MANCHESTER, TN - JUNE 16: Tom Petty of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performs onstage at What Stage during day 4 of the 2013 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival on June 16, 2013 in Manchester, Tennessee.

A couple of months ago, when the Tom Petty tribute album, Petty Country, was announced, the first thing I thought of was that Petty wasn’t a big fan of modern country music. In 2013, he famously said from the stage in New York that he thought that modern country music was “bad rock with fiddle.” 

When asked about the comment in Rolling Stone, Petty – who was not a guy who spent much time listening to current music in any genre – elaborated, ”It does seem to be missing that magic element that it used to have. I’m sure there are people playing country that are doing it well, but they’re just not getting the attention that the s—ier stuff gets.” He admitted, “I don’t want to rail on about country because I don’t really know much about it.”

Of course, the quote traveled quickly. Chris Stapleton – who was a songwriter for other artists at the time and was still over a year away from releasing his solo debut, Traveller – responded publicly. He addressed Petty on his Facebook page (in a post that has since been taken down), “I think it’s safe to say most modern country artists, including me, would list you as an influence. Your recent comments lead me to believe you see room for improvement in modern country music. I, for one, would like to see you put your money where your mouth is in a tangible way. So, in the interest of making Country music less ‘s–tty’ (your words), I suggest a collaboration. I’m extending an open invitation to you to write songs with me, produce recordings on or with me, or otherwise participate in whatever way you see fit in my little corner of music. In the event that you actually read this and are interested, look me up.”

Sadly, that collaboration never happened. But Petty and his Heartbreakers warmed to Stapleton. Stapleton opened for Petty at three shows in the summer of 2017, not long before Petty’s passing. Petty’s right-hand man, Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, co-wrote “Arkansas” from Stapleton’s 2020 album Starting Over, and both Campbell and Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench played on a number of tracks on the album. Stapleton returned the favor, contributing vocals to Campbell’s band, the Dirty Knobs, on their 2020 debut album, Wreckless Abandon

Of course, everyone wants to work with Stapleton; we’ve seen him collaborating with artists from every genre at pretty much every award show. But what about other country artists? I interviewed Charles Kelley of Lady A in 2016 for his solo album The Driver, which had a cover of Petty’s “Southern Accents.” He laughed when I asked him about Petty’s comments and noted that it doesn’t matter what Petty thinks. He loves Petty’s music, and that’s all that matters. It also helped that Petty’s friend and collaborator Stevie Nicks sang backing vocals on Kelley’s cover. 

I thought he had the right attitude. Anyway, Petty was pretty dismissive of most music that came out after the late ‘70s, as far as I could tell. I was fortunate enough to interview Tom in 2002 for his excellent The Last DJ album, and that was the impression that I got when discussing any semi-recent music. That isn’t uncommon among legends who are decades into their career.

It reminded me of when, in 1994, Bono presented an award to Frank Sinatra. Bono referenced this tension. “Frank never did like rock and roll. He’s not crazy about guys wearing earrings either, but he doesn’t hold it against me and, anyway, the feeling is not mutual.”

He continued, “Rock and roll people love Frank Sinatra because Frank Sinatra’s got what we want: swagger and attitude. He’s big on attitude, serious attitude, bad attitude.” The same could be said for Petty. Additionally, Petty’s entire discography rings with truth. You believe him when he sang these songs. He’s one of the greatest songwriters in American popular music. Songcraft is something that country music (and rock and roll) has always prioritized. 

It makes total sense that country artists – both mainstream and otherwise – revere Petty’s songwriting. Like most tribute albums, Petty Country is a fun listen but a mixed bag. Here are some of the best moments on the album. 

  • Chris Stapleton - "I Should Have Known It"

    There are a lot of obvious songs from the Petty catalog to choose from on a record like this. “I Should Have Known It,” from 2010’s Mojo, isn’t one of them. Like a lot of legendary artists with careers that span decades, their albums from their later years can get overlooked, and that’s a shame in Petty’s case. Credit to Stapleton for going with this gem: he’s the perfect guy to take this heavy blues rocker out for a new spin.

  • Dolly Parton - "Southern Accents"

    The title track from Petty’s 1985 album could have been written by a country artist. “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.” Dolly sings this perfectly. Like Petty, Dolly is an American treasure who has performed to arenas all over the world, but remains proud of her southern roots. 

  • Jamey Johnson - "I Forgive It All"

    Johnson was, at one point, one of country music’s most exciting and interesting new artists. He hasn’t released an album of new material since 2010’s The Guitar Song, resurfacing in 2012 to put out a Hank Cochran song and in 2014 for an EP of Christmas covers. His cover here of “I Forgive It All” is stunningly beautiful. You may not be familiar with the original. It’s from Tom’s other band, Mudcrutch. Mudcrutch was the band that Petty, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench were in before Petty started the Heartbreakers. The band reunited for their debut album in 2008. In 2016, they followed up with 2, which turned out to be Petty’s final record. In retrospect, “I Forgive It All,” as a centerpiece to his last effort, is haunting. 

  • Brothers Osborne - "I Won't Back Down"

    To be fair, this is one of Tom’s biggest hits and one of the most fun songs to sing along to. And now Brothers Osborne fans should request it, “Freebird”-style, at every show they do for the rest of their careers.

  • Willie Nelson and Lukas Nelson - "Angel Dream (No. 2)"

    Another somewhat deep cut. It’s originally from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1996’s Songs and Music from ‘She’s The One,’ which itself was made up of songs that didn’t make it to 1994’s Wildflowers. But it’s a lovely song, and hearing 91-year-old Willie singing, “Sing a little song of loneliness/Sing one to make me smile/Another round for everyone/I’m here for a little while” hits differently than when Tom sang it in his 40s. 

  • Margo Price featuring Mike Campbell - "Ways To Be Wicked"

    This is a really deep cut. Written by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell for the Americana band Lone Justice, they later did their own version that surfaced on the 1996 box set, Playback. It’s a shame that this song hasn’t gotten more love, but credit to Price for giving it a new life. 

  • Wynonna and Lainey Wilson - "Refugee"

    Petty may have sung about southern accents, but he didn’t sing with one. So it’s fun to hear Wynonna and Lainey bring a real twang to one of Petty’s most rocking songs. The two are from different generations but have obvious respect and love for each other. Hopefully, this is the first of many collaborations between the two powerhouse singers. 

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