Wildflowers and Wonder: Exploring the Songwriting Legacy of Tom Petty

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

A legend’s impact only grows after they’re gone. Four years after his passing, Tom Petty is still everywhere, even as his loss remains, to use the word Benmont Tench did when he spoke to American Songwriter, “incalculable.” 

Tench, Petty’s career-long collaborator in Mudcrutch and the Heartbreakers, was responding to a question about how hard it is to no longer be on the receiving end of that next batch of songs from Petty. Tench would imagine where his keyboards would fit from Petty’s direction. “It’s an inexpressible loss, and the reason I use the word incalculable is you can’t calculate it, you can’t figure it out,” he sadly explains. “There’s no way of knowing what would have happened.” 

But the music Petty wrote and performed is still all over whatever listening conduit you choose, whether you’re firing up the old vinyl or streaming all of his classics. His satellite radio station rolls on, as popular as ever, with his wry drawl showing up often to unearth more of his “Buried Treasure” songs, turning us on to the love of music that so informed his own. 

Beyond his actual voice, you can hear echoes of Petty in so much of the music made today. The finest acolytes capture the truth and integrity that formed the backbone of so many Heartbreaker, Mudcrutch, and Petty solo songs. Even if the best that the rest can do is simply mimic the Petty sound, which emanated from the man’s dedication to the purity of classic rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues, that’s a solid consolation. 

Over the past year, much of the focus on Petty’s work has been directed towards the Wildflowers album, a solo release from 1994 that Petty himself held in high personal regard. Before his death, he was taking steps to clean up some of the loose ends from that project. Much of that unfinished work came together in 2021, beginning with a deluxe reissue titled Wildflowers and All the Rest that collects the outtakes, cutting-room floor tracks, and live performances from that era into a massively entertaining package. 

Next came the documentary Somewhere You Feel Free—a video of Petty and friends making the album is interspersed with present-day recollections from Tench, guitarist Mike Campbell, and producer Rick Rubin. The three men speak with reverence about the special nature of the project, while unearthed videos of Petty also make it clear how strongly he felt about the alchemy achieved on the album. 

Singling out any Tom Petty project from a career so consistent as “the best” is always going to raise the hackles of those whose tastes lie in a different area, whether it’s the frenetic Heartbreakers debut album or the hit-laden Damn The Torpedoes or the shimmering Full Moon Fever. But you can say that Wildflowers separates itself from the rest of Petty’s catalog in ways that reveal just how versatile and powerful he was as a songwriter. 

“Whenever someone compares my songs to Tom Petty, I consider it the greatest compliment. Just put on headphones and listen to ‘I Won’t Back Down’ or ‘Learning To Fly’—These are masterfully written songs, paired with thoughtful studio production that is somehow both lush and minimalist. It’s my guess that more and more Americana artists will head in this direction. And why wouldn’t they? Tom Petty was the perfect blend of pop, rock, and roots music.” 

Sam Outlaw 

“I’ve studied Tom’s writing and the band’s grooves most of my career. Each song is lyrical and story-driven, but the band never felt like they had to rush anything to have a hit. There are all these grooves that make you bop your head and relax into the groove. The minimalism of the arrangements is staggering. Simple is hard. Simple means you have to have brilliant parts because each one is so visible. These songs are so timeless and ooze cool.”  

Jewel
Photo by Robert Sebree

Petty’s two albums before Wildflowers were each produced by Jeff Lynne and were both smashing successes. These were albums where Petty’s songcraft, that knack for the hook and the well-turned phrase, was at its peak. “He came out of the beautiful tradition in the 1960s of writing a single,” Tench explains of the influences. “And we grew up on soul music as well. He was a product of that. And he loved it and he practiced that craft so beautifully. You could tell his love for music and love for songs.” 

There is a point in the documentary where Petty says he considers himself a “soul singer.” That might sound odd for a guy whose music has been alternately labeled New Wave, heartland rock, and folk throughout his career. He might have been reflecting on the songs within Wildflowers, particularly the subject matter of many of them. 

While there were raucous moments like “You Wreck Me” and “Cabin Down Below,” much of the album was given over to introspection. The open-hearted wonder of the title track is balanced by the chilly desperation of “Don’t Fade On Me.” “Only A Broken Heart” projects unfiltered vulnerability while the closing track, “Wake Up Time,” is part gentle benediction and part acceptance of a harsher fate. 

It was a time when Petty was struggling with his first marriage and also had begun going to therapy. But Tench doesn’t buy into the argument that Wildflowers was the first time that his bandleader, spurred on by these circumstances, had traveled to some profound places in his work. 

“The legend has become that it’s really introspective, that it’s the divorce record, and it’s ‘Tom finally digs deep,’” Tench says. “I don’t think that Tom was ever shallow. He loved a good pop song, but he didn’t like a trash pop song. You could have the dumbest pop song in the world, but if it’s got the thing and it’s got the soul, he really had a love for that.” 

Yet Tench realized that Petty had seemed to hit a particularly rich vein of material for the project. “I was really glad, as song after song came, there were so many of them,” he explains. “That was a surprise. He just kept coming in with song after song after song, and they were beautiful. We’d take breaks in recording and come back and he’d just throw something down like ‘Crawling Back To You.’ He said that he just hit this thing where they kept coming.” 

Tench also credits Rubin’s influence on the record as making a major difference. “Rick Rubin really played a large part in making it such a coherent record. Because Rick really brought everything into clear focus. There weren’t any tricks. There’s hardly a sound on the record that was something that was the sound of the week. You can’t pin it down. To me, if it came out today, it would sound very current. I think a lot of people nowadays in the Americana world are trying to emulate that sound, which is wonderful because I love that sound,” he says. 

Petty’s willingness to deviate from his proven formula throughout his career also helped, according to Tench, who noted the way the Heartbreakers had recorded with Jimmy Iovine, Dave Stewart, and Lynne on previous records. “He did shake it up,” Tench says. “The songs just pouring in like that and the freshness of Rick’s approach, and the fact that it wasn’t all the Heartbreakers, so the context wasn’t the same. I think all of that helps bring those magnificent songs to life.” 

“The first song I ever learned on guitar was ‘Free Fallin.’ Years later, I was sitting at the table with the rest of the band and some of our crew. They enjoy all types of music and generally, we can’t agree on anything. But the one thing we could all agree on was Tom Petty. His music transcends and he made me want to write music that felt like that: undeniable.” 

Wesley Schwartz of the Lumineers

“To me, Tom Petty is one of the greatest songwriters of our time. I am always striving to write a simple, yet infectious anthem the way he did.”  

Natalie Hemby
Photo by Robert Sebree

Wildflowers undoubtedly stands out as one of Petty’s masterpieces, but this was a guy who just didn’t release flops or clunkers, his standards as an artist simply being too exacting for that.  

When asked if he ever took the excellence, album after album, song after song, for granted, Trench replied, “I suppose I kinda did. Not in some bad way. I knew that I was playing with a guy who really had the goods. When I started doing freelance sessions, I would play with people who might have written really cool songs, but I knew the difference. It was all beautiful, but is it the level of Wildflowers and Damn The Torpedoes? Is it that consistency all the way through? I mean, what is?” 

Tench points to Petty’s inclusion in the Travelling Wilburys alongside four of the leading lights of rock and roll’s first few decades as evidence of his standing. “They wanted to be in a band with this guy,” Tench says. “They wanted to write songs with this guy. They wanted to sit around in a circle with him. That’s a pretty good stamp, like ‘You’re one of us.’ 

“If you think about this cat as a songwriter, he kind of sucker punches you,” Tench says, putting his finger on one element of Petty’s work that separated him from the pack. “Because the melodies are so immediate and so direct, and a chord will come in and twist your heart. But they’re right there. They’re classic songwriting. They’re the kind of songs that would stop a show on Broadway because everybody heard the melody and loved it so much that they want you to play it again right then. 

“But the sucker punch is that then you get into the lyrics, and if you’re really paying attention to the lyrics, you can find the poignancy and the sorrow in a lot of those songs. And the humor as well. He was always that kind of a writer,” Tench states. 

As for what might have been, Tench can only offer speculation as to where Petty was headed. He mentioned that the outtakes from late-period records Mojo and Hypnotic Eye were far different in theme and tone from what was released on the records, perhaps hinting at another new direction. 

“I don’t know what he would have done,” Tench sums up wistfully. “But it would have been good. It would have been damn well worth your time. And it might have changed your life.”  

“The first Tom Petty song I ever heard was ‘Refugee.’ I would spend all my quarters on it in an arcade jukebox at Sauble Beach. I didn’t even know what he looked like at the time, but everything about the song and his voice just seemed so impossibly cool to me. I had just started teaching myself the guitar and so the thought of someday writing a song as cool as that gave me something to dream towards. I’m still dreaming.” 

Ron Sexsmith

When looking at the entirety of the Tom Petty catalog, one theme that shows up, again and again, is resilience. His very first signature song, “American Girl,” comes off on the surface as a triumphant piece of rock and roll. But hidden in the verses is a story about a girl trying to bounce back from a lost love: And for one desperate moment there, he crept back in a memory, Petty sings. 

Over and over, Petty’s characters and narrators rise above their circumstances or at least nobly try. They don’t scare easy, they go down swingin’, and they, of course, won’t back down. But maybe Wildflowers hits so hard because these are songs that admit some hurts are fortitude-proof. There are times when no amount of personal resolve can withstand the sorrowful flood.  

Perhaps that’s why Petty himself maintained such a personal connection to the album. In many ways, what it expresses is separate from what can be found in the rest of his work. So much of Petty’s music provides examples of strength and integrity. Wildflowers honestly depicts the moments when none of those intangibles can quite do the trick. It’s revelatory stuff. 

So, it is that it forms a major piece of the puzzle that is Tom Petty’s artistic legacy. Incalculable as his loss might have been, the impact of his work is equally immeasurable. The music even points the way for all of us who still can’t quite make sense of his death. When we need to summon the resilience, it’s there in the bulk of his work. And then there’s Wildflowers, which sympathizes with all of us when the resiliency just isn’t enough. 

Photo by Robert Sebree

Contributors: 

  • Wesley Schultz is the guitarist, lead vocalist, and one of the chief songwriters for The Lumineers, who opened for Tom Petty on his last tour 
  • Jewel is a multi-platinum singer and songwriter who is scheduled to release her first new album in seven years this spring. 
  • Sam Outlaw’s most recent album, Popular Mechanics, came out in November and received high praise for its “SoCal” country sound 
  • Natalie Hemby released her latest solo album, Pins and Needles, in October of 2021, and she is also a member of The Highwomen alongside Brandi Carlisle, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires 
  • Ron Sexsmith is one of the most highly-respected singer-songwriters of his time and recently completed an album in Nashville with producer Brad Jones set for 2022 release 
  • Benmont Tench remains one of the most sought-after keyboard players for sessions and live shows and has recently finished his latest solo album 

Photo courtesy of Martin Atkins.

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