Sowing the Seeds of “Wildflowers,” Tom Petty’s Not-Quite-Solo Album

Petty always said his solo projects were essential to the survival of the Heartbreakers — so much so that his 1994 masterpiece bloomed into a group album in all but name

October 23, 2020 9:17 am
tom petty
Tom Petty poses for a portrait in Hollywood, c. 1978
Aaron Rapoport/Getty

A few months before he turned 42, Tom Petty was drained from touring the world again with the Heartbreakers. So he holed up at home and got to work.

Fifteen demos from that time in isolation went unheard for decades. This month, those early sketches are among the standout recordings from Wildflowers & All the Rest, which expands Petty’s 1994 solo masterpiece into the behemoth package he’d always envisioned releasing. 

That reissue project went unfinished when Petty died in 2017. His family and engineer took over, unearthing and assembling songs from hundreds of tapes. The collection of home recordings sounds like a polished draft: intimately satisfying, though just shy of complete. 

Wildflowers, that’s something that started as a solo album, and before long had a lot of the Heartbreakers there,” Petty told me in a 2011 interview. “So I’ve always thought of that as more of a group album.”

Petty had gone solo once before, in the late ’80s, for Full Moon Fever. The move was “a break from the pressure of thinking about where the Heartbreakers should go next,” he told biographer Warren Zanes. “The solo records were also important to the life of the band.” 

But the band felt differently. Friction eventually cooled but resurfaced in 1992, following the Heartbreakers’ yearlong Into the Great Wide Open tour, after which Petty retreated again. When he eventually brought in his bandmates, they labored over Wildflowers with producer Rick Rubin for almost two years.

“With the Heartbreakers, there’s a group decision on everything, pretty much,” Petty told me. “But on the solo records I was pretty much the dictator of what went on.” 

That’s clear from how faithful Wildflowers is to Petty’s home recordings. Among his best: “Wake Up Time” rises with the mournful groan of a lonely piano and Petty’s reserved vocal. It outshines the version we’ve known for 25 years. “Only A Broken Heart” pulls off a similarly eerie, warm desperation. Still, the final Heartbreakers recordings are indispensable. Wouldn’t we be lost without Benmont Tench’s ragtime bridge on “To Find a Friend?” Or imagine Steve Ferrone’s militant snare missing from “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Doesn’t feel right. 

Petty wouldn’t make another solo album for more than a decade. While recording Highway Companion he stumbled across the long-lost tapes with Mudcrutch, the country-rock group he formed with guitarist Tom Leadon as teenagers in Gainesville, Florida. That discovery inspired Petty to pursue yet another side project.  

Petty played bass in Mudcrutch and took over as frontman when they fired singer Jim Lenahan. In another shakeup, Mike Campbell replaced Leadon before Shelter Records signed Mudcrutch in 1974. Campbell, pianist Benmont Tench and drummer Randall Marsh crammed into a battered van and headed for Los Angeles, where Petty awaited them. But Shelter dropped Mudcrutch before they ever recorded an album.  

“The record company was not keen on the band, and they wanted to keep me,” Petty told me. “It really broke my heart to have to leave those guys.” 

When Petty ran into Campbell and Tench again, they were playing with two other guys from Gainesville, bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch. They were a band without a leader; Petty was a singer without a band. The Heartbreakers were born. 

One afternoon in 2007, Leadon was driving home from a grocery run in Nashville when his phone rang. 

“A bolt of lightning went right through me,” Leadon told me, days after Petty died. They hadn’t spoken in 30 years. Leadon pulled over his truck and killed the ignition. Petty told him he’d been thinking a lot about reforming Mudcrutch. They talked for so long, bags of frozen food were sweating in the backseat. Leadon was ecstatic. Same for Marsh, Petty’s first drummer, who was repairing his family’s 100-year-old house in Florida when he got the call. 

Their reunion finally captured the album that got away. They recorded for nine days, with Petty writing many of the lyrics as the band played. After nailing the nine-minute “Crystal River” in a single take, engineer Ryan Ulyate emerged from the control room, cigarette lighter raised. 

“That album is really in my Top Five things I’ve ever done,” Petty told me. “Wildflowers, I think, was a good one. But Mudcrutch is right up there, you know, just as far as something of mine that I would put on and play and really enjoy. It was a tremendous experience doing that album. I can’t even get over how happy I was.”

Petty regrouped with the Heartbreakers a couple of years later for the bluesy Mojo, inspired by the gritty aesthetic of the Mudcrutch sessions that renewed Petty’s spirit. Hypnotic Eye in 2014 would be the Heartbreakers’ last. 

In 2017, eight months before he died of an accidental prescription-drug overdose, Petty laid down his final notes: a harmonica solo. It wasn’t for himself or his band, but for Chris Hillman of the Byrds, the group Petty often credited for inspiring him to pick up a guitar. 

The collaborative end was fitting. When Petty wasn’t recording or touring with the Heartbreakers, he was constantly flourishing on his own and guiding his elders to rediscover their voices and revive their legacies: Del Shannon. Roger McGuinn. Johnny Cash. 

It was Tom Petty’s courageous breaks, those ambitious solo ventures, that kept his band alive for 40 years. 

“The thing about the Heartbreakers is,” he told the Los Angeles Times in his final interview, “it’s still holy to me.”

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