Today we celebrate the birth of one of the most significant American-born rock 'n' roll artists of all time, Tom Petty. The term artist gets attached to musicians in the same way that you're forced to call a burger from McDonald's "food." However, Tom Petty has demonstrated over the course of a career spanning nearly 40 years what that term should truly entail.
Petty finds himself breathing some remarkably rare air these days. He still writes his own albums, still tours behind those albums heavily, hosts one of the best radio programs on the satellite airwaves, and manages to do all of these things at age 61 better than most "artists" perform at their peak. For more than 35 years, the man has led the Heartbreakers to unprecedented levels of commercial success via albums of bullshit-free, perfectly crafted songs, and he's done it all without selling (or renting) his soul for even a minute.
It's easy to wax poetic about anyone with a career as long and prolific as Petty's, but the influence his music exerts is sometimes overlooked and possibly even taken for granted. Although pretty much everyone loves a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song, not everyone pays attention to the fact that Tom's music is the direct link to anyone with the nerve to call what he does alternative country music. While we may come under fire from the genre police and their shouts of "Gram Parsons," TP was the quintessential Southern-tinged rocker who sounded American without sounding like a redneck.
When you look at the artists who have smiled upon Tom, you find a list of Goliath names including Cash, Dylan, and Harrison who have allowed him access into their increasingly small club. It is impossible to ignore how special an artist must be to be revered by his own heroes as much as he is by his fans, but as a member of the Traveling Wilburys, Tom was brought under the wings of the people he spent his youth obsessing over.
Although the airtight discography Tom has contributed would be enough for most people, he has accomplished a great deal more than write the massive catalog of timeless songs we all know and love. Petty has fought the music industry on several occasions in the name of the fan to keep record prices low and essentially invented the theatrical music-video format, now so unceremoniously molested by hip-hop artists, with his early MTV material. Most remarkably, he has done it all while remaining humble and undeniably cool.
It's difficult to do justice to the career and life of a guy like Petty in our standard format, and rather than insult his legacy with a blurb, we recommend checking out Peter Bogdanovich's documentary Runnin' Down a Dream. The four-hour film features band-filmed footage stemming as far back as Tom's earliest musical groups all the way up to the Heartbreakers' 30th-anniversary concert in Gainesville and covers Tom's life from his chance meeting with Elvis as a child to his recent tours and everything in between. In our opinion, this is the documentary to judge all other music docs by. It sheds some light on a man we have come to know as "an institution."
Here is a sample of Tom's most recent release, Mojo, just to verify that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers still rock without a net and harder than most bands half their age. Be sure to keep an eye out for the limited vinyl the Heartbreakers are releasing next month as part of Back to Black Friday Record Store Day. Happy birthday, Tom!