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Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Greatest American rock band ever? Let's make the case

Tom Petty is an icon, a Hall of Famer, one of the all-time great rock songsmiths. His Heartbreakers have mostly been with him since Day 1 back in Gainesville. Together they’ve produced several careers’ worth of epic American rock songs, a body of work few can match.
Tom Petty is an icon, a Hall of Famer, one of the all-time great rock songsmiths. His Heartbreakers have mostly been with him since Day 1 back in Gainesville. Together they’ve produced several careers’ worth of epic American rock songs, a body of work few can match.
Published Apr. 26, 2017

Florida can't lay claim to many cultural superlatives.

There's the Magic Kingdom, of course, "the most magical place on earth." Four times this century, patches of Sunshine State sand have been named the best beach in America. We have the world's largest chicken wing (Madeira Beach), the world's smallest post office (Ochopee) and the world's first Burger King (Jacksonville), which makes Florida the actual, real-life home of the Whopper.

But it's time we add another best-in-class to that list. It's time we start claiming ownership of the greatest American rock band of all time: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Heresy, you say? What about the Grateful Dead and Eagles, Van Halen and the Beach Boys, R.E.M. and Nirvana and Metallica and the Ramones?

Yeah, yeah, everyone's got an argument. So do Petty and the 'Breakers — that's the point. And if they're in the discussion, if there is an argument to be made, then let me be the one to make it.

The time is right for a Heartbreakers reappraisal. The group just launched a tour marking the 40th anniversary, give or take, of their self-titled debut, the one that spawned hits American Girl and Breakdown; it stops next week at Amalie Arena in Tampa, a two-hour trip south of Gainesville. They just dropped two career-spanning box sets featuring all 16 of Petty's Heartbreakers and solo records. In February, Petty was named the Grammys' MusiCares Person of the Year, a top industry honor, receiving tribute performances from acts like Don Henley, George Strait and the Foo Fighters.

Petty's an icon, a Hall of Famer, one of the all-time great rock songsmiths. His Heartbreakers have mostly been with him since Day 1 back in Gainesville. Together they've produced several careers' worth of epic American rock songs, a body of work few can match.

So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, damn the torpedoes, and let's break it down. Let's make a case for this band of Floridian misfits as the greatest rock band this land ever saw.

The band

It's important we first talk about the Heartbreakers as a collective, rather than a backing band. Like the E Street Band or the Revolution, they're a group you'd pay cash to see even without their singular frontman.

"That whole band is incredible songwriters," said Paul Janeway, singer for St. Paul and the Broken Bones. "There's so many bands I know that want to be Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — that's their goal."

Just the sound alone: There is no mistaking the motorcycle-engine guitars of the Heartbreakers' other resident genius, Mike Campbell, a co-writer on many hits by Petty and others; or the smoky, Stax-inspired soul of keyboardist Benmont Tench. Both have been with Petty since their pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch, even lending their signature sound to Petty's solo records, including 1994's Wildflowers.

"Wildflowers is one of the records that changed the way we made records," Needtobreathe singer Bear Rinehart said. "It was one of the records that we used as a measuring stick in the studio. Anytime we were making records, especially early on, we would put that up and say, 'This is what a rock record should sound like.' Great songs. It just sounded like a band in a room."

Bassist Ron Blair was also there in the beginning, though he left for two decades before returning in 2002. Even the newbies in the group, drummer Steve Ferrone and multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston, have been with Petty since the early '90s.

Petty's loyal to his players because he knows he won't find anyone better. Every Heartbreaker is in demand as a session man and songwriter, and their bona fides are endless. Campbell co-wrote Henley's The Boys of Summer and The Heart of the Matter. Tench played on Johnny Cash's Hurt and Alanis Morrissette's You Oughta Know, among countless others. Ferrone's played with Eric Clapton and Duran Duran, Thurston with Bonnie Raitt and Iggy Pop, Blair with Stevie Nicks. Even the only two men who can call themselves ex-Heartbreakers, Stan Lynch and the late Howie Epstein, worked with Ringo Starr, Aretha Franklin and the Eagles. And let's not forget, in 1986 and 1987, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — the entire group — toured as the backing band for Bob Dylan.

Other great American bands have killer side credits, too. But this good? For this long? And with so little intraband turnover?

And we haven't even gotten to the singer.

The man

Skinny kid, big teeth, hair all stringy and shiny. Sang a little like Dylan, not entirely a compliment.

"He's not Otis Redding, as far as a singer," Janeway said.

But the underdog look always suited Petty well. He had the aura of an outsider, a demeanor that said he'd tell it like it was because lying wouldn't get him where he was going any faster. He sang of American girls raised on promises; girls who grew up tall and grew up right; girls who loved Elvis, horses and their boyfriends, too. He sang about rebels, refugees and losers who sometimes get lucky — the kind of characters that populate every American dream.

"Every time he sings," said country singer Eric Paslay, "it's like he's just talking to you."

Petty took the searing Southern kerosene of fellow north Floridians Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band; blended it with the country-rock leanings of his fellow Gainesvillians Don Felder, Bernie Leadon and Stephen Stills; and packed it all into three-minute parcels of Byrds- and Beatles-like efficiency.

There's a reason Petty joined the Traveling Wilburys alongside the likes of Dylan, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne — merely a decade into his career, he already had the respect of the greatest songwriters alive.

"His craftsmanship of songs is, I think, the starting place," said Matt Shultz, singer of Cage the Elephant. "He has his own voice, his own sound, completely. He was very much of a particular time, but the thing that's crazy about him is he transcended that time period, and has been able to write incredible songs throughout his life."

Sam Smith can tell you a thing or two about the timelessness of Petty's songwriting. In 2015, the English pop singer agreed to share credit for his Grammy-winning hit Stay With Me with Petty over its similarity to I Won't Back Down. "These things happen," Petty shrugged at the time.

Smith isn't the only pop singer who can't shake the melodies Petty has produced.

"Free Fallin', Tom Petty — I remember hearing that, and probably at the time, I didn't think, 'Yeah, that's going to last forever,'" said another Brit, Rick Astley. "There's just something in it, though — a melodic change over the chords, whatever it is, I don't know. But you just go, 'Yeah, I get it. It might not be my favorite record, but I get that. We're going to hear that forever.'"

In his elder years, Petty exudes a wizardly aura, a laid-back mysticism that endears him to younger fans. He's headlined Bonnaroo and halftime of the Super Bowl, and his songs are staples in movies and at karaoke. When Shultz, 33, got to play with Petty at the MusiCares event in February, he was awestruck.

"I do actually consider him as on the level of a Bob Dylan, or anyone like that," Shultz said.

And still …

"If he could possibly be underrated," Rinehart said, "I think he still is."

Well, no longer.

The verdict

The case for the Heartbreakers as America's greatest rock band is strong: longevity, consistency, popularity, timelessness and total respect from peers, elders and younger acts alike.

Still, it never hurts to thin out the competition.

Let's eliminate bands with enormous peaks who ended too soon — say, the Doors, Nirvana and Talking Heads. Same with influential acts who never achieved blockbuster fame, like the Pixies and Replacements.

Let us also scratch bands whose shifty lineups muddy what to make of their legacies, a long list that includes the Beach Boys, Kiss, Guns N' Roses, the Allman Brothers Band, Van Halen, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Ramones. Pearl Jam's revolving door of drummers and Metallica's roster of bassists probably put them here, too.

If you ever took an extended hiatus, sorry, but the Heartbreakers never did. That hurts the Eagles and the E Street Band. And cruel though it may seem, if we're talking American bands, we should nix acts with significant foreign-born membership, like the Band, Fleetwood Mac, the Velvet Underground and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

R.E.M.? Too divisive, and for too long a niche act. Aerosmith? Erratic and inconsistent. Green Day? Plenty of detractors in the punk world. The Grateful Dead? You either drank the electric Kool-Aid or you didn't.

I know, I know, I'm cherry-picking. That's what makes the argument fun. Try it out in a bar sometime if you don't believe me.

Point is, more Floridians should wave the flag and argue the virtues of our greatest musical export. We have to sleep with the daily shame of knowing we gave the world Creed and Limp Bizkit. We should hold our heads high that we also spawned Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

The greatest American band that ever lived.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.