Sunday, July 14, 2024

Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton Sing for Tom Petty

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When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell heard about plans for country greats like Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Chris Stapleton, and Dierks Bentley to honor the band’s music on the covers collection Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty, he felt it made perfect sense, even though they were a rock band at their core.

“We all grew up in the South and were seeped in the music of Hank Williams and George Jones that we heard on the radio,” he tells RS. “We all loved the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Byrds when they went country [on Sweetheart of the Rodeo]. We listened to a lot of country, and some of it seeped into our consciousness.”

That explains why they were a natural choice to back Johnny Cash on his 1994 comeback LP American Recordings, and why Kenny Chesney has been sprinkling songs like “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “Free Fallin’,” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” into his live set for well over a decade. But the idea for Petty Country — which landed in stores this week — didn’t start percolating until 2018 when the posthumous Petty compilation An American Treasure was assembled from lesser-known songs in his vast catalog.

“Everyone realized he was just this great songwriter after putting that together,” says longtime Petty producer George Drakoulias, who curated Petty Country along with Randall Poster. “We wanted to celebrate him as a writer, and we knew he loved how the Nashville community and their commitment to the craft of songwriting.”

They sent out feelers to artists from all across the world of country music, starting with two absolute titans: Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. Once they were both onboard, getting others wasn’t much of a problem. “It wasn’t like we were starting with Joe Six Pack,” says Drakoulias. “Having Willie and Dolly made people stand up and pay attention.”

Before long, they also had commitments from Luke Combs, Thomas Rhett, Brothers Osborne, Steve Earle, and many others. They worked mostly at studios around Nashville, largely during Covid. “We kept getting these fantastic mixes sent to us,” says Drakoulias. “I wish I could have been at the sessions, but it was hard since everything was locked down.”

Perhaps the most stunning song was Parton’s rendition of “Southern Accents.” “When Tom recorded that song, he used a defiant growl of sorts,” says Drakoulias. “He was standing up for the South, and he was very emotional since he wrote it right after his mother died. Dolly’s take is more genteel, more about the magnolia trees, and she just crushes the vocal.”

“You could tell she was moved by it,” adds Campbell. “She really put her soul into it. God bless her.” (She also added a new lyrics coda: “Yes I’m proud of who I am/A Southern girl from a Southern town/I ain’t ashamed/I ain’t ashamed/I ain’t ashamed/No, I ain’t.”)

Earle opted for “Yer So Bad” from Full Moon Fever. “What he did was fantastic,” says Drakoulias. “Like a lot of people, he brought the front porch, hoedown-y thing. You’re hearing things like banjos and fiddles. He added a train beat to it that moved the song along differently. It gave Steve more latitude to come in and out with his vocal phrasing.”

Rhiannon Giddens stripped away all of the synth-pop elements of “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and brought in violinist Yo-Yo Ma and Heartbreakers pianist Benmont Tench to reimagine the song into something that Drakoulias labels “country bayou.” “She put the Creole in it,” he says. “By the time she gets to the outro, you feel like you’ve been on this kind of weird journey, like you’ve been hunting gators or something. And it was my idea to bring Belmont onto it. He’s just a super talent.”

Tench isn’t the only Heartbreaker to guest on the album. Campbell cut a new version of the 1986 obscurity “Ways to Be Wicked” with Margo Price. “The Heartbreakers never made a proper record of it,” he says. “But the words are great. It’s a real exuberant song, and Margo sings the shit out of it.”

Other highlights includes Thomas Rett’s fiddle-driven “Wildflowers,” Willie and Lukas Nelson’s tender rendition of the She’s the One cut “Angel Dream (No. 2),” Jamey Johnson’s stark “I Forgive It All,” and Lady A’s country-fried “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” It wraps up with Strait tearing through “You Wreck Me” live in concert. “It felt honest to George Strait,” says Drakoulias. “Any time you get the chance to hear George Strait sing, ‘I’ll be the boy in the corduroy pants,’ you take it.”


Now that Petty Country is in stores, the estate is turning its attention to a Long After Dark box set they plan on releasing in the fall. “I’ve heard some of that and it’s going to be great,” says Drakoulias. “I worked on the Playback box set. The big joke we kept making was, ‘What were you guys thinking leaving this one off?’ Tom would go, ‘Jimmy thought it was too country.’ I think it was, ‘Keeping Me Alive.’ I was like, ‘Too country?’ It sounds great.”

Combing through the Petty vault is an emotional process for Drakoulias. “He was also the first person I’d call during an earthquake,” he says. “I’d be like, ‘Did you feel that?’ Or I’d call him if a politician did somethings stupid. He just had so much joy in him. He was the greatest. I can’t believe that I was in his orbit. But I don’t miss Tom Petty the rock star. I just miss Tom Petty my friend.”

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