While rummaging through my car last week, I happened to dredge up Tom Petty’s anthology CD from my glove box. I smiled when I found it. He was my ultimate road-trip companion, and I hadn’t heard his songs in a while. By happenstance, that same evening, a friend asked me about Tom Petty’s greatest song. We ended up debating this topic over beers, listening to a handful of singles, and arguing about his best album. By the end of the conversation, I think we settled on “American Girl.”
When I heard the news of his passing on Monday, I was gutted. It seems too soon.
Tom Petty, with a good-ol’-boy twang in his voice, a sly smile, and catchy guitar riffs, captured the American spirit in the form of rock ’n’ roll. Much like a Norman Rockwell painting, a fresh slice of apple pie, or a hot dog on opening day, there is something quintessentially American about Tom Petty.
Unlike other American acts, whose music is tied to a genre or region, Tom Petty’s down-home-roots sound seems to transcend location and time. The East Coast has Springsteen. The Allman Brothers Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Lynyrd Skynyrd each sound distinctively Southern, but Tom Petty — despite hailing from Gainesville, Florida — is Americana at its best.
He sounds like a bonfire and beers with friends on a Friday night. He sounds like a road trip across country with someone you love. He sounds like a tailgate, a baseball game, or finally working up the courage to tell your girlfriend you love her. He was a champion of the underdogs, of the “losers,” of the people unafraid to chase their American dreams. He sang about Jesus, Elvis, and freedom.
Tom Petty’s loss is personal, not only because his legacy is linked to the American experience, but because Petty supplied the soundtrack to our best memories. While he may not have been personally present in your life, he was through his music. It doesn’t matter if you are 18 or 55, at some point in your life you’ve probably screamed the lyrics to “Free Falling” surrounded by friends, laughing together as you yelled the chorus. If you’re from Indiana, you probably take a certain pride in “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and feel the need to turn the volume up when Petty mentions those Indiana boys on an Indiana night. And “Here Comes My Girl” makes everyone feel at least a little in love.
His music perfectly captures what it feels like being a teenager who’s just trying to figure it all out. He was able to get at the heart of what people feel and make it accessible with rock ’n’ roll. His lyrics were simple. His songs were simple. He never pretended to be something or someone more than he was. He wasn’t a flashy stage presence, but through his simplicity, he was able to solidify those feelings that are hard to express.
Tom Petty, aside from being an amazing talent, was a humble man. While other rock stars swirled within gossip columns and capitalized on the sordid details of their lives, Petty kept his focus on his work and away from the buzz of Hollywood. Petty was so aloof about his own success, it’s almost hard to realize just how relevant he remained throughout the years.
Between his solo work and his collaborative ventures, Petty was responsible for 19 studio albums. Out of the 68 singles he released, Petty racked up 28 top-ten hits — more than any other act since the chart’s history, according to Billboard. He died shortly after completing his 40th reunion tour. His last album, “Hypnotic Eye,” was critically acclaimed and still had that Tom Petty sound. He dedicated his life to making good music. And while Petty may have preferred to go unnoticed, his legacy and prolific accomplishments will be remembered and revered.
And like the American spirit, Tom Petty’s music endures and continues to move younger generations. Teenagers and adults, no matter when or where they grew up, will always experience the same emotions Petty sings about in his songs. Hopefully, like so many generations before them, they will seek his music as a source of comfort and motivation in years to come.