An Honest Song


Editor’s note from American Songwriter’s November/December 2017 issue

The music world was still reeling from the events in Las Vegas when news came across the transom that Tom Petty had died.

It seemed like the universe’s idea of sick joke.

Petty’s death sent shock waves across the music world and his legions of fans. And it came when we were still trying to process news of the worst mass shooting in modern American history, a mind-numbing act that left 59 dead and nearly 550 wounded. The shooting occurred at a country music festival, so, naturally, for the people of Nashville, it hit close to home. There was something so chilling about the affair that no one mentioned the news in our office the day it happened. Such are the times we live in.

And then later that afternoon, I heard an intern say, “Oh man, we lost Tom Petty.” Reports of his death were initially erroneous, as Petty did not actually die until later that night, after suffering cardiac arrest earlier that morning. But we knew the score when the news broke.

What made Petty’s death so shocking was the fact that he’d just completed a mega-successful tour, a 53-show run that celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Heartbreakers’ debut album. We had caught the show in Nashville at Bridgestone Arena, back in April, and Petty and his band were very much in fine form. The energy level was high and he delivered a set that was heavy on the hits, with the audience seemingly singing along to every word. In the frenzy of that moment, it was hard to fathom a world without Petty’s songs in it.

This issue closes with a remembrance of Petty by Paul Zollo, who collaborated with the late songwriter on a book called Conversations With Tom Petty, originally published in 2005. Petty was always suspicious of journalists and kept his cards close to his chest, but with Zollo he was, quite literally, an open book. The Gainesville, Florida native knew he had a gift, but he was also a consummate craftsman, as he revealed to Zollo, working and reworking songs until they were just right. For Petty, songwriting was a calling. Like so many of our great artists, he had no choice but to follow the muse.

And he never lost sight of what makes people fall in love with rock and roll in the first place.

“The secret, really,” he said, “the most important thing, is: Have a good time. Don’t take it too seriously. You’ve got to take it seriously enough that it happens. But don’t let anything throw you … and if you keep it on that level, and be sure you’re enjoying it, then that will carry and they’ll enjoy it … So I always try to enjoy it. And the audience sustains me. That is the truth.”

His appreciation of the audience was not lost on those who loved his music. They always knew they were part of the equation. His shows were a party, and everyone was welcome at the table.

Petty hated the idea of trying to appeal to a core “demographic,” a notion he felt was anathema to the spirit of rock and roll. “I get a lot of letters from little children, and I really like that, because little kids don’t lie,” he said.

P.T. Barnum’s proclamation that “there’s a sucker born every minute” may be a golden rule of show business, but Petty stood in steadfast opposition to that idea. His songs were uncommonly honest. And that, I think, is what makes them so great. The notion of authenticity in music and art is a ridiculous one, yet it’s the subject of endless debate in Nashville, especially where country and roots music is concerned. But the point is always moot. Everyone knows an honest song when they hear one.

Margo Price, our cover subject, is no bullshit artist, either. Her debut solo record, 2016’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, established her as one of Nashville’s young songwriting luminaries. That record was passed up by every Nashville label she sent it to before finding a home at Jack White’s Third Man Records, who embraced it with open arms. It seems plausible to assume the other labels deferred for demographic reasons, because “Hands Of Time,” the album’s centerpiece, is undeniable. An epic cry of the heart, the song chronicles Price’s rough and tumble childhood, the death of her baby years ago, and the slings and arrows that attended the early days of her career. Her new record, All American Made, comes just one year after her debut, and it is even better than its predecessor, which is no small feat.

Finally, we drop in on Bruce Springsteen at one of his residency shows on Broadway. The performance was everything we hoped for, and more, and a reminder of just how nourishing rock and roll can be in the darker hours.

– Caine O’Rear, Editor-in-chief.

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