Depending on where you stand with his music, you may have a very different idea of what Tom Petty’s “golden age” is than I do.
Some might believe that his gilded era was when he and the Heartbreakers released Damn the Torpedoes in 1979. Others might cite the mid-‘80s, when hits like “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “You Got Lucky” were omnipresent on MTV and Top 40 radio. Or the late ‘80s, when he was the youngest member of that grand old AOR dinosaur club the Traveling Wilburys and branched out as a solo act with his 1989 masterpiece Full Moon Fever.
Or, if you are like me, you may feel that the 1990s served as Petty’s finest time. It was the decade in which he released his phenomenal 1994 solo follow-up Wildflowers and arguably the Heartbreakers’ three best albums: 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open, 1996’s phenomenally underrated soundtrack to Ed Burns’ romantic comedy She’s the One and 1999’s contemplative Echo, not to mention a massively popular 1993 greatest hits package and a rarities-loaded box set that was released in 1995.
Most can certainly agree that the ‘00s has not been too kind to the Petty legacy thus far, with an incredibly underwhelming 2002 Heartbreakers album in The Last DJ and a third solo album, Highway Companion, which in no way, shape or form comes even close to the majesty of either Full Moon Fever or Wildflowers. However, the concept of saluting Tom Petty has reached an all-time fever pitch, particularly in the last couple of years, following a pair of career-spanning greatest hits arena tours, Runnin’ Down a Dream, the critically-acclaimed documentary directed by Peter Bogdonavich (with accompanying coffee-table book), and performing at halftime of quite possibly the greatest Superbowl in football history (well, at least if you are a Giants fan).
And wouldn’t you know it, all this recent retrospection has given Petty a pretty heavy case of nostalgia. So much, in fact, that in 2008 he hitched a ride on the wayback machine and reformed his storied pre-Heartbreakers group Mudcrutch, who haven’t played together regularly since 1975, for a tour and to create the album they never had the chance to make. Back in the day, Mudcrutch were the pride of Gainsville, Florida, the local swamp country rock band with everything to prove and nothing to lose, fronted by the man who would soon become one of the most beloved icons in classic rock. So, they headed out to Los Angeles, where the mellow country rock vibes of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Dillard and Clark echoed throughout the canyons, as if they were calling out to them across the span of the time zones.
Unfortunately for Mudcrutch, the record execs at Leon Russell’s Shelter Records had early radar on Petty’s star power and chose to offer him his own recording contract. He took them up on it, leaving his bandmates behind, with the exception of guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, who joined Mudcrutch upon the departure of original guitarist Tom Leadon in 1972 and with whom he would go on to form the Heartbreakers. But fortunately for us, that stutter step has been rectified with the release of the group’s long-awaited debut, some 36 years in the making.
Mudcrutch proves the cover of the Byrds’ “Feel a Whole Lot Better” on Full Moon Fever was no fluke. The music of Roger McGuinn and company is the underlying epicenter of just about every note he plays, whether it’s a new wave rave-up or a lilting country road anthem. Here, Petty gets to revel in his love for the Byrds full-on, especially for the later-period stuff like (Untitled) and Farther Along. With Petty returning to the bass guitar and flanked by Campbell and Tench, along with original Mudcrutch members Leadon and drummer Randall Marsh, this album contains some of the strongest material he has delivered since Echo. There are tracks here that are indeed indicative of late-period Heartbreakers material, particularly the first single “Scare Easy” and “Oh Maria”, but much more along the lines of She’s the One than The Last DJ, thankfully. Overall, the old-school canyon country rock they so enthusiastically chased after the first time around is the prevalent formula across this 14-song set, as Mudcrutch combine original tunes with tasty renditions of traditional American standards and classic songs from their salad days. The best of the latter is the wonderfully twangy arrangement of “Shady Grove” which opens up the disc and an absolutely killer take on the Byrds’ (Untitled) nugget “Lover of the Bayou”. Red Simpson’s “Six Days on the Road”, popularized by the Flying Burrito Brothers, is also revamped as a roadhouse throwdown that sounds a little like the Amazing Rhythm Aces at the peak of their powers.
The original material is delivered with equal aplomb. “Orphan of the Storm”, Petty’s soulful lament for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, is reminiscent of his work on Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3. Tench turns in a rare lead vocal performance on “This Is a Good Street”, which he penned. It will leave longtime Heartbreakers fans wondering why he hasn’t taken over the mic more often, with his warm, if a mite bit thin, voice. Leadon takes the lead on a song he penned, “Queen of the Go-Go Girls”, which is one of the strongest tracks here as well. If you aren’t paying attention, you might be fooled into thinking that it’s Petty singing. And if you really wanna hear this band cook, look no further than “Bootleg Flyer”, which features some of the most smokin’ guitar work Mike Campbell has ever offered, proving his status as one of the greatest axe men of the last 30 years.
I don’t mean to put down Petty’s work with the Heartbreakers. At this point they are a great touring band and guarantee a good time if you are looking to spend summer cash on a quality concert. But their golden age in the recording studio seems to have passed. Petty seems cognizant of that fact, which could be a primary reason why he decided to regroup Mudcrutch. His creativity is much better for it. Mudcrutch is a grand old slice of classic country rock that not only serves as Petty’s finest work in almost a decade but is a mighty fine incentive for any long-defunct group with a hankering to dust off the drama and head back into the studio to quit their harboring and just go for it. You could very well wind up with a new classic, like Mudcrutch has. Long may they run.
- Various songs Streaming