Thirty-two years and 11 albums since forming, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers fi gure they don’t need a particular reason to hit the road anymore.
“They made us an offer we couldn’t refuse,” guitarist Mike Campbell says of this summer’s Heartbreakers excursion, which kicks off tonight in Grand Rapids. “It just seemed like a good summer to go out and play.”
And keyboardist Benmont Tench notes that, “I think it’s been two years since the last time we went out, so you’re not gonna play if you can make noise like that? Are you nuts?”
The 41-date tour does find Petty and company in as good a space as they’ve ever been, however.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame six years ago, the group was the subject of an extensive Peter Bogdanovich documentary, “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” that came out last fall. Earlier this year it performed before a worldwide audience of 1 billion at the Super Bowl XLII halftime show. And that’s on top of 50 million record sales and 18 Grammy nominations since the first Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers album came out in 1976.
It’s been a big career, in other words — and no one is more surprised by that than Petty himself.
“I never dreamed there would be a situation where that music would still be around,” Petty, 57, says. “I’m just amazed at the longevity of some of those songs. I hear ‘Breakdown’ on the radio now and I go, ‘God, we were just kids when we made that.’ I never dreamed the music would stick ... and it keeps getting new fans, and younger fans keep coming on board.”
There’s no brand new Heartbreakers music this year, but Petty, Campbell and Tench decided to retrench a bit and go back to their future, as it were.
Inspired by the Bogdanovich film, Petty called the other two with an idea to reactivate Mudcrutch, the band from their native Gainesville, Fla., which brought the three musicians to Los Angeles in the early ’70s. They called their other two bandmates — guitarist Tom Leadon (brother of Eagles co-founder Bernie) and drummer Randall Marsh — and recorded the group’s very first album, more than three decades after Mudcrutch broke up.
“It’s a miracle. It really is,” Campbell, 58, says. “It’s something that I hadn’t thought about, but when I thought about it, it was, ‘Yeah, that could be really cool ...’ It’s really kind of beautiful to be part of it.”
Petty, who dropped out of high school to play music, formed Mudcrutch in 1970 after two previous bands, the Sundowners and the Epics. Setting up a home-base residency at Dub’s Diner in Gainesville, the group played a wide range of covers but rapidly developed a repertoire of originals (among them an early version of the later Petty hit “Don’t Do Me Like That”), mining influences such as the Beatles and the Byrds but also stirring in country and bluegrass flavors that are evident on the “Mudcrutch” album.
“It was a very rural area,” Campbell explains. “The country element ... is very present in the South, and we soaked a lot of that up — especially Tom Leadon. He was deep into that, and he brought a lot of that sensibility to the band and we all incorporated that into our sound.”
Petty, however, was the unquestioned force behind Mudcrutch.
“He had a drive and a talent and a vision to be great,” Campbell recalls. “It’s good to have somebody like that in the band. He’s a great leader, and we always felt that we were going to do good work. Whether or not it would become known anywhere outside our home town we didn’t know, but we had dreams. We believed in what we were doing.”
Mudcrutch set out for the West Coast in 1974, eager to show their doubters back home they could make it big. “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!’”
The group did get a deal and released just one single, “Depot Street” backed with “Wild Eyes,” before breaking up in 1975. “We were pretty clueless and ... hopelessly lost,” Campbell recalls. A Tench solo project helped bring the Heartbreakers together, and the rest has been, well, history.
Tench says that the renewed Mudcrutch — with Petty on bass and all of the members singing at least one lead vocal — is “not a nostalgia trip.” In fact, the group played some shows to celebrate the album’s release in April and is talking about doing more after the Heartbreakers’ summer swing.
“There wasn’t any intention to do some sort of ‘revival’ or anything like that,” says Tench, 54, who abandoned his art studies at Tulane University to be part of Mudcrutch. “We just started playing and we made that noise, that wonderful noise, and we just went with it.”
The Heartbreakers, however, remain job one for Petty, Campbell and Tench — even if a new album, according to the guitarist, will probably come later rather than sooner.
“It’s looming,” says Campbell, who, along with Tench, also played on Neil Diamond’s new album, “Home Before Dark.” “We’re gonna do this tour this summer and then take a couple years off to write the next album. We’d like to make a really great album this time and take our time with the songs, so after this tour we’ll have some time to really regroup and work on it at our own speed.”
And Petty, for one, has no doubt the Heartbreakers will, as he sings in “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “keep movin’ on.”
“I still hear rumors all the time that we’re breaking up,” Petty says. “I don’t know where they come from.
“It’s just a really great surprise to find out you can get 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 don’t think. I think you can keep improving, and if we don’t, we’ll stop.”
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Steve Winwood perform at 8 p.m. Saturday (May 31) at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $99.50 and $55. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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