Tom Petty has been gone for nearly a month, but it really doesn’t feel like it. Some of that is denial, I’m sure, but look around. Austin-based Petty tribute band The Damn Torpedos rock the Continental Club, tonight, with H-Town Cheap Trick-skates The High Roller.
The Houston Astros’ flagship radio carrier, AM 790, has adopted “I Won’t Back Down” as an anthem of sorts for the team’s World Series run. It’s third baseman and budding postseason star Alex Bregman’s current walk-up music. Less than a week after gunfire chased him from the Route 91 Harvest festival stage, Jason Aldean sang it to open Saturday Night Live. I’m not normally a fan, to put it kindly, but Aldean’s version rang true, both as a tribute to the victims of the Las Vegas massacre and the song’s author.
Petty, who passed away on October 2 – not even three weeks shy of his 67th birthday – was one of America’s most visible and beloved rock and rollers for a solid 40 years. He was also one of its most prolific. Since 1976, Petty officially released 13 studio albums with the Heartbreakers and three more ostensibly “solo” records, in addition to several compilations of all the hits those albums produced, the Traveling Wilburys stuff, Johnny Cash’s Unchained, multi-disc behemoth The Live Anthology, and the final long-player to bear the Heartbreakers’ stamp, 2015 odds n’ sods collection Nobody’s Children.
That’s a lot of music to plow through, more than enough to comfortably secure Petty’s standing as one of the most universally popular musicians of our lifetimes, particularly among English-speakers between 35 and 65 years old. (Just turn on the radio.) But if you’re really missing him like I am, unless you’ve got the time to spend hours on end revisiting all of the above records — and more power to you if you do — you might seek out instead one of the relatively unexplored corners of Petty’s catalog, which will take you into the distant (and not-so-distant) past and a little place called Mudcrutch Farm.
That was what Petty and his musical accomplices called the grungy house near Gainesville, Florida, where they lived in the late ‘60s. It was also the namesake of the band that took them to the verge of stardom. Mudcrutch made it out out of the Deep South to L.A., finally, and released one single on Shelter Records, “Depot Street,” in 1975. But the song, and then the band, ran into some tough luck and Mudcrutch broke up. Afterward, Petty found himself dissatisfied as a solo musician and began keeping company with some players from back home, including Mudcrutch alumni Mike Campbell (guitars) and Benmont Tench (keyboards).
The new band dubbed themselves the Heartbreakers and the rest, as they say, is history — until 2007, when Petty decided to give Mudcrutch another go. “It was one of those lighting bolts to the brain. A few years ago I just started thinking about how I missed those guys, Tom Leadon and Randall Marsh,” he told Rolling Stone, naming two members of Mudcrutch who did not become Heartbreakers. (Leadon is younger brother to Bernie, of the Eagles.) Petty called them up to his home studio in Malibu, and they cut an album in two weeks. Mudcrutch was released of April 2008. “It was the most fun I've had in years,” Petty said. “I had to calm myself down at night I was having so much fun.” Two more Heartbreakers albums later, the aptly titled sequel 2 came out last spring.
More or less, Mudcrutch doubles down on the heavy Byrds influence that was a cornerstone of the Heartbreakers’ sound; the first album includes a cover of “Lover of the Bayou.” A dash of psychedelia, closer to the Grateful Dead than the Doors, wafts over the nearly 10-minute aromatic haze of “Crystal River”; those operating heavy equipment or even driving to work should steer clear of the 15-minute version on the Extended Play Live EP, released later in 2008.
The devilishly defiant “Scare Easy” and “The Wrong Thing to Do” compare favorably to anything Petty has done since Full Moon Fever, but more impressive still are the album’s hardcore country tunes: a romp through Dave Dudley’s trucker anthem “Six Days On the Road,” a favorite of Mudcrutch precursors the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Petty originals “House of Stone” and “Orphan of the Storm.” The latter was apparently written in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but released the year of Ike; I think it’s one of the most poignant, if not terribly flattering, songs about Houston ever released.
She'd lived there before
When she was using
Now she's standing on
The same old street again
Yeah that hurricane
It blew her back to Houston
Had to give into
The devil's howling wind
In the Heartbreakers, Petty could be bitter and almost didactic at times, or at least earnest (think “Refugee”), but one of the beautiful things about the Mudcrutch albums is how relaxed the band sounds, him most of all. But not in a sloppy way; the band members bring their decades of experience to bear in an environment where they’re obviously enjoying themselves tremendously.
If anything, that feeling is even stronger on 2 than it was on Mudcrutch. “Trailer” sounds like a classic Petty single, which makes sense; it was originally a B-side from the Southern Accents sessions in 1984-85. “Dreams of Flying” soars, and “Beautiful Blue” picks up right where “Crystal River” trails off. The Wilbury-esque rockabilly number “Welcome to Hell,” written by Tench, is great fun; Leadon’s “The Other Side of the Mountain” is robust Eagles-style country-rock; and both Petty’s “Hope” and Campbell’s “Victim of Circumstance” rock at least as hard as the Heartbreakers’ last original album, 2014’s Hypnotic Eye.
Still, the real gem here could have just as easily appeared on Wildflowers more than 20 years ago. “I Forgive It All” is an acoustic, gorgeously hushed lullaby or benediction whose weariness is offset by a certain satisfaction in life’s simple gifts. Sadly, it now also serves as a sort of musical epitaph for Petty.
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There ain't no money in this deal, I just tag along
There ain't no money in this deal, I just tag along
Some things I feel right, somebody else thinks wrong
I forgive it all, I forgive it all
On this earth, I forgive it all
Mudcrutch did a quick tour after 2 came out, which naturally came nowhere near Houston. The album had a pretty good run on the Americana radio charts, but it’s still pretty obscure unless you happen to be looking for it; it's right there on the usual streaming services, though. Soon enough, Petty turned his attention back to the Heartbreakers for their 40th anniversary tour, which stopped in Houston back in April and concluded in late September at the Hollywood Bowl.
About a week later, he was gone. Judging by the second Mudcrutch album alone, Petty was still writing great songs, and gave every indication he would continue doing so for a long time to come. Of the many sadnesses to come out of his death, that’s probably what hurts the most.
Note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the author of "The Other Side of the Mountain." It is Tom Leadon, not Randall Marsh.