Tom Petty Remembered

Dustin Richardson, a founding volunteer of WRIR and former host of Party of One, expresses his appreciation for Tom Petty.

Here at WRIR we have few rules about what we should and should not play. But one guideline that we all try to maintain is when playing an artist that has had commercial success, we should try to avoid playing one of the big hits when we can find a good deep album cut. I once did a theme show about Tom Petty. When looking up a few of his songs to play on the show, I quickly found out that there are hardly any deep cuts on any of his records; almost every song was a hit. Nothing but hit after hit on album after album, and all were amazingly good. No one else in my 12 years on the air made it that hard for me. There’s just something about Tom Petty songs that is instantly evocative and classic.
This is a guy who got asked to play in a group with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Bob-Freakin’-Dylan and made fans of all of them. By all accounts, he was professional, personable, and—perhaps most importantly in the music business—a shrewd businessman, never sacrificing his integrity for the whims of a label’s idea of trendy, marketable, or radio-ready.  Tom Petty played Tom Petty music, and that was just fine by me—and most everyone else.
His music was outside of genre norms. Over the years on my show, I played his songs during alt-country sets and punk rock sets alike. You can hear his influence in just about any good rock & roll of the last 40 years. The Strokes famously ripped off the opening riff and structure of “American Girl” for their mega-hit “Last Nite”, fully admitting the strong ‘homage’ in several interviews, while professing their love of his tunes. And to Tom Petty’s credit, he later told Rolling Stone, “That made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you.’ It doesn’t bother me,” later even inviting The Strokes to open for his band on tour. His songs were all driving rhythms, soaring keys, and lyrics that cut deep. They were a lonely drive through the rain, a wild night at a club, a late-night singalong with the boys. He was humble, a self-proclaimed loser, a skinny goofy-looking kid from Gainesville, Florida with a whiny voice. That’s why I love his music. He sang for all of us outcasts, and we sang right along with him.
I’m lucky enough to have seen Tom Petty live. Through WRIR and another DJ’s label contacts, I got tickets to Bonnaroo 2006. Tom Petty headlined one of the nights, and (of course) out of the hundreds of performers that weekend—including plenty of other fantastic talent, such as Sonic Youth, Buddy Guy, Beck, Radiohead, Bonnie Rait, and Les Claypool—it was no stretch to say that his really was the best show there. He was a regular guy that loved playing his regular guy music, and it showed. There were over 90,000 fans in that audience, but he kept it as intimate as any small club with his performance and personality.
We’ve lost some great musicians over the last couple of years, but we’ll never quite rid ourselves of Tom Petty. In every rock club, in every night around the campfire, on every road trip mix tape, we’ll have his music at full volume. And we’ll be singing right along.