Before the Heartbreakers, the hits, the hall of fame, there was Mudcrutch, Tom Petty's first band, a gritty Gainesville quintet playing blue collar joints for folks too besotted to remember. They formed in 1970, but the house band at Dub's was kaput by '75. For some members, obscurity; for others, American Girl.
For 30-plus years, Mudcrutch remained a footnote, an answer to a trivia question. But a funny thing happened when Tom Petty turned 57. With modern life hitting him hard, he became wistful for the good ol' days and decided to get the jammy, twangy Mudcrutch back together. Two of the guys weren't hard to find: guitarist Mike Campbell and organist Benmont Tench are solid-gold Heartbreakers. The others, guitarist-vocalist Tom Leadon and drummer Randall Marsh, were dusted off and given plenty to do.
Just like way back when, Petty is once again the band's bassist, trading in his trusty geetar for some hopalong grooves. He writes eight out of 14 songs, and takes the lead vocal on all but a few. (Tench does a great impression of his boss on This Is a Good Street, and Leadon, sounding just like Glenn Frey, steals the mike on Queen of the Go-Go Girls.)
But for all TP's star power, this is very much a group effort, the Wilburys meet the Byrds meet Pure Prairie League. Petty shares singing duties with Leadon on the opening song, traditional dustup Shady Grove, which sounds like Rawhide with a hint of menace. The nine-minute Crystal River is a sprawling stoner special, with Tench, Leadon and Campbell hogging the spotlight. June Apple is a crunchy instrumental. And on the chuggy Bootleg Flyer, the band sounds as if it never left University Avenue, the tight grooves as vital as anything Petty's day job has produced in years.
You can call Mudcrutch a one-off, a side project, a whim. But the truth is that Petty — his cracked-leather vocal, his amblin' phrasing, his easy-come songwriting — has never sounded so relaxed, so loose, so natural. The band might as well be called Rosebud. "I've been running like a man possessed," he sings on first single Scare Easy, and you can't help but think this is the cheapest shrink session he has ever had. With its lazy-river flow and Grateful Dead vibe, Orphan of the Storm is all about salvation. "I'm not the kind that gives up," Petty sings with all the nasally edge he can muster. "But I'm so tired of rain."
Mudcrutch, both as a band and an idea, is all about letting go of ego, achieving equilibrium. For the communal vibe, look at the credits, where Campbell is credited as "lead guitar (right speaker)," Leadon "lead guitar (left speaker)." Petty's face doesn't even appear on the album cover; instead it is a faceless man painted in a rainbow of colors. If that's not good for sales, these guys really don't care. As it explains in the liner notes: Drums, wires, old friends, etc. Recorded live, vocals, harmony, everything. Arrangements done on studio floor, made in 10 days, no headphones. . . . A lot of love.
The Mudcrutch crew just wanted to have some fun, tell some stories, tie up loose ends. They wanted to feel good again, young again, fickle music biz be damned. Mission accomplished — and then some. On a downright life-affirming cover of Six Days on the Road, the most rollicking song on one of the most surprising albums of the year, the typically sour-faced Petty confirms the joy.
"If you think I'm happy," he sings with a smile, "you're right."
Sean Daly can be reached at (727) 893-8467 or firstname.lastname@example.org. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.