cites meeting Elvis at age 10 as an influence on him deciding to pursue rock & roll as a lifelong career, but Petty was also very much influenced by the swampy Southern environs he found himself among in central Florida. One of his guitar teachers was Don Felder of The Eagles fame who also lived in the area, and would go on to pen the iconic song “Hotel California.” After Mudcrutch split up, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were formed, first creeping onto the scene, more popular in Britain and bubbling under in America, but by the time Petty released Full Moon Fever in 1989, there was nobody that embodied American music more than him.

Tom Petty’s contributions to rock & roll are unquestionable, and he is Mount Rushmore-worthy in the pantheon of the genre, at least in the modern era. But Petty was never just about braying guitars and power chords, or raucous stadium presentations. What made Tom Petty the iconic music superstar for everyone is that he had a genuine, down-to-earth, and dare we say, country music style and songwriting approach that allowed him to appeal to so many from such a disparate set of backgrounds. His music may have been rock, but the message and the style was universal, and it’s unquestionable country music would not sound the same if it wasn’t for the Petty influence.

In 2013, Tom Petty even came to the aid of true country music in an event that became a rallying cry for years to come. In an interview from Rolling Stone following up on an anti modern country rant Petty delivered from the stage of the Beacon Theater in New York City, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer said in a story whose subtitle is “Singer also discusses songwriting and criticizes modern country music…”

Well, yeah I mean, I hate to generalize on a whole genre of music, but it does seem to be missing that magic element that it used to have. I’m sure there are people playing country that are doing it well, but they’re just not getting the attention that the shittier stuff gets. But that’s the way it always is, isn’t it?

But I hope that kind of swings around back to where it should be. But 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. I don’t want to rail on about country because I don’t really know much about it, but that’s what it seems like to me.

Petty spent a portion of his set at New York’s Beacon theater in 2013 explaining his country roots after polishing off a version of The Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.” Petty said the country music he listened to was “not like it is today, like bad rock with a fiddle.” Then Petty and The Heartbreakers played Conway Twitty’s “The Image of Me.”

Countless songs from the Tom Petty discography you could count as country if you wanted, and most certainly they were more country than the music you hear coming from the country radio today. But Petty never cared to call himself country, or cross swords with any particular artist specifically. Instead he interpreted his decidedly American experience into decidedly American songs that spoke to all of us universally about what it means to live in the Land of the Free.

Petty is gone, his music will live on, and so will his influence, most certainly in country music, and far beyond.