Tom Petty has told us, through song, that he won’t back down. He won’t let up, either. As he celebrates the 30th anniversary of his recording career, the 55-year-old Petty is working as hard as any rookie rocker. He recently released his third solo album, “Highway Companion,” and, with his band the Heartbreakers, is in the midst of a 40-date tour, portions of which are being filmed by director Peter Bogdanovich for an upcoming documentary.
Petty can be found on the book shelves with a Q&A tome titled “Conversations with Tom Petty,” and he’s also done a full season’s worth of voice work for Lucky, his character on Fox TV’s “King of the Hill.” “Buried Treasures,” his program on the XM satellite radio network, is in its second season. A Heartbreakers live album is looming, too.
And in December, he received Billboard magazine’s prestigious Century Award for career achievement.
Petty, who has three children from his two marriages, is surprised that he’s still maintaining this kind of workload. But he’s not complaining about it at all.
“Thirty years ago, when the band started, there weren’t a lot of rock stars in their 50s,” he says. “I don’t think there were many even in their 40s. You didn’t look at it as a job you’d do your whole life.
“I remember thinking at one point, ‘Boy, if this goes on for five years this would be quite a run.’ Then we hit five years, and I remember thinking, ‘Man, if this goes on 10 years, it’d be incredible’ ...”
‘Touched’ by his history
The Gainesville, Fla., native’s music trail started in 1967, when he quit high school to join the band Mudcrutch, which also included future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on keyboards.
“My mother used to tell me the staple that, ‘You better have something to fall back on,’ “ Petty recalls with a laugh. “And I used to tell her, ‘I ain’t gonna fall back. There will be no falling back.’ ”
Mudcrutch moved to Los Angeles in the early ’70s and signed a recording contract, but it broke up before it could fi nish the album. Petty was offered a solo deal but wound up putting the Heartbreakers together in time for their self-titled debut in 1976.
The terse, spare “Breakdown” crept into the Top 40 a year after the album’s release but gave Petty and company a foothold that’s led to a steady stream of hits such as “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Refugee,” “You Got Lucky,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and more.
Petty and the Heartbreakers also toured in the mid-’80s as Bob Dylan’s backing band and recorded the soundtrack for the 1996 film “She’s the One.” Petty stepped out of the band to record two successful solo albums — 1989’s “Full Moon Fever,” which featured the hit “I Won’t Back Down,” and 1994’s “Wildflowers” — and was part of the Traveling Wilburys, a rock “supergroup” that also featured Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and former Electric Light Orchestra leader Jeff Lynne. Those were ample credentials for Petty and the Heartbreakers to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 — something that “touched” him, even though celebrating the past is not usually his style. “Well, it always means something when people give you a slap on the back,” he says. “I feel that sometimes we’re almost taken for granted. I think if the group had broken up 10 years ago, 20 years ago, it might be different, but when you’re there year after year and you stay consistent, sometimes you wonder if anybody notices. “I guess when I was a kid I might’ve been cynical about awards, but as I’ve grown older, I figure if they’re giving it to me, I may as well enjoy it.”
Through the past, starkly
Petty says he also embraced the process of putting together “Conversations with Tom Petty” with writer Paul Zollo, which started as a book about songwriting but grew a wider scope when they realized “we’d have to get biographical about it” to give some context to his songs’ histories. “It was kind of an eye-opener to me as to how much has gone on,” Petty says. “I try to stay in the moment and don’t spend a lot of time thinking back. But a lot has gone down and a lot has happened over the last 30 years. “I rarely, very rarely, listen to my own work, so I had to sit and listen to it so I could talk intelligently about it. It really made me happy hearing all the stuff. I really felt like we’ve done a pretty consistent job over the years.” The latest installment is “Highway Companion,” which Petty recorded with Campbell and Lynne. It is, he acknowledges, “pretty stripped down” and “not necessarily what people are going to expect,” which he thinks is a good thing, too.
“In the last few years,” Petty explains, “I’ve gotten really into blues and a lot of the Chess label stuff — Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Muddy (Waters). There’s a purity in that music that’s really special, something so honest and true about it. I think that’s what I want to achieve with the music I’m making now. I want it to get purer and purer and have that timelessness that those records have.”
And, he adds, if that means he’s out of step with the Top 40, he can live with that now.
“I’m not as concerned with making a record that is going to be a huge hit,” he notes. “I’d love to have a big hit, but it isn’t what drives me now. I think I would look silly trying to do that.
“I’m just trying to make good quality music, because I do realize this music is going to be around much longer than me. It’s a really great surprise to fi nd out you are getting better as you get older. If you take care of yourself and care a lot about what you’re doing, there’s no end to it. I think you can keep improving, and if we don’t, we’ll stop.”
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Trey Anastasio perform 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (August 8th) at DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road north of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are sold out. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit
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