The first question any worthy Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fan may ask about the new release, Mudcrutch 2—as well as the first 2007 eponymous album—is why have this side project for an artist and a band with little to prove?
Isn’t listening to any musical project by the stringy blond-haired veteran rocker, who carries his own distinct Dylan-meets-Jagger drawl, the same as hearing something new by Petty and his familiar crew? After all, along with Petty, the band also includes Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench on guitar and keyboard respectively—both Heartbreakers from the beginning. So, what’s the difference?
The answer is clear with one listen to the new album. Most important, from this writer-fan’s perspective, the difference is freedom to explore, renew, and break new musical ground. Petty, whenever he lets go of his Heartbreaker front-man status, is able to relax in ways that allows for an infectious creative energy.
This freedom held true during the singer’s days with the Traveling Wilburys in the late ’80s when he was able to shed his rock-icon persona and join with mates Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, and Jim Keltner, in some plain rock ‘n’ roll fun. It was in the clever disguise as a Wilbury that he was able to release a comic and impulsive side in his music. The results revealed another side of Tom Petty.
Mudcrutch, however, is much more than a side project. Like the Wilburys, it is Tom Petty’s opportunity to remove himself from the rock-idol spotlight and, along with it, the considerable expectations that follow. But, unlike the humorous role-playing comradery of the Wilburys, Mudcrutch is rooted in the reality of the Heartbreaker’s past, a prequel to their success. The band is a realization of an unfulfilled dream for at least two of Tom Petty’s friends from the original line-up of Mudcrutch.
Formed in 1970 by musical partners Petty and Tom Leadon, in Gainesville, Florida, the band served as a local bar band with an edge that included a growing distinction in style and original songs. They were the perfect roadhouse rock band for the sub-tropical Florida college town.
In 1974, the band signed with Leon Russell’s Shelter Records and moved to Los Angeles. They released a single called “Depot Street,” in 1975. The band recorded in Russell’s Tulsa Studio and in his home in Encino, California, releasing two singles. Both failed to chart. After the label folded in late 1975, the band broke up. There were personnel changes as Petty, Campbell, and Tench would soon reunite to form the Heartbreakers, along with other Gainesville friends Stan Lynch and Ron Blair.
The rest is rock ‘n’ roll history, including million-selling albums and tours featuring collaborations with Johnny Cash, Stevie Nicks, and Bob Dylan in 1987 on the now-historic world tour. After helping to mold and define rock ‘n’ roll at the end of the 20th Century, the band was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. Petty and the Heartbreakers would continue one of the most successful runs in rock music history well into the next century.
The problem with this kind of success is expectation, and pressures have a way of dampening the creative drive. This explains Petty’s 1988 solo album, which includes the classics, “Free Fallin’” and “I Won’t Back Down.” Along with his second solo album, Wildflowers, working as a solo artist brought him a freedom that provided new inspiration. The same was true of his adventures with the Traveling Wilburys.
When it came to the reformation of Mudcrutch, it brought with it a new sense of artistic energy. One of Petty’s finest qualities as an artist has always been his ability to follow his instincts without compromise. Whatever instinct drew him to his old bandmates was a good one. Rejoining forces with original Mudcrutch members, guitarist and songwriter Tom Leadon and drummer Randell Marsh, in 2007, allowed Petty a new burst of creative drive, which, on the first 2008 album, seemed to outpace the Heartbreakers. According to Tom Leadon in a 2008 Rolling Stone interview, “We would play and then we would just talk about the old days.” But, what had started with talk about the glory days quickly became 14 new original songs. The album ranged from pure Tom Petty friendly songs like, “Scare Easy” to the band-driven epic country-psychedelic song “Crystal River.” The band went into the studio with the intention of capturing a live feel for all of the newly written songs. According to Petty in a Rolling Stone interview from July 2015, “We were under the gun because there was a big Heartbreakers tour coming up not long after that, so we didn’t have a lot of time. We recorded the album in ten days.”
The new album simply titled Mudcrutch 2 is an extension of the first sessions, with the songs running deeper and with a wider range than the debut album. The description in AllMusic says: “Mudcrutch doesn’t play rock ‘n’ roll; they play rock ‘n’ ramble.” There’s some truth to this statement. They are like the finest roadhouse band, seasoned by years of psychedelia, country, rock, and soul, honed in local Florida bars and garages, and grown and refined in rock arenas by three of its members. Coming together again, they have made glorious music. It is filled with soaring guitars, extended solos, relaxed vocals, imaginative lyrics, and a slow ramble that builds each song into something unique and real. They carry a creative edge that sometimes is lacking in more recent Heartbreaker recordings. Once again, as in 2008, Mudcrutch has come close to besting the band they evolved into.
While there is more polish, depth, and scope to Mudcrutch 2 than its predecessor, the good news is it retains the same raw, live-in-the-studio feel. There is a fearless desire to extend these songs into something that shatters genre boundaries and traditions. The album takes flight from the first track and never lands until the final note of the last song.
Petty’s own contributions are as distinctive as ever, but they have a feel as if they could be outtakes from his days with the Wilburys or one of his solo albums. The current single, “Trailer,” won’t disappoint fans of the Heartbreakers or the Wilburys. Opening with familiar Tom Petty’s signature vocal style, he kicks off the album with engaging lyrics about heartbreak life in a trailer park.
The album really heats things up with his dynamic—and most likely next classic song, “Welcome to Hell.” It may be his first attempt at pure rockabilly with an arrangement and studio session that would make Jerry Lee Lewis envious, as he sings with the slightest Sam Phillips slap back, “Welcome to Hell, Population Me.” Many of the songs, like “Dreams of Flying,” “Beautiful Blue,” and “Hope,” return the band to the first album’s often elegant psychedelia. They could have provided rock anthems during the late ’60s. But, the trick here with Mudcrutch, and what has made them so successful as a band, is the lack of dating or nostalgia present on both albums. There is a feeling of something brand new with an extension of a bygone era, brought to the present with a strong sense of urgency and importance. The music of Mudcrutch is about now with no sense of looking back or ’60s throw-back.
For Petty, it’s been a clear path to his own necessary creativity. He has found new life in this band from his youth. As he says in a 2015 interview, “Playing the bass is so much fun for me because I started out as a bassist. I did that until the Heartbreakers formed, so being back in that position and playing with Randall is just so much fun. I love playing with him. He’s such a good drummer, and he’s a drummer that plays to the vocal rather than being hung up on the bass and stuff. And Tommy’s out of sight on the guitar. We spent our teenager years singing together, so we have a good blend.”
While in the end, Petty is content with his Heartbreakers, his interlude with his old friends has provided him the kind of creative juice that helps to keep his primary band strong. There is still plenty of road ahead for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. But, in bringing Mudcrutch back to life he has helped fulfill forgotten dreams for his friends and for Petty himself, while bringing fans and friends to new rock ‘n’ ramble heights.
Thursday, June 30, 8pm, Humphrey’s by the Bay, 2241 Shelter Island Drive.