A Heartfelt Heartbreakers Homage: ‘Petty Country (A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty)’ Hits Home

Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty
Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty

Christine's Take

10 Music Quality
9 Sonic Diversity
8 Content Originality
10 Lyricism
8 Production
9 Memorability
8 Arrangement
Seven years after Tom Petty’s untimely passing at age 66, the country music world has produced a very special tribute album to the rock legend, aptly titled ‘Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty’ and featuring a parade of modern and classic country stars – including (but not limited to) Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Lady A, Chris Stapleton, Thomas Rhett, Dierks Bentley, and many more.
Trailer: ‘Petty Country (A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty)’

There was a time in my young life when the jangly, blues-rock opening chords of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” followed me around everywhere, and I mean everywhere.

In the car, on my clock-radio alarm set to the pop station, on my high-speed dubbing-enabled, double-cassette player boombox, even in the mall food court (malls, remember them?). It was so pervasive that I almost got tired of it. Almost.

The vernacular of Tom Petty stretches over a time period connecting classic and contemporary rock, appealing widely across generations, including preteen me and my Boomer dad. That fact alone shows that simple, authentic, masterful songwriting transcends time. And, wouldn’t you know it, it transcends genre, too.

Seven years after the rock legend’s untimely passing at age 66, the country music world has produced a very special tribute album, aptly titled Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty. This parade of modern and classic country stars, including Chris Stapleton, Lady A, Willie Nelson, Rhiannon Giddens and Dolly Parton, truly understand what an effect this man had on the genre.

Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty
Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty

Petty’s upbringing in Gainesville, Florida and early influence by Hank Williams and George Jones led to the sound sometimes dubbed “heartland rock,” blending the blues-rock-country continuum with American working-class life. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that his songs translate so well to a country compilation. Still, several of these renditions are simply breathtaking.

Any covers album that opens with Chris Stapleton is quite alright with me, and this choice of “I Should Have Known It” is the obvious one for our gritty power-blues singer and guitarist, who renders it grittier and bluesier to blissful effect. Then Thomas Rhett pulls a 180 and turns the beautiful “Wildflowers” into a sweet bluegrass tune with close harmonies, traditional fiddle and mandolin riffs, followed by golden boy Luke Combs lending his warm tenor to “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” a delightfully and unusually uptempo tune for the vocalist.

There couldn’t be a Petty Country album without “Southern Accents,” and dare I say that Miss Dolly Parton’s version here outdoes the original. Sung from a female perspective, the cover brings that Dolly wisdom, that turn of phrase that you can picture her delivering with a knowing wink, that turns it into the tear-jerking ballad of the album.

There’s a southern accent, where I come from
The young ‘uns call it country
The Yankees call it dumb
I got my own way of talkin’
But everything is done, with a southern accent
Where I come from
Now that drunk tank in Atlanta’s
Just a motel room to me
Think I might go work Orlando
If them orange groves don’t freeze
I got my own way of workin’
But everything is run, with a southern accent
Where I come from
For just a minute there I was dreaming
For just a minute it was all so real
For just a minute she was standing there, with me

Justin Moore then gives us a fine, euphoric “Here Comes My Girl,” followed by Dierks Bentley’s faithful cover of “American Girl.” We can slip past these, though, to Lady A’s arresting version of Petty’s collaboration with Stevie Nicks, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.”  Hillary Scott’s raspy alto does the job and does it well, a hard job at that, to hold a candle to the inimitable Nicks. This trio’s tight harmonies really resonate on the chorus, with that no-lead-singer quality where you know they’re really locked in.

“I Forgive It All” is a gem from the reunited Mudcrutch, the band that existed from 1970-74, birthed Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and reunited in 2016 to release an album. Jamey Johnson’s version here is lovelier, less heartrending and more hopeful than the original, which was so depressive that it featured a Sean Penn-directed video starring an elderly, bitterly alone Anthony Hopkins regretting his life. No shade to that poignant original – this one just makes you happier.

Tom Petty memorial © The Country Music Hall of Fame
Tom Petty memorial © The Country Music Hall of Fame

A lineup of young artists then make up the middle of the album, doing fair justice to some of Petty’s biggest hits: “I Won’t Back Down” by Brothers Osborne, “Learning to Fly” by Eli Young Band, “Free Fallin’” by The Cadillac Three, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” by Midland. “Breakdown” by songwriter Ryan Hurd and Carly Pearce stands out here as the most soulful of the bunch – Hurd’s voice gets at that distinctive Petty whine, yet blends with Pearce’s in a refreshingly unadorned rendition of this classic.

It’s the legends, though, who shine. Dolly’s in good company with Wynonna Judd, who teams up with Lainey Wilson for “Refugee.” When Judd sings that quintessential line, “Somehow, somewhere, somebody must have kicked you around some,” it sounds written expressly for a country song.

Angel Dream (No. 2)” is another such stunner. Let it be said for probably the millionth time that Willie Nelson knows no age, his honey vocals, as ever, alive with introspection and feeling on this duet with his son Lukas. A beautiful addition is Lukas’ countermelody on a warm guitar, giving dimension throughout.

I dreamed of you, I saw your face
Cut my lifeline when drifting through space
I saw an angel, I saw my fate
I can only thank God it was not too late
Over mountains, I floated away
Across an ocean, I dreamed her name
I followed an angel down through the gates
I can only thank God it was not too late
Sing a little song of loneliness
Sing one to make me smile
Another round for everyone
I’m here for a little while
Now I’m walking this street on my own
But she’s with me everywhere I go
Yeah, I found an angel, I found my place
I can only thank God it was not too late…

The album rounds out with several versions I find too close to the originals – yes, the originals were great, but a good cover makes you stop what you’re doing to listen more closely and say “oh, I like that,” that being something different and welcome. “Yer So Bad” by Steve Earle and “I Need to Know” by Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives don’t give much to notice and therefore fall a tad short; and c’mon, George Strait, could you have done a studio take of “You Wreck Me” instead of phoning in a live version?

The real album closer is the showstopper “Don’t Come Around Here No More” by the unrivaled Rhiannon Giddens, a collaboration with international touring group Silkroad Ensemble and the Heartbreakers’ own Benmont Tench. None of Giddens’ music falls into less than half a dozen genres, and this tribute is no exception.

We get what sounds like a panpipe intro with eclectic percussion, followed by Giddens’ deep, controlled vocal, which remains beautifully restrained as the instrumental cellos, pianos, mandolins and banjos parade through this layered arrangement. I’ve never heard the lyrics as poignantly as in this version, especially: “I don’t feel you anymore / You darken my door / Whatever you’re looking for / Hey, don’t come around here no more.” This is one you’ll play on repeat.

Overall, I would have liked to see a bit more creativity from a few of the artists who stuck so closely to the originals that you sort of wonder, what’s the point? But if you’re a Tom Petty fan and even remotely warm toward Americana music, you’ll enjoy this heartfelt Heartbreakers tribute, a testament that genuine, skillful songwriting transcends eras and genres, just like Petty himself.

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:: stream/purchase Petty Country here ::
:: more Tom Petty here ::

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Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty

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