Tom Petty's songwriting output could make any artist or band quite jealous. But for all of the things that did make it to the radio, many compositions just sat on the shelf.

Then there were the tracks Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers, recorded numerous times, searching to capture the right feel. "Lazarus songs," was the term that guitarist Mike Campbell applied to that segment of the results of their working relationship -- the ones which always seemed to resurface.

But Petty, who died in 2017, also had an unfailing creative vision, as producer George Drakoulias explained to UCR during a recent conversation. He had a fierce dedication to -- in his mind -- getting it right. Listening to Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty, the new tribute album which arrived June 21, it's not hard to see how much that focus paid off.

People like Chris Stapleton, Margo Price, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Rhiannon Giddens, Dierks Bentley and numerous others offer their interpretations of a wide variety of material from Petty's catalog, from hits to album tracks and beyond. These all-star affairs can sometimes be a treacherous listening experience by the time they make it to the headphones, but as a collection, Petty Country connects.

Drakoulias thinks that Petty himself is a big reason that it all hangs together. No matter the song, he was often writing from the same place: his heart. "He was this guy who was so low-key and could talk about anything," he says now. "You could tell him anything and he wasn’t judgmental. It was a fantastic conduit to where these great songs came from. He was able to channel that stuff.

The producer joined Ultimate Classic Rock Nights host Matt Wardlaw to discuss Petty Country as well as other moments in Petty's career.

How did this project first begin?
You know, Tom did love country music. He kind of loved cowboys. That’s part of what got him into music was the singing cowboy. He was obsessed with seeing Ricky Nelson and things like that on TV. And then of course, it goes to Elvis [Presley]. Once he meets Elvis, it’s all hillbillies and that kind of thing. Then, the Beatles blow everything up at that point. The world goes from black and white to Technicolor, after the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. I think we just wanted a way to honor his songwriting. They put out An American Treasure a few years ago, but I don’t think he gets his due as this great songwriter. The fact that we have 20 different people interpreting his stuff and it all holds up, just shows you the power of his songs. We wanted to honor him in that way. He liked the Nashville community. He’d certainly rock a Nudie suit and he was obsessed with beautiful acoustic guitars and those kinds of sounds. He was influenced by the Byrds and [things like] the Sweetheart of the Rodeo record. It’s always been this thing hanging on the back wall. It wasn’t like we did a disco Petty record. [Laughs] Or a reggae record. Although, I’d like to hear a reggae version of some of these things.

READ MORE: 'Petty Country' Earns Acclaim From Mike Campbell

I appreciate how each of the artists really brought their own thing to it, while also honoring elements like the certain inflection Tom would put on some of his vocal phrases that are pretty sacred.
There’s some things I really wish he was here to hear. I think if he heard Chris Stapleton’s version of “I Should Have Known It,” he would have just gone crazy. It kind of reminds me of when they first rehearsed with [Dave] Grohl for Saturday Night Live. He said, “This sound just came from the drums.” Tom’s vocal, it’s not the same thing….Stapleton’s like a foghorn. [Laughs] He’s got this belty kind of thing, which Tom wasn’t a belter -- and that’s not a negative, he just wasn’t that kind of guy. The way that Stapleton [approaches it] is so fun. I think he would have been blown away and would have probably looked at me like, “What the hell is going on here?” I met Chris maybe 10 years ago, when he was just a songwriter. He had that band, the SteelDrivers. I met him at a barbecue and they pulled out the acoustic guitars, he started singing and I had to move three stools down, just because it was so powerful! That’s a great one. You know, Dolly [Parton], I think she really nails it. Tom’s approach to “Southern Accents,” he has this edge [on his vocal] where Dolly’s thing is more Magnolia bushes and this sweetness -- but it’s just as powerful and effective. It’s just a different way of wrapping around it. Everybody really brought their A game with the vocals and kind of put their own thing on it.

Listen to Chris Stapleton Perform 'I Should Have Known It'

 

When we spoke to Mike Campbell recently, he called "Ways to Be Wicked" an example of the "Lazarus songs" in the Tom Petty catalog. How did you all come back around to doing a version of that song with Margo Price?
They cut it about three or four times, Mike told me. It was another one of these songs that Jimmy [Iovine] kind of took. Tom told me the story about Maria McKee when she cut it [with Lone Justice]. He goes, “I’m backstage and Jimmy shows up with this girl singer and she’s going, ‘Thank you so much for the song, it’s so great and we love it.’ I’m looking at her going, ‘Oh yeah, you’re welcome,’ I have no idea what she’s talking about.” Jimmy had gone and cut the song with her. It’s funny, because that version is great. I’ve worked with Maria McKee too -- she’s fantastic and I love her -- but that was kind of a pop record. [Later] I remember I worked on this version that was more of a jam. I sent that to Margo [Price] - she had tried to cut something else [prior to that]. She called me and said, “I don’t think I nailed it. I don’t really believe it.” I said, “Well, why don’t you try this one?” She didn’t know it before and she certainly didn’t know it from Maria and she wouldn’t have known it from Tom, because it came out on [Playback], this greatest hits box set kind of thing. We landed on that and her band was just the right amount of on the edge. We cut it and it was a lot of fun.

Every band has songs like that in their catalog in a certain state of flux. Tom had a number of them.
Yeah, another one was “Surrender,” which is another one they tried to cut a bunch of different times. They put it out eventually, but it always felt like they never finished the song. I worked on the Playback box set and it was just so great to look into the vaults and play stuff for them. I’d look at Mike and Tom and I’d be like, “What was wrong with this one?” They’re like, “I don’t know what we were thinking!” It was like, “Jimmy thought it was too country” or “We had too many slow ones at that point.” I’m like, “You guys are crazy. I can’t believe you left this stuff off.” With Iovine, we used to have this conversation, he’d tell me -- and I agree with him -- Tom’s B material is better than a lot of people’s A material. You would kill to have a song like that on your record.

Listen to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Perform 'Surrender'

 

What did you come to appreciate about Tom's approach to his craft?
Two things. One, how seriously he took it, even with throwaway songs. He respected songwriting so much. Also, I learned so much just being around him. I learned how to make records and how to keep records in front of you. I remember we were doing The Last DJ and mixing the song “Joe.” He’d come down in the morning and we’d play him what we’d done. We were kind of live mixing, doing it on the faders and stuff. We’d play it for him, make any adjustments and then print it. With “Joe,” we talked about Pink Floyd and “Echoes” and that kind of stuff. He came down and we played it. The tape stopped and he said, “Wow, that’s something else. You guys, that’s fantastic. It’s everything we talked about. Look how you did that with that section.” But he goes, “I’ve got to be honest, I’m not in the record.” I’m like, “What do you mean?” He goes, “I don’t know where I am. I’m lost.” I kind of looked at him for a second and said, “Okay.” I said, “Give me 10 minutes.” He went out, had a coffee and a cigarette or whatever in the lounge. When he came back, we’d tightened some stuff up, moved him up front, and he’s like, “There I am, let’s print. Come on, let’s go!” I’ve found working with great people like that -- people like David Fincher and other directors, Todd Phillips is another one -- when you’re working with great people who are confident and respect you and what you’re doing, they get the best out of you and you get the best out of them. So even Tom, when he’s telling you “No” and “This is not really what I was thinking,” there’s a way where he tells you and he guides you, that he gets you to where you need to be. Everybody gets there and it’s a big win at the end.

This Petty Country album brought me back to certain songs in the catalog. I'm not sure how much that happened for you, but for instance, Jamey Johnson's version of "I Forgive it All," is one of them.
Tom’s singing that in his 60s and a guy singing it in his 40s, it’s a different perspective. It’s strange, it takes on a different [tone]. I don’t know why and it shouldn’t, necessarily, but it certainly has a different feel and connotation. As opposed to a guy looking back later in life, it’s a guy looking at his life mid-life and saying, “Okay, I’m going to let this go.” The Mudcrutch version is a very traditional folk arrangement, with no drums or percussion. Jamey’s kind of put this finger-picking pattern [into his version] that’s kind of changed the lean of it. His vocals have this country cadence and a harmonica break that’s really nice.

Listen to Jamey Johnson Perform 'I Forgive It All'

 

We're now three decades down the road from the Wildflowers album. How much were you able to appreciate in the moment what was happening with that record?
It’s strange. When we were doing it, it wasn’t like, “Oh, this is the greatest thing ever. This is going to live on.” Instead, it was kind of like, “This is what we did.” What are we doing at one o’clock? We’re going to go to Mike’s and work on this thing for a while. If it’s Thursday, we’re going to stop at nine o’clock and watch Seinfeld. If it’s Wednesday, we’re going to look at The Recycler and see if there’s any guitars or keyboards we want to go out to Ventura or send Bugs out to Pacoima to go look at a 12-string Vox -- weird one-off instruments like that. I affectionately call it a lifestyle record. That’s what we did. We just got together and told jokes. The material was great. We knew that. Everyone was firing on all cylinders. It really felt good. We were having a great time, “Listen to that song he just played.” I remember “Don’t Fade On Me,” we cut that a bunch. We cut it in the control room with two guitars in Mike’s house. Every time we listened to it, you’re going, “This is fucking great.” What a spooky, scary track, the way they play it together. I guess you take it for granted, in a weird way. But it was just like, “This is what we do.” You’re in this moment and you’re not thinking about that. At least I wasn’t. Tom probably was. He really wanted to make a statement [with Wildflowers]. And of course, we all wanted to make a statement, but it was like, “Let’s hope they like this one” kind of moments.

Tom Petty
Dennis Callahan
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Tom Petty Albums Ranked

He's a rock 'n' roll rarity: an artist who was consistent until the very end.

Gallery Credit: Bryan Wawzenek

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