Southern Accents: Gainesville Honors Tom Petty
It’s been said that there’s something in the water in Gainesville. For a small university town, the number of well-known artists who were born or spent time in the town is pretty astonishing: Bo Diddley, Minnie Riperton (and her daughter Maya Rudolph), Steven Stills, two Eagles (Bernie Leadon and Don Felder), Less Than Jake and Sister Hazel, to name a few. And while all are celebrated in Gainesville, Tom Petty is Gainesville’s native son. When Petty died unexpectedly at the age of 66 shortly after completing his 40th anniversary tour with the Heartbreakers, sorrow was palpable in the town. Tom Petty was born in Gainesville, and everyone watched the skinny kid grow up, putting bands together, the first a neighborhood band called the Sundowners, and later a better-known band called the Epics which morphed into Mudcrutch. Originally including Bernie’s brother Tom Leadon and guitarist Mike Campbell, Gainesville native Benmont Tench and bass player Danny Roberts joined in 1972 when Leadon left the band. Mudcrutch was a legendary band in Florida, playing regularly enough to relocate to Los Angeles in 1974, finally signing with Leon Russell’s Shelter Records label. After their single “Depot Street” didn’t do well, the record company kept Petty alone under contract. Within months, Petty, Tench and Campbell added Gainesville’s Stan Lynch on drums, Ron Blair on bass, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were born, and history was made. His career needs no review here; his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, working with Dylan, Roy Orbison and George Harrison in the Traveling Wilburys… he was a star. Petty wrote songs about his hometown and many local points of interest, including one simply titled “Gainesville” that was made into a video after his death; included are many of his home movies and photos from the town.
In 2007 Mudcrutch reunited with Petty, recorded an album, and toured briefly. A follow-up record in 2016 also sold well. Many in Gainesville saw these reunion albums as a measure of gratitude to some of the musicians whom he had worked with before his fame spread.
In the past two years, Gainesville has named a city park for Petty, supported the painting of a number of murals around the town, and has put together a weekend to celebrate his music and his birthday. The festivals are actually two distinct events. Tom Petty Weekend is sponsored by the Heartwood Soundstage, an audio and video recording and performance venue that has built a reputation as one of the finest listening rooms in Florida. A block away, the city of Gainesville sponsors the Tom Petty Birthday Bash. Between the two venues, over 65 acts performed, almost all of them doing some Tom Petty covers. From solo acoustic sets to hard-core Southern rock, it was a great weekend of music.
There were other events as well. The Matheson Museum hosted a Tom Petty Symposium featuring several musicians and authors. Paul Zollo, Bob Kealing and Keith Harben joined Mudcrutch’s Danny Roberts and local musician/historian Mike Boulware, who was in school with Petty. Zollo is an author and songwriter who authored Conversations with Tom Petty. Kealing is an Emmy-award winning journalist and music writer. Harben was born nine days after Petty and lived on his street; they remained friends all their lives. They shared stories about Tom as a youngster and high schooler, and Zollo gave his perspective about the impact of Petty’s music. There were sessions at Heartwood by storytellers, including Harben, Roberts, and Tom’s cousin Rod Guynn. Tom Petty Nation, one of the largest Facebook fan groups with over 35,000 members, was well represented with many live broadcasts from on site.
Many local breweries had events, and several prepared beers in his honor (Among the Wildflowers, Won’t Bok Down, and Learning to Rye ). There were also bus tours of significant places that were important to Tom’s history. But most people came for the music. Unfortunately, Tropical Storm Nestor decided to graze us, and the rain was off and on Saturday, necessitating a few changes in schedule, but it cleared, and the bands played on.
Tom Petty Weekend (Heartwood Soundstage)
Regional favorites like Sam Pacetti, Richie Stano and Chelsea Oxendine, Kyle Keller, The Imposters, The Shambles, and The Mudpies (featuring Roberts and Boulware, Don David and others) did fantastic sets. Morningbell and the Shelters, protégés of Petty from Los Angeles, closed out the Heartwood outdoor stage on Friday. Uncle Mosie, with Dana Myers singing lead and Andy Cook on fiddle, provided a fine mix of covers and original songs. Other Voices did note for note covers of the Byrds and Petty, The Relics took on the Woodstock nation with several Who songs and Janet Rucker getting all over “Piece of My Heart.” Their version of “A Little Help From My Friends”provoked a dance line. Shine and the Shakers got people moving outside with some blues-oriented vocals and hot guitar. Local favorite Fodder Wing (featuring Roberts and Boulware, Jana Horton Kowitz, with vocalist and guitar player Ned Stewart) did an emotional tribute to Petty. On the outside stage, former Blackfoot guitarist Charlie Hargrett led Trigger City in a blistering set with a great cover of “Stop Draggin My Heart Around.” Tom Leadon’s band The Bayjacks were next, followed by the Atlanta Petty tribute band Southern Accents.
Tom Petty Birthday Bash (Depot Park)
Across the street, Charleston’s The High Divers, an indie-rock oriented band with a touch of folk, played a great set with even their originals having a Petty-like quality. Philadelphia’s Low Cut Connie is known for fiery acrobatic hard-core rock, and lead singer Adam Weiner was standing on pianos and dervishing his way around the stage; the audience loved it all. Nashville singers/songwriters Eden Archer demonstrated some great rock credentials, and Tristen provided some edgy and evocative songs. Although the local tribute band Heavy Petty closed out the night, there was much excitement for the reunion of the Dixie Desperados, a ’70s Southern rock band that had quite a reputation in their day, touring with the Allmans, Johnny Winter, and Molly Hatchett. They put on an amazingly tight set with covers of “Johnny B. Goode” and “Learning to Fly,” and their fans showed up in force. Lead singer Allan Lowe made a point of outlining their history their association with Stan Lynch, former Heartbreakers drummer, who produced their album and co-wrote a number of songs with members of the band. A fireworks display and a festival-wide singing of “Happy Birthday” followed their set. Heavy Petty closed out the night with excellent covers of Petty songs, including some deep tracks.
Those Gainesville natives who grew up and played with Tom Petty were emotional about the celebration and committed to making it even better next year. The support of the City of Gainesville and the organizational efforts of Jason Hedges, Dave Melosh and Hoch Shitama at both venues provided the city a truly unique weekend. Tom Petty had a huge national following; I talked to people from Canada, Montana, California and the U.K. who had come for the party, and nobody was disappointed. They claim they’re bringing their friends next year, so we suspect it will only get better.