Tom Petty Didn’t Like Modern Country Music, But That Doesn’t Matter 

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. 

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