meta-scriptLet Your Heart Be Your Guide: Adria Petty, Mike Campbell & More On The Enduring Significance Of Tom Petty's 'Wildflowers' |

Tom Petty

Photo by Mark Seliger


Let Your Heart Be Your Guide: Adria Petty, Mike Campbell & More On The Enduring Significance Of Tom Petty's 'Wildflowers'

Ahead of Petty's long-awaited, expansive 'Wildflowers' reissue, speaks to those who know it—and its beloved late author—best

GRAMMYs/Oct 16, 2020 - 08:14 pm

For years, Tom Petty fans eagerly awaited the release of the second half of Wildflowers, Petty's esteemed second solo record, released on Nov. 1, 1994. Co-produced by multiple GRAMMY-winning producer Rick Rubin, Tom Petty and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, Wildflowers was originally conceived as a 25-song double CD, though Petty’s new record label Warner Bros. asked that it be condensed to a 15-song one-disc album. Four songs from the Wildflowers sessions ended up on the She’s The One soundtrack. Another song, "Leave Virginia Alone," was recorded by Rod Stewart and debuted on "Saturday Night Live"'s 20th season finale. The remaining five songs never saw the light of day. 

Today, however, two weeks after the third anniversary of Petty’s untimely death and several days before what would have been the rock icon’s 70th birthday, Wildflowers & All The Rest has finally been released. Produced by Petty's longtime engineer and co-producer Ryan Ulyate, the collection was curated by Petty’s daughters Adria and Annakim, Campbell, Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and Petty's wife Dana (the couple married in 2001). There are several editions available in various formats (digital/CD/vinyl), starting with a 2-CD/3-LP reissue of Wildflowers remastered and All The Rest comprising the previously unreleased 10 tracks, the Deluxe Edition (which also includes 15 home demos and 14 live performances ranging from 1995-2017) and the Super Deluxe Edition, which includes Finding Wildflowers and comprises 16 alternate studio takes.

A benchmark in his illustrious career and his fastest-selling record, Wildflowers, certified triple platinum within nine months of its release, held significant meaning to Petty. Speaking to author/journalist Paul Zollo in "Conversations with Tom Petty," Petty says, "I think it’s maybe my favorite LP that I’ve ever done. Though I’m kind of partial to a few of them. But I think, as a whole, it’s a real long piece of music—it’s almost 70 minutes long—but that’s the one that really gets me when I hear it. I can kind of go, ‘Wow, I’m really proud of that. That came out exactly like I wanted it to.'"

Sadly, as Petty wrote songs for Wildflowers, his marriage to his wife Jane Benyo was collapsing. (The pair married in 1974, had daughters Adria and Annakim, and divorced in 1996.) Filled with pain, loneliness and uncertainty, Petty’s songwriting shifted in accordance with the crisis in his personal life, reflected in Wildflowers' lyrics and song titles including "Hard On Me," "Time To Move On" and "Only A Broken Heart." More intimate and raw than ever before, Petty openly expresses his sadness, anguish and frustration amidst sporadic shimmers of light.

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Recorded at Sound City in Van Nuys over an approximately two-year period beginning in 1992, Wildflowers wasn’t technically a Heartbreakers record but all the Heartbreakers still showed up with the exception of drummer Stan Lynch, who was replaced by Steve Ferrone when escalating tensions with Lynch reached a breaking point. Ringo Starr, who played drums on "To Find A Friend," and Carl Wilson, who contributed backing vocals to "Honey Bee," were the record’s special guests.

On the opening and title track, the sweetly melodic “Wildflowers,” Petty sings, “You belong among the wildflowers/ You belong in a boat out at sea/ Sail away, kill off the hours/ You belong somewhere you feel free." Though it was never released as a single, "Wildflowers" was a huge hit with Petty fans. In audio posted to Tom Petty’s official Instagram page, Petty reveals the ad-libbed song was a departure from his usual songwriting process. “The 'Wildflowers' song was one of the only times it ever happened to me in my life. I really just stepped up in my little studio at home and I put the mic on and played the whole song straight from the top to the end with all the lyrics and the music in one go. And then I stopped the tape and played it back and I really was kind of, you know, confused. I kept playing it again and again thinking, ‘Well, what do we work on and what would I change?’ And then I thought, 'I’m not going to change it. I’m just going to leave it stream of conscious.'"

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While Petty wasn’t aware of it at the time, he actually wrote "Wildflowers" for someone very specific, someone who was desperately in need of compassion and freedom. He wrote it for Tom Petty. According to Warren Zane's bestselling book "Petty: The Biography" (2015), Petty’s therapist listened to the song and "asked the singer who he was addressing. ‘I told him I wasn’t sure,’ Petty says. ‘And then he said, ‘I know. That song is about you. That’s you singing to yourself what you needed to hear.’ ‘It kind of knocked me back. But I realized he was right. It was me singing to me.'"

Infused with rock, folk and blues, the critically acclaimed Wildflowers landed at number eight on Billboard’s 200 record chart. Rolling Stone gave the album a 4-star review. "Wildflowers' resolute passion and maturity grow more evident with each listen until the album acquires a haunting, enduring resonance." GRAMMY-nominated for Best Rock Album album, Wildflowers yielded four successful singles that each scored positions on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart; the tongue-in-cheek "It’s Good To Be King," "You Don’t Know How It Feels" (GRAMMY Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, and MTV Music Video Award for Best Male Video), "A Higher Place," and "You Wreck Me."

Originally titling the song "You Rock Me," Petty shared the backstory to "You Wreck Me" at VH1’s Tom Petty Storytellers session in 1999. "I was calling the song 'You Rock Me, Baby' and, you know, you can’t really say that anymore because it was pointed out to me, anyway, that the band kind of just held their heads and said, 'You can’t sing, ‘You rock me’ in a song,' which I suppose made sense...and then, one night, it hit me. It’s ‘wreck me.’ All I did was change ‘rock’ for ‘wreck’ and we had, ‘You wreck me, baby.” With that, Petty smiles, chuckles, and launches into the highly energetic rocker with the Heartbreakers. 

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There’s a chance the song might never have been recorded at all. Campbell, who wrote the music for "You Wreck Me" and co-wrote several Petty hits including "Refugee" and "Runnin’ Down A Dream," says initially Petty liked the demo Campbell gave to him. But when Campbell asked about the song months later, Petty said he wasn’t sure if he knew where he’d put it. At the studio one day, Rubin asked Campbell if he had any songs. When Campbell played it for him, Rubin told him to show the song to Petty, but Campbell said he already had. Rubin suggested he show it to Petty again.

"I showed it to Tom again and kind of nudged him and said, ‘Why don’t you write to this?'" Campbell tells "The funny thing is, I think maybe because Tom was busy writing his own songs and he was overwhelmed with that, he wasn’t really keen on that track at the beginning. He kind of did it under duress a little bit. I got the feeling as we were recording it that it wasn’t one of his favorite songs. But when we went on tour, a couple of days into the tour, we played that song live and it went down so well, he leaned over to me and said, 'I get it now. This is really a good song.'"

Filmmaker/photographer Martyn Atkins, who directed both the "You Wreck Me" music video and the documentary "400 Days,” which he shot during the recording of Wildflowers and its tour, designed the record’s tastefully understated packaging and cover; four black-and-white photos, one of which shows Petty looking out the window of a van on his way to the recording studio, set against a craft paper-brown background with a red circle surrounding a red beaded flower in the cover’s lower-left corner, providing the only splash of color. Petty’s name and "Wildflowers" are written across the top in lowercase letters in Atkins’s handwriting. 

Atkins spent a lot of time with Petty, taking photos and shooting film footage, letting ideas spark organically. Inspired by the intimacy of Petty’s songs, Atkins opted for a low-key design. “My thought about the packaging and graphic for "Wildflowers" was that it should feel a little more homemade, something crafted that Tom was crafting. I got that feeling from the music. It was much more internalized coming from Tom. It felt like you were getting something personal,” says Atkins over the phone. He cut and printed negatives from his 16mm film footage for the cover photos instead of using a regular camera. “I wanted the grittiness and real grain for the album artwork. The idea was not to have something glossy.” 

He explains the red beaded flower's significance. "Tom had a tobacco pouch at his house, an American Indian suede pouch with a beaded flower on it. I think somebody had given it to him. He wondered if we could use it in some way. I took it away and photographed it and suggested we make it like a seal on the cover, something graphic that could become a motif. He liked that idea as the pouch meant something to him. We did stickers of it and included them in the CD packaging."

Petty himself stuck a Wildflowers sticker onto the upper-left corner of one of his favorite guitars, his blonde Telecaster (nicknamed "Torucaster" for luthier Toru Nittono), where the sticker remains to this day. Some of Atkins's Wildflowers-era photography, along with pictures taken by photographers Mark Seliger and Robert Sebree, are included in the new box set. 

For years, Petty longed to reissue the beloved Wildflowers along with its second half. "He thought it was really important because the legacy of the Wildflowers album loomed large in this career and he knew that the second half of Wildflowers was an important statement," said Rick Rubin, speaking to bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell on their "Broken Record" podcast in 2018. 

Ulyate and Petty first cracked open the Wildflowers vault in 2013, poring over tapes during breaks between recording sessions for Hypnotic Eye, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ final studio album. By 2014, they'd remixed the 10 previously unreleased Wildflowers tracks, which Petty sequenced and named All The Rest. Petty also selected some home demos to release as bonus material. He told Rolling Stone about a two-disc Wildflowers release slated for that Christmas. A year later, Petty released the Wildflowers-era song "Somewhere Under Heaven" as promotion for a Wildflowers: All The Rest collection that didn't have a release date yet. He was waiting to release Wildflowers: All The Rest when he could give it his undivided attention and promote it properly with a tour. Between touring Hypnotic Eye, working with his early '70s band Mudcrutch (whose members include Heartbreakers Campbell and Tench), and the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour in 2017, he held back Wildflowers: All The Rest until he could prioritize it. 

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"He wasn’t putting out music by the pound," says Ulyate over the phone. "He thought about it and was like, ‘I don’t want to just toss this thing out.’ He was never into flooding the market with stuff. If he had just put it out without promoting it, he felt it wouldn't have gotten the reception he thought it deserved so he decided to hold back. He was going to get back to it, take stock, and figure out how to move forward when they got off tour in 2017."

Throughout Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 40th anniversary tour, the 18-song setlist included five Wildflowers songs, alongside a bevy of classic Petty hits including "American Girl," "Free Fallin'," and "Mary Jane’s Last Dance." Two days after the tour wrapped, after three sold-out nights at the Hollywood Bowl, Petty told the L.A. Times that the Wildflowers project was probably where he'd turn his attention next. While he said he still had some research to do, he speculated that a three-city theater residency, instead of stadiums and arenas, might suit the material best. 

"We had several discussions about doing a tour of only Wildflowers songs, maybe in theaters," says Campbell. "For so many decades, it was a greatest hits tour, which is great, but this would have been a different type of thing. We could share this intimate album and we'd have different guest singers come in with the band to give it a different vibe and experience from the touring we’d been doing, which would have been artistically rewarding for us." Campbell says among the potential guest singers they’d discussed were Jeff Lynne, Eddie Vedder, Norah Jones and Stevie Nicks.

Tragically, five days after his L.A. Times interview, Petty, who suffered from emphysema, coronary artery atherosclerosis, knee pain and a fractured hip, died suddenly at 66 years old from an accidental overdose of prescription pain medications. But Petty’s incomparable legacy lives on with Wildflowers & All The Rest, which arrives on the heels of two previous Tom Petty posthumous releases: An American Treasure (2018) and Best Of Everything (2019). 

Over the past few months, several Wildflowers & All The Rest songs and videos have been released: Petty's home demos of "Wildflowers," "You Don’t Know How It Feels" and "There Goes Angela (Dream Away)," which was unearthed after Petty’s death. "We didn't find that when Tom was around," says Ulyate. "We found about half the demos with Tom and he approved them and liked them and then after he passed, we really scoured the bottom of the vault to try to find everything. That’s when we found more demos."

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"Confusion Wheel," the first official single from All The Rest, epitomizes Petty’s tormented and highly confessional Wildflowers-era songwriting. Petty sings, "So much confusion has torn me apart/ So much confusion has made me afraid/ That I don’t know how to love/ I don’t know how to trust/ And I don’t know why that is." Yet Petty hasn’t lost all hope for a fresh start as he sings, "One of these days, we'll drive away/ Drive away singing a brand new song/ We'll wake up singing a brand new song."

Mindful that the material was close to her father’s heart, Adria is also highly cognizant of its significance to the Wildflowers narrative. Speaking to over the phone, she says, "If the 'Wizard Of Oz' had another reel or if 'Let It Be' had another album you’d be like, ‘Woah! To me, that’s what Wildflowers & All The Rest is, and that’s why it’s so important for us to get it right because it’s a little gem in the archive."

"Everybody involved is trying to honor and use their sixth sense as to what it is he would like, to carry on the legacy as he would have if he were still here," says Ulyate, who worked closely with Petty for more than 10 years. He misses Petty terribly but notes that being immersed in his music has helped his grief somewhat. "I don’t think any of us will ever get over the loss but, in a way, working on the music has made it easier because he’s still here and he’s still coming out of my speakers. Finding this stuff and putting it out feels like we’re all doing our job in honoring him and his legacy. In that way, we’re doing the right thing and doing justice to his legacy so we’re keeping him around in a way and that part of it makes me feel good."

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Exploring Petty’s archives was tough for Campbell, however, whose history with Petty dates back 50 years. "It was a bittersweet experience going through the stuff and not having Tom there to do it with us," he says. "Going over the songs brought up a lot of joy and grief as well. He really wanted this stuff out though, so we worked very hard on it and took the best stuff of what was laying around. It was as if he was sitting there with us and we made decisions based on that.

Some of the tracks I’d almost completely forgotten about until I heard them and it was nice to hear this good music that we could share with the audience. At the same time, I’m still grieving and it was kind of hard to sit there and hear Tom’s voice in the speakers and him not be there. Sometimes I would just have to leave the room for a while, but we got it done."

Adria says when her father died, "It was such an eternal primal scream of disbelief to have him die on us so suddenly." She says it felt like a universal loss and that while the world mourned along with her family, they also gave Petty’s heirs a lot of support. As to her grief, three years later, she says, "I feel like I’m turning a corner with it, and as time goes on, I feel like parts will get easier. But no one ever gets over the death of their parent." At times, however, her grief is overwhelming. "There are times when you just don’t want to hear those songs...when they come on in the grocery store and you’re like, ‘That’s a lot.'"

She says, however, that listening to Wildflowers is uplifting. "There’s a lot of joy in listening to this particular era of the music for me. It touches my soul. It touches my heart and makes me feel good. It’s not the kind of stuff that makes you really think necessarily about the live shows or the hit-run of Dad’s catalog but it’s a little bit more of a pure experience." As of late, Adria says she’s been getting lost in her dad's lyrics and the purposeful manner in which he chose each word, constantly editing himself, as reflected on studio notes, legal pads and notebooks where he constantly scratched out and replaced lyrics.

Rick Rubin and Tom Petty 
Photo by Robert Sebree

Renowned for his anthemic songs, witty lyrics and compassion for underdogs, along with his uncanny skill for conveying profound wisdom and emotional depth using plain and concise language, part of Petty’s artistic genius was how deceptively simple he made his thoroughly relatable yet equally epic songwriting seem. In truth, he was a blue-jeaned, tirelessly working poet, inducted into the Rock and Roll Of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

While the more comprehensive editions of Wildflowers & All The Rest are a treat for fans, they also serve as a masterclass in songwriting as you hear the evolution of Petty’s songs. Some demos were reworked before being recorded in the studio. For example, before he changed the chorus for the completed studio version of "Crawling Back To You," on the demo Petty sang "coming back to you" and "running back to you." Other demos were set aside entirely, with portions of their lyrics transplanted into other songs. "There’s a Break in the Rain" is a beautiful and heartfelt demo that Petty never developed further. Instead, he used its lyrics "in a memory of a dream," in "You Don’t Know How It Feels," the first song recorded for Wildflowers. Years later, he recycled its chorus in "Have Love Will Travel" on The Last DJ (2002). 

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"He really cared about writing good songs and performing them well," says Ulyate. "He always wanted to keep getting better and better and refining his craft. He was more into that than being a famous guy," says Ulyate who says Petty’s meticulousness was all-encompassing. "He was into every facet of songwriting. The song had to be good, the first line had to grab you and the song had to have good construction, and he was into production, and how the songs were arranged in the context of an album was important. He wanted to make sure he was telling a story."

Petty would continue to scrutinize and change songs even after they were recorded. "I’d go into mastering and say, ‘OK, we’re going to master the album and finish it up’ and he’d call me two days before and say, ‘I have a better line for the third verse,'" says Ulyate. "Luckily, we had a set-up that made it easy for me to drop in a line at his studio and we’d listen back and I’d say, ‘Man, I’m so glad you called me. That was so much better.’ He was always thinking of ways of improving stuff."

Ulyate partially attributes Petty’s songwriting prowess to his "encyclopedic knowledge" of music. "If you want to be a good songwriter, you have to be a good song listener," he says. "Tom Petty was probably the best song listener of anyone I knew." Petty’s extensive and colorful musical palette ranged from the most obscure music Petty could find to the blues to his heroes Bob Dylan, the Byrds, The Beatles, Beach Boys and Elvis Presley

He laughs incredulously when recalling Petty’s meeting with director Thom Zimny who, at the time, was making the documentary, Elvis Presley: The Searcher. "Thom Zimny asked a couple of questions about Elvis and Tom Petty went into this thing where, basically, for the next 45 minutes he just schooled the guy about Elvis! He knew more about him and I was like, ‘How do you know this much about Elvis?!'"

"Even if you never shook his hand, you knew him, and it will always feel like we lost a friend, not just the standard-bearer for great songwriting." —Cameron Crowe on losing Tom Petty

In fact, when Petty was 11 years old, growing up in his native Gainesville, Florida, he was taken to meet Presley by his uncle who was working on the set of a Presley film shooting nearby in Ocala, Fl. Petty relays the Presley anecdote in Oscar-nominated director, screenwriter and author Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour documentary, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down A Dream (2007). "Elvis appeared like, you know, a vision. He didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen and I’m just dumbstruck...I went home a changed man," Petty said at the time. "When I hit the street the next day, I was trying to find some Elvis Presley records. The music just hypnotized me and I played these records to the point my parents began to worry that something was wrong with me."

Speaking over the phone, Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Mask) says though he and Petty were both proud of the documentary, which won a GRAMMY for Best Long Form Music Video in 2009, ("I was thrilled. What director gets a GRAMMY?"), it's forever "tinged with sadness" due to Petty’s untimely death. He says when Petty had a three-week window between tour dates in 2017, the pair discussed adding material to Runnin’ Down A Dream. "We talked about maybe adding 10 to 15 minutes to it to include the last 10 years to bring it up to date. We had a nice talk about it and he was keen on the idea but it didn’t work out because he died."

Bogdanovich says he last spoke to Petty after he attended his penultimate concert at The Hollywood Bowl three years ago, and called Petty to rave about his performance. "It’s tragic. I miss him dearly. I just loved the guy," he says. "He was a real artist who cared about the art, singing terrific songs that he put his heart and soul into. It was everything to him. It wasn’t about the money. It was about the work."

Petty’s dedication to his fans matched his commitment to his art. During the 40th anniversary tour, Atkins expressed concern to Petty about carrying a heavy guitar every night while suffering from a cracked hip that needed surgery. He says he suggested the idea of stopping the tour to get better and touring the following year instead. Petty said, "I don’t want to stop the tour because people book their holidays around coming to see me and it’s important in people’s lives and I don’t want to let them down."

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Dating back to 1981, Petty famously fought his record label MCA who wanted to add a dollar to the price of his record Hard Promises. He withheld the album until MCA relented and didn’t raise the price. Petty describes his fan-philosophy in director and Oscar-winning screenwriter Cameron Crowe’s 1983 MTV hour-long documentary Heartbreakers Beach Party, which was Crowe’s first directing credit. Facing the camera directly, Petty says, "At the risk of sounding corny, you have to thank the fans. I’m still very reverent about that. I will stop and sign the thing because it’s that important. I think that if you lose that, if you get where they’re just them, then it’s all gone."

"Tom always carried himself as a fan," Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) tells over the phone. "First and foremost, I think, he was somebody who never forgot his music-loving roots in Florida and remained an avid music lover and collector his entire life."

Crowe says Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were one of his favorite artists to write about when he was a Rolling Stone journalist and that it was "a dream come true" for which he’ll forever be honored that Heartbreakers Beach Party was his directorial debut. As a matter of fact, but for Petty (and executive producer Danny Bramson), it would have taken Crowe much longer to have become a director, if it even happened at all. "We were on the way to the video shoot for 'You Got Lucky' and he said, 'Pick up a camera and I’ll play you a song.' I said I wasn’t a director. He said, 'Just film me.' So I did. He played the novelty song ‘I’m Stupid’ and when it was done, he said, 'Guess what. Now you’re a director.' Can’t think of a better person to convince to jump in the deep end and start a new career."

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He says Petty contributed music generously to Crowe’s film soundtracks over the years, including an exclusive mix of "It’ll All Work Out" for Elizabethtown. He also gave Crowe an opening quote to use in the first trailer for his TV show "Roadies."

"He was as down to earth as down to earth gets," says Crowe. "Even if you never shook his hand, you knew him, and it will always feel like we lost a friend, not just the standard-bearer for great songwriting, and a band that can pivot in any direction to deliver his songs."

In honor of their father’s unique relationship with his fans, both Adria and Annakim switched their private social media settings to public when Petty died. "His fans really came first for him in his career," says Adria. "That’s a lot of our job and our responsibility, to say, ‘We are here to still treat you well and to make things affordable and to give you access to all sorts of cool stuff he left behind.’”

Earlier this month, on the third anniversary of Petty's death, Adria posted a home video shot at Petty’s home studio at the family’s last Christmas together. Petty's strumming an acoustic guitar and singing "Crawling Back To You (one of Petty’s personal favorites) while Cammie, one of Adria’s and Annakim's younger cousins, plays the piano. In the caption, Adria writes that as soon as Petty heard Cammie playing the song, he took everyone into his studio to sing along and encourage her. The caption ends with, "I miss you too much every day, dad." On that same day, Annakim posted a selfie, captioned, "This was me a month after my dad died I feel greatful [sic] to feel alive again." 

Hundreds of Petty fans responded to the sisters’ posts. "His music has made many of us feel alive," wrote one fan while another wrote, "I've loved your dad's music since I was 10 yrs old. I'm 52 now. Was lucky to see him in concert about 19 times. Always the best and most memorable shows. Crying now...still hurts so much."

As to the possibility of a future Wildflowers & All The Rest tour, Campbell, who toured with Fleetwood Mac for a year and a half and has since been focused on his band The Dirty Knobs, becomes emotional at the thought of moving forward without Petty. "I’ll tell you how I feel about it," he says. "I don’t know how many stages of grief there are but I’m still in probably stage four or whatever it is. I don’t ‘feel emotionally comfortable with having all the Heartbreakers in a room and going ‘one, two, three, four’ and playing without Tom there. It’s a little too painful, but I’m not opposed to the idea only because this was something Tom really wanted to do. I would remain open to the idea when our grief settles to do what he would have wanted, and maybe get the band back together with some singers and learn the songs and do that Wildflowers tour in his honor." 

After a pause, Campbell says, "I need more time. It’s such a huge loss. He was my best friend for 50 years. I’ll probably never get over it completely and I am doing well but for something that close to Tom’s energy and soul, I need to be a little stronger to take that on."

In the meantime, Adria says she's currently in discussions with a director about a Wildflowers documentary, and that there will definitely be more Tom Petty music to come. "We have a big beautiful archive,” she says, “We’re just going to take our time with it and work on this one for the time being and then sit down and think about what should happen next."

"It's hard. And it's still hard": The Heartbreakers Keyboardist Benmont Tench On Life After Tom Petty

Tom Petty
Tom Petty performing with the Heartbreakers in 2008

Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images


How 'Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration' Makes Tom Petty A Posthumous Crossover Sensation

On 'Petty Country,' Nashville luminaries from Willie Nelson to Dolly Parton and Luke Combs make Tom Petty’s simple, profound, and earthy songs their own — to tremendous results.

GRAMMYs/Jun 27, 2024 - 03:42 pm

If Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers landed in 2024, how would we define them? For fans of the beloved heartland rockers and their very missed leader, it's a compelling question.

"It's not active rock. It's not mainstream rock. It's not country. It would really fall in that Americana vein," says Scott Borchetta, the founder of Big Machine Label Group. "When you think about what his lyrics were and are about, it's really about the American condition."

To Borchetta, these extended to everything in Petty's universe — his principled public statements, his man-of-the-people crusades against the music industry. "He was an American rebel with a cause," Borchetta says. And when you fuse that attitude with big melodies, bigger choruses, and a grounded, earthy perspective — well, there's a lot for country fans to love.

That's what Coran Capshaw of Red Light Management bet on when he posited the idea of Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty, a tribute album released June 21. Featuring leading lights like Dolly Parton ("Southern Accents"), Willie and Lukas Nelson ("Angel Dream (No. 2)," Luke Combs ("Runnin' Down a Dream"), Dierks Bentley ("American Girl,") Wynonna and Lainey Wilson ("Refugee"), and other country luminaries covering Tom Petty classics, Petty Country is a seamless union of musical worlds.

Which makes perfect sense: on a core level, Petty, and his band of brothers, were absolutely steeped in country — after all, they grew up in the South — Gainesville, Florida.

"Tom loved all country music. He went pretty deep into the Carter Family, and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" and the folk, Americana heart of it," says Petty's daughter, Adria, who helps run his estate. "Hank Williams, and even Ernest Tubb and Patsy Cline… as a songwriter, I think a lot of that real original music influenced him enormously." (The Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Byrds' Gram Parsons-hijacked country phase, were also foundational.)

A key architect of Petty Country was the man's longtime producer, George Drakoulias. "He's worked with Dad for a hundred years since [1994's] Wildflowers, and he has super exquisite taste," Adria says.

In reaching out to prospective contributors, he and fellow music supervisor Randall Poster started at the top: none other than Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. "Having Willie and Dolly made people stand up and pay attention," Dreakoulias told Rolling Stone, and the Nashville floodgates were opened: Thomas Rhett ("Wildflowers"), Brothers Osborne ("I Won't Back Down"), Lady A ("Stop Draggin' My Heart Around"), and so many others.

Each artist gave Petty's work a distinctive, personal spin. Luke Combs jets down the highway of "Runnin' Down the Dream" like he was born to ride. Along with Yo-Yo Ma and founding Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, Rhiannon Giddens scoops out the electronics and plumbs the droning, haunting essence of "Don't Come Around Here No More."

And where a lesser tribute album would have lacquered over the songs with homogenous Nashville production,
Petty Country is the opposite.

"I'm not a fan of having a singular producer on records like this. I want each one of them to be their own little crown jewel," Borchetta says. "That's going to give us a better opportunity for them to make the record in their own image."

This could mean a take that hews to the original, or casts an entirely new light on it. "Dierks called up and said, 'Hey, do you think we would be all right doing a little bit more of a bluegrass feel to it?' I was like, 'Absolutely. If you hear it, go get it.'"

"It had the diversity that the Petty women like on the records," Adria says, elaborating that they wanted women and people of color on the roster. "We like to see those tributes to Tom reflect his values; he was always very pro-woman, which is why he has such outspoken women [laughs] in his wake."

Two of Petty Country's unquestionable highlights are by women. Margo Price chose "Ways to Be Wicked," a cut so deep that even the hardcore Petty faithful might not know it; the Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) outtake was buried on disc six of the 1995 boxed set Playback.

"Man, it's just one of those songs that gets in your veins," Price says. "He really knew how to twist the knife — that chorus, 'There's so many ways to be wicked, but you don't know one little thing about love.'" Founding Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell features on the dark, driving banger.

And all interviewed for this article are agog over Dolly Parton's commanding take on "Southern Accents" — the title track of the band's lumpy, complicated, vulnerable 1985 album of the same name. "It's just revelatory… it brings me to my knees," Adria says. "It's just a phenomenal version I know my dad would've absolutely loved."

"It's one of Dolly's best vocals ever, and it's hair-raising," Borchetta says. "You could tell she really felt that track, and what the song was about."

Adria is filled with profuse gratitude for the artists preserving and carrying her dad's legacy. 

"I'm really touched that these musicians showed up for my dad," she says. "A lot of people don't want to show up for anything that's not making money for them, or in service to their career, and we really appreciate it… I owe great debt to all of these artists and their managers for making the time to think about our old man like that."

Indeed, in Nashville and beyond, we've all been thinking about her old man, especially since his untimely passing in 2017. We'll never forget him — and will strum and sing these simple, heartfelt, and profound songs for years to come.

Let Your Heart Be Your Guide: Adria Petty, Mike Campbell & More On The Enduring Significance Of Tom Petty's Wildflowers

Imagine Dragons' Ben McKee, Dan Reynolds and Wayne Sermon
From left: Imagine Dragons' Ben McKee, Dan Reynolds and Wayne Sermon

Photo: Ray Davidson


Inside Imagine Dragons’ 'Loom': Dan Reynolds On How A Sense Of Foreboding Led To The Band's Most Colorful Album

Imagine Dragons' sixth release, ‘Loom,’ is filled with melodic soundscapes featuring big choruses that conjure deep feeling. It's exactly how Dan Reynolds wanted it; the frontman details the inspirations behind the nine-track LP.

GRAMMYs/Jun 27, 2024 - 01:30 pm

For a dozen years now, Imagine Dragons have delivered melodic anthems that have resonated with audiences from Idaho to Italy. Whether you call the band’s sound arena rock, power pop or formulaic does not matter. What does is the effect these soundscapes have on the masses, album after album.

The Las Vegas trio of Dan Reynolds, Ben McKee and Wayne Sermon may divide critics and peers, but there is no denying they are master craftsmen of earworms. The GRAMMY-winning group has served hit after Billboard-topping hit, racking up sales of 74 million album equivalents, 65 million digital songs and over 160 billion streams.

Frontman and chief lyricist Reynolds despises labels and says conversations about genre are "trite." And, anyway, the songwriter does not make music with fans or critics in mind. Instead, it’s about what he's feeling at any given moment and whether the melody moves him.

"I love things that are melodic," Reynolds tells "I was a classical pianist for 10 years from six to 16 — playing Chopin, Beethoven and Bach — and their songs feature pleasing melodies and intervals. My brain was formed in that classical piano training and that’s still where I write melodies from."

On their sixth studio album, Loom, Imagine Dragons continue the upward trajectory that started with their GRAMMY-winning debut Night Visions. Loom features nine new songs marked by big choruses, pleasing melodies and lyrics that concurrently make you cringe at the clichés and sing along.

Following a period of heavy loss for Reynolds when his grief hung like an invisible cobweb clouding his thoughts — and that Mercury - Acts 1 & 2 chronicled in song— Imagine Dragons went their separate ways. A break was needed and family time called before any thoughts were given to what loomed next.

Learn more: Inside Imagine Dragons' Biggest Hits: Dan Reynolds Details How "Believer," "Radioactive" & More Came To Be

Loom is definitely a more joyful record, but buried beneath these sanguine melodies there is still some sadness. In between recording the last album and this one, Reynolds went through a divorce — a life change that is explored in songs like "Don’t Forget Me" and "Fire in These Hills."

For Reynolds, playing live to sold-out arenas and seeing thousands of strangers singing — just like writing songs — is therapeutic. Sporting a plain white t-shirt, with a rack of guitars behind him, the singer-songwriter discussed navigating change, catharsis, the inspirations behind Loom, and why he makes music today is no different than what led him to penning his first-ever song.

"I’m in therapy every week and I have been since I was young," says Reynolds, adding that he started writing music at age 12 to handle emotional distress. "I didn’t know how to say what I was feeling and it wasn’t working by just writing it in a journal. Something about singing those words and putting it over a sonic soundscape felt cathartic. This record was no different and it felt really good."

Ahead of Loom’s release on June 28, chatted with Reynolds via Zoom about the inspirsations behind what he considers the band’s most colorful record. The 36-year-old melody maker appeared affable, admitted to currently being sober, and that he was excited to hit the road again with his bandmates for a 30-plus date North American tour that begins at the end of July.

A Sense Of Foreboding, Good And Bad

Multiple members of Imagine Dragons threw out names for their new record, Reynolds notes. "'Loom' just came to me out of nowhere during the filming of our first video. I was like, 'Guys, what do you think?' Within minutes they all loved it."

Reynolds likes the ideas and connotations that come with such a simple word: that something is coming. "The word feels ominous, but it can also be positive," he explains. "This record really dives into change as a lot of change was happening in my life when I wrote these songs."

Beyond those looming feelings, good and bad, Reynolds says he also loved "loom" as a noun. "It’s a very colorful record and a loom brings to mind the intertwining of different colors."

Mattman & Robin

After working with Rick Rubin and having several "cooks in the kitchen" on the last record, Swedish duo Mattman and Robin (Mattias Per Larsson and Robin Lennart Fredriksson) were the sole studio chefs spearheading this production. The difference is reflected in Loom's finished sound.

"This record is solely Mattman & Robin and because of that it’s our most cohesive, concise and pointed record," Reynolds says. "For our own sanity, this time we wanted to make a record that told a very specific story and that sounded like a specific color. I believe we accomplished that better than ever before because we worked with only one producer."

Starting From Square One

The creation of the Imagine Dragons’ sixth album also differed from all their previous projects when it came to the artistic approach and the song-selection process. "For every other record, I arrived at the studio with 150 or more demos that I had put down over a two-year period," Reynolds recalls, adding that the group brought in about 200 demos, selected 70, and recorded 50 during their sessions with Rick Rubin.

While Reynolds had about 150 demos this time around, Mattman and Robin suggested that they "wipe the slate clean, throw out all these demos, and start from square one." Reynolds loved the idea, "because I love to write and I’m always writing."

He wrote about 30 new songs in the studio over four to six months, and then narrowed those down. "It was all very collaborative."

Feeling Colors

Reflecting about the completed record, Reynolds admits that Loom feels like the most up-tempo, concise body of work Imagine Dragons’ has ever done; it’s also the most colorful.

"That’s the reason we chose the sunset/sunrise artwork for the cover because the image can be perceived either way," Reynolds explains. "The record feels like the beginning of things and also the death of things … It's all about change. There are definitely more bright songs than any other record we’ve done, but there are also moments of reflection and heartache."

Reynolds is not one to keep a diary or write notes on his phone. Music is his journal.

"I’ve never been a person to write down an idea and then work on that idea," the songwriter explains. "I always write the same way: I sit down at a piano, with a guitar or at a computer with no theme in mind and create a soundscape that is an honest output of whatever I’m feeling. I then write lyrics and melody to that feeling. It’s been that same way since I was 12 and started writing songs … What I’m feeling in the moment is usually what it’s going to be."

The Beauty & Safety Of Metaphor

Ever since Reynolds started processing his emotions through music and penned his first song as a pre-teen, he hid behind metaphors — afraid to speak his truth. During these formative years, this truth-telling usually centered on his religious beliefs. Reynolds was raised, along with his nine siblings, as a follower of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Reynolds admits that he relied too heavily on figures of speech as a writer, especially when it came to describing his relationship with Mormonism. 

Today, the artist no longer hides behind his words. "When I started writing, I was fearful of the people I love understanding what I was saying," Reynolds explains. "I was not thinking back then about the common listener; the only ones who heard my music, from the time I was 12 to 14, were my parents and I sure as hell did not want my mom to hear a song and think, ‘Are you doubting Joseph Smith!’" 

Reynolds leaned into metaphor. "so my mom would not know what I was talking about" — and that trajectory continued into his writing style on the first few Imagine Dragons records. 

"When I listen to Night Visions, it’s very metaphorical," Reynolds reflects. "'Radioactive' is a song about depression; yet, most people hear it and think it’s a song about the apocalypse!" 

However, some of Reynolds’ favorite songwriters — Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens — are not overly metaphorical. Working with Rick Rubin on the previous Imagine Dragons double record really helped the songwriter reduce his reliance on imagery and be more authentic. "Rick was always telling me to peel back a little bit, become more vulnerable and stop being such a scaredy-cat," he says. 

Metaphors and deeper meanings aside, Reynolds stresses that while he tries to add some lyricism to his words. What matters most, he notes, is that he sings his truth and it’s believable.  


Change is a constant in life and that theme weaves throughout Loom. Like French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote in 1894, "plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose." This  aphorism, loosely translated, means the more things change, the more they stay the same.  

"There are some things in my life that never change and I’ve accepted that," Reynolds says. "One of them is that mental health has always been a bit of a struggle for me, but music helps a lot. At the same time, other things do change. I’m 36 now and I’m not the same person I was when we put out our first record and I was 22." 

The throughline in Imagine Dragons' sound is "the human experience told from a self-reflective narrative view," Reynolds continues, adding that Loom felt cathartic. 

False Empowerment

Loom’s first single, "Eyes Closed," arrived May 3. The genre-bending song fuses rap, rock and pop, to create another Imagine Dragons anthem. 

"'Eyes Closed' is about something that looks perfect and idyllic and then you tap it and it falls into a million pieces," Reynolds explains. "The idea behind that song is that I could do this with my eyes closed, it’s so easy, but the reality is I was not really loving myself or feeling any of those things I was writing about."

It's a theme Reynolds revisits often. "I write a lot of songs because I’m in a bad place and I’m trying to bring about a false sense of confidence, security and empowerment," he says. "I meet people and they say, ‘I work out to this song every morning and it gets my day going,’ and I reply, ‘I’m glad because I really wasn’t going that day!’"

Their International Fanbase 

Loom closes with a reprise of "Eyes Closed" featuring Colombian reggaeton maestro J. Balvin. Imagine Dragons are no strangers to collabs. In the past, the band have recorded features with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne and Wiz Khalifa, but as Reynolds explains, they are always selective in choosing these collaborations. "We don’t collaborate a lot because personally I hate it when the artists I love collaborate too much. I’m like, I want to listen to you … I was waiting for a record from you.

"'Eyes Closed' really felt like the second verse could go in a different direction," Reynolds notes. "I had been listening to something from J. Balvin and I said to the band, ‘This could be cool and interesting, why don’t we try it?’ I’m really happy with how it turned out."

Reynolds adds that Imagine Dragons has become more of an international group that's bigger outside of its home nation. Touring globally has been a boon for the band: "We’ve enjoyed seeing and experiencing different cultures and witnessing how music bypasses all cultures," Reynolds says. "We go places where English is not the first language and people still seem to understand everything we are saying because they just feel it."

Reynold's Faith

As Reynolds’s conversation with comes to a close, the songwriter is asked about the inspiration behind the sixth song on Loom: "God’s Don’t Pray."

"It wouldn’t be an Imagine Dragons record without me alluding to my faith," he says. "I’m not a religious person anymore, but as anyone who grows up in religion knows — especially when the rest of your family still follows that faith — it’s still such a prevalent part of your life that it is impossible to write a record without delving into religiosity and the lack thereof."  

5 Inspirations Behind Don McLean's New Album 'American Boys': Rock 'N' Roll Heroes, George Floyd & Much More

Johnny Cash in 1994
Johnny Cash in 1994.

Photo: Beth Gwinn/Redferns


10 Ways Johnny Cash Revived His Career With 'American Recordings'

On the 30th anniversary of Johnny Cash's 'American Recordings' — the first of a six-part series that continued through 2010 — take a look at how the albums rejuvenated the country icon's career and helped his legacy live on after his passing.

GRAMMYs/Apr 26, 2024 - 05:05 pm

It's fair to say that the 1980s hadn't been particularly kind to country legend Johnny Cash. Once considered the Don of the Nashville scene, the singer/songwriter suddenly found himself dropped by Columbia Records, recording terrible parody songs (remember "The Chicken in Black"?), and addicted to painkillers after a bizarre accident in which he was kicked by an ostrich.

But as the new decade approached, Cash's reputation gradually started to recover. A 1988 tribute album, 'Til Things Are Brighter, alerted a much younger indie generation of his catalog of classics. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. And then arguably the biggest band in the world at the time, U2, invited him to take lead vocals on Zooropa's post-apocalyptic closer "The Wanderer." The scene was set for a triumphant comeback, and on 1994's American Recordings, the Man in Black duly obliged.

The Rick Rubin-produced album was far from a one-off. Cash delivered three American follow-ups in his lifetime (1996's Unchained, 2000's Solitary Man, and 2002's The Man Comes Around). And two posthumous volumes (2006's A Hundred Highways, 2010's Ain't No Grave)  further bridged the gap between his statuses as country outlaw and elder statesman — and helped further his legacy as one of country's all-time greats.

As the first American Recordings installment celebrates its 30th anniversary, here's a look at how the series deservedly rejuvenated the career of an American recording legend.

It United Him With A New Muse 

Best known for his pioneering work with Run-D.M.C., Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy, Rick Rubin seemed an unusual fit for a sixty-something country singer whose glory days were considered decades behind him. But left spellbound by Cash's performance at a Bob Dylan anniversary gig in 1992, the superproducer offered to make the Nashville legend a superstar once more.

Cash took some persuading, but eventually agreed to join forces on the assurance he'd be in the creative driving seat, and a new unlikely dream team was born. Rubin lent his talents to all six volumes of American Recordings — co-producing the middle two with Cash's son John Carter Cash – and won the first GRAMMY of his career for his efforts. The Def Jam co-founder would also later work his magic with several other '60s heroes including Neil Diamond, Yusuf and Neil Young.

It Saw Cash Lean Into Contemporary Music More Than Ever

Cash had never been averse to tackling contemporary material. He covered Bruce Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman" in 1983, just a year after it appeared on The Boss' Nebraska. But the American Recordings series saw the Man in Black embrace the sounds du jour like never before, whether the grunge of Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage," electro-blues of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," or most famously, industrial rock of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt."

On paper, this could have been nothing short of a disaster, the sign of an aging artist desperately latching onto a much younger musical generation in a transparent bid for relevancy. But instead, Cash elevates the Gen X classics into modern hymns, his sonorous voice injecting a sense of gravitas and Rubin's production stripping things back to their bare but compelling essentials. Far from an embarrassing grandad act, this was the sound of a man respectfully making the source material his own.

It Returned Cash To The Charts 

Cash had reached the lower end of the Billboard 200 in the '80s as part of supergroups The Highwaymen and Class of '55. But you had to go all the way back to 1976's One Piece at a Time to find his last entry as a solo artist. The American Recordings series, however, slowly but surely restored the Man in Black to his former chart glories.

Indeed, while its first two volumes charted at numbers 110 and 170 respectively, the third peaked at a slightly more impressive 88 and the fourth at 22, his highest position since 1970's Hello, I'm Johnny Cash. The posthumous fifth entry, meanwhile, went all the way to No. 1, remarkably the first time ever the country legend had achieved such a feat with a studio effort (live album At San Quentin had previously topped the charts in 1971).

"Hurt" also became Cash's first solo US country hit in 14 years in 2003. And while it only landed at No. 56 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, it remains Cash's most-streamed song to date with over 600 million streams on Spotify alone.

It Included Masterful Collaborators 

As well as handing over the producer reins to Rubin, Cash also surrounded himself with some of the rock world's finest musicians. Tom Petty, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, and Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood all lent their considerable talents to Unchained. Sheryl Crow and Will Oldham did the same on Solitary Man, while Nick Cave, Fiona Apple and Don Henley joined him in the studio on The Man Comes Around.

But Cash also kept things more traditional by recruiting fellow country legend Merle Haggard, 'fifth Beatle'Billy Preston, and "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" songwriter Jack Clement, while the presence of wifeJune Carter Cash and son John made the third American Recordings something of a family affair.

It Went Back To Basics 

While American Recordings was, in many respects, Cash's most forward-thinking album, it wasn't afraid to keep one foot in the past, either. For one, the star recorded most of its first volume in his Tennessee cabin armed with only a guitar, a throwback to his 1950s beginnings with first producer Sam Phillips.

Cash also trawled through his own back catalog for inspiration, re-recording several tracks he believed had unfairly gone under the radar including 1955 single "Mean Eyed Cat," murder ballad "Delia's Gone" from 1962's The Sound of Johnny Cash, and "I'm Leaving Now" from 1985's Rainbow.

It Proved He Was Still A Masterful Songwriter…

Although Cash's unlikely covers grabbed most of the attention, the American Recordings series showed that his stellar songwriting skills remained intact throughout his later years, too. "Meet Me in Heaven," for example, is a beautifully poignant tribute to the older brother who died at just 15, while the folksy "Let the Train Blow the Whistle" added to Cash's arsenal of railroad anthems.

"Drive On," meanwhile, is worthy of gracing any Best Of compilation, a powerful lament to those who came back from the Vietnam War with both emotional and physical scars ("And even now, every time I dream/ I hear the men and the monkeys in the jungle scream").

…And Still A Master Interpreter 

As well as putting new spins on his own songs and various contemporary rock favorites, Cash further displayed both his interpretive and curatorial skills by covering a variety of spirituals, standards and pop hits first released during his commercial heyday.

The likes of early 19th century gospel "Wayfaring Stranger," wartime favorite "We'll Meet Again," and Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" may have been firmly in Cash's wheelhouse. But more leftfield choices such as Loudon Wainwright III's offbeat morality tale "The Man Who Couldn't Cry" proved that even when outside his comfort zone, he could stamp his own identity with aplomb.

It Made Him An Unlikely MTV Star 

Cash was 62 years old when American Recordings hit the shelves — not exactly a prime age for MTV play. Yet thanks to some inspired creative decisions, the career-reviving series spawned two videos that received regular rotation on the network. Firstly, "Delia's Gone" caught attention for two major reasons: it was directed by Anton Corbijn, the man renowned for his long-running creative partnership with Depeche Mode, and it starred Kate Moss, the world's biggest supermodel at the time, as the titular victim.  

Then nine years later, Cash picked up six nominations — winning Best Cinematography — at the MTV Video Music Awards thanks to Mark Romanek's emotionally devastating treatment for "Hurt." Interspersing clips of the clearly fragile country singer at the rundown Museum of Cash with footage from his earlier days and artistic shots of decaying fruits and flowers, the promo perfectly embodied the transient nature of life. And it had the capacity to reduce even the hardest of hearts to tears.

It Added To His GRAMMY Haul 

Cash won almost as many GRAMMYs with his American Recordings series as he had during the previous 40 years of his career. The Man in Black first added to his trophy collection in 1995 when the first volume won Best Contemporary Folk Album. This was the first time he'd been recognized at the ceremony for his musical talents since the June Carter Cash duet "If I Were A Carpenter" won Best Country Performance for a Duo or Group with Vocal back in 1971  

Three years later, Unchained was crowned Best Country Album. And after picking up a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, Cash won 2001's Best Male Country Vocal Performance for "Solitary Man," then again in the same Category for "Give My Love to Rose"in 2003. He posthumously won two more GRAMMYs for Best Short Form Video, in 2004 for "Hurt" and in 2008 for "God's Gonna Cut You Down." In total, the American Recordings series won Cash six more GRAMMYs, bringing his overall count to 13. 

It Was A Powerful Epitaph

In 1997, Cash was told he'd just 18 months to live after being misdiagnosed with neurodegenerative condition Shy-Drager syndrome (later changed to autonomic neuropathy). He ended up outliving this prognosis by a good four years, but during this period, he lost the love of his life and was forced to record his swansong in-between lengthy stints in the hospital.  

Little wonder, therefore, that the American Recordings series is defined by the theme of mortality: see "The Man Comes Around," a biblical ode to the Grim Reaper ("And I looked, and behold a pale horse/ And his name that sat on him was death, and hell followed with him"), Death Row anthem "The Mercy Seat," and funeral favorite "Danny Boy." As with David Bowie's Blackstar, Cash was able to reflect on his impermanence in his own terms in a sobering, yet compelling manner that continues to resonate decades on. 

8 Artists Bringing Traditional Country Music Back: Zach Top, Randall King, Emily Nenni & More On Why "What's Old Becomes Beloved Again"

Marcus King
Marcus King

Photo courtesy of the artist


Marcus King Is Spilling His Guts On ‘Mood Swings’ — But He’s Always Serving The Song

The more Marcus King faces ugly psychic territory — as on his new album, ‘Mood Swings’ — his guitar playing gets subtler, not more strident. Read on for an interview with the GRAMMY nominee about working with Rick Rubin, his mentor Eric Clapton and more.

GRAMMYs/Apr 4, 2024 - 10:29 pm

I'll just match your energy. I love a good lie-down too.

That’s what flitted through young guitar great Marcus King’s mind as he worked with the preternaturally serene Rick Rubin — the prospect of which had blown his mind. (“I was just in a hotel room, beside myself with disbelief,” he told Variety about getting that phone call.) Despite any jitters, “we just kind of hit it off in that energy realm. It's positive.”

This isn’t how the GRAMMY nominee is used to working: when he hooked up with the Black Keys Dan Auerbach to make his last album, Young Blood, it was a more methodical and structured approach while Rubin’s is more relaxed and unconventional.

But these sessions were no spa days: perhaps in a Rubinesque paradox, King’s art bored deeper into his own psyche, and he focused like never before. But despite King’s openness about his struggles, and songs titles like “F*** My Life Up,” “Soul It Screams” and “Save Me,” his latest album, Mood Swings — released in February 2024 — doesn’t sound like a thrashing, cathartic nightmare, but sweet, healing soul music.

King can shred — but like his heroes, including mentor Eric Clapton, he serves the song always. “I don't like to do it where it's gratuitous, and I just like to play what needs to be played and say what needs to be said,” he said of his soloing on the record. “It was certainly a garnish that we held off on until the very end.”

Read on for an interview with King about the making of Mood Swings, his guitar and rig thinking, and the uneasy relationship between trauma and marketing.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Describe the bridge between working with Dan Auerbach and working with Rick Rubin.

Both are very profound individuals, and both of them I met in the same way, which was just out of the blue, cold called. And it just felt really similar and it felt like the right path. And I really just fell in love with Rick's energy as soon as I arrived in California.

And really different approaches — me and Auerbach stuck to a very regimented, some would say, Nashville approach. And we got a lot of really great stuff done together. And Rick's approach is wildly different and more lackadaisical.

I love Rick Rubin; I have all the respect in the world for him. But there’s sort of a dual perspective of him — what some call holistic, some might call hands-off. Did any perceptions of him melt away?

Well, I was really thankful. I'm almost finished with his book right now.

Rick, he's a fan first and foremost. It was really humbling to see that even someone with his pedigreed tenure as a producer and just a symbol of music as a whole, just to see that he still got nervous about interviews. And he still spoke about Paul McCartney like a fan — not as a peer, because they're both legendary in the music world. But he speaks about Springsteen and McCartney the same way that I would as far as them just being bigger than life.

I don't know, I didn't really have any preconceived notions about Rick, per se. I knew he was an eccentric producer, so I was expecting the unexpected. And for me, I try to match energies and I think maybe just some people are more thrown off by a barefoot yogi-esque producer lying down in the middle of a meeting while we're listening to music and stuff.

Are you kind of an all-genres guy yourself, as everyone knows Rubin is? I can’t imagine you sitting around all day listening to music that’s similar to yours.

Right, yeah. Very rarely do I listen to guitar music, even. I like to listen to all kinds of music, and just try to find inspiration from wherever it might be hiding. And that kind of changes from day to day.

What have you been listening to that might surprise people?

Well, I’ve been on a real Blaze Foley kick, which isn’t very surprising. Just a really wonderful songwriter out of Austin, Texas — a really tortured soul, and just an incredible voice. I remember a friend of mine actually introduced me to that music years ago. And when we both listened to it, it was a late night, but I remember we both just wept. He's got the most beautiful voice.

I find these songs sometimes, and the melody just kind of latches onto me, and I just listen to it over and over and over again. And this particular song by Blaze Foley, it's called “Rainbows and Ridges.”

And what's really interesting about him is there's hardly any good recordings of him. They're all just decent. And he never owned a guitar. He just borrowed them all the time and just kind of roamed from place to place. And there's obviously something romantic about that just to look at it as an artist. But he's a really interesting cat, man, and just one of those guys. I've been just being inspired by him again lately.

Stevie Wonder is another guy that's always constantly inspiring me. I got to meet him recently in LA for a brief moment, and that just relit that fire that I've always had. Early ‘70s Stevie Wonder when he did the “Sesame Street” theme song — I highly recommend you give that a Google. 

What else am I listening to? I mean, I'm moved by Beyonce's new record. I heard that song “16 CARRIAGES” and how heavy those hits are when they come in. I want to figure out how the f*** they did that, 'cause it moves me greatly.

You called Foley a “tortured soul.” In the music industry, our conception of that has changed, in a positive way. But it remains archetypal, and reading your press release, you talk about deep, dark stuff. Does it ever become tiresome to talk about your darkest moments as a marketing need?

I've often worried that it may come across as some kind of a marketing ploy, but it's really just the truth. And I'm hoping to use my experiences, and my depression is something that I feel I'm in remission of.

And when I'm on the road and I'm staying on a healthy regimen and I'm avoiding these things that I like to do — or overindulge in, rather — I feel that I have an opportunity and an ability to truly emote, and allow myself to be a vessel for the energy to flow through. And I just want people to be able to hear that and people to latch onto that idea that we can use our shortcomings in mental health, I guess, is the only way I can put it.

For me, Rick was one of the first people to explain to me that I could use what I saw as shortcomings or challenges. He kind of encouraged me to use my bipolar disorder or my depression or anxiety as a writing partner.

And now I just know that, although right now I'm feeling positive, I'm on a good regimen, microdosing psilocybin and taking my vitamins — eating my Wheaties, as they say — working out and doing a lot of mindfulness practices, and writing and trying to stay healthy in all regards, I could still get off the phone and still be hit with a really big wave of depression, 'cause it's just something that I can't really predict.

I know the things that I can do to try to avoid it, but it's an unpredictable beast, and when it comes around, I just kind of view it as a writing partner and I just kind of view it as a time for me to get back to work and just hope that they leave after the songs are written.

Do you take a community-oriented approach to recovery and mental health? In other words, are you like one star in a constellation of like-minded people, in any sort of formalized system? Or are you the type to stick to your own business and keep it moving?

Well, I think that's a really fascinating perspective to take. I guess, in a lot of ways we are part of the same galaxy, as it were, especially since I'm inviting people to come out and take part in this experience that we're bringing from town to town, which is really just as much for me as it is for anyone who's attending.

I think a lot of the abandonment issues and my anxious avoidant attachment style and all, it's just healed a little bit each night from getting validation from folks who were kind enough to come out and see me.

I mean, I’m trying to just fully understand that as a positive, because seeking validation from strangers from night to night could be taken as a non-positive. But it's what I love to do, and I hope that someone else can get some healing from it the same way that I do.

I love your guitar playing on the record. I love players who can be flashy, but often opt to weave in and out — the Richard Thompsons, the Doug Gillards.

Well, I think I'm like you, man. I don't like to do it where it's gratuitous, and I just like to play what needs to be played and say what needs to be said. It was certainly a garnish that we held off on until the very end.

For instance, on "Delilah," it's obviously a produced solo, because it's six or seven layers on top of one another. And that was kind of by design, just playing directly through the board with a fuzz pedal, in kind of a [David] Gilmour approach.

But playing something that was from the heart, but knowing that I was going to stack it. I got to go back and play it. I'm doubling it and then putting a harmony on it. A little bit more thought out in that regard. You're not going to be as overly flashy if you know you got to double it — but at the same time, you’re still allowing it to be straight from the heart and not too overthought. Kind of balancing out that middle of the road.

But when I play live, there's always moments for improvisation, where we can go on a trip together, me and the band. And just kind of dance together in an astral realm, to put it in a hippie-dippy way.

Where are you at with your rig lately?

Live, I use my Orange amplifier we did together. We named it the MK Ultra, and it’s got six L6 [power valves] in it.

It was my approach to do a hybrid of my two favorite amplifiers. I wanted a Fender Super Reverb, but I wanted it to have the output authority of a Marshall or an Orange — that real British power, and they really did a great job with it. It's super simple, just volume, treble, bass. And I just wanted something that was super intuitive, plug in and play, and we definitely achieved that.

Who are your heroes, as per “British power”? I’ve been going down some weird late-Sabbath rabbit holes lately.

Iommi is certainly a hero of mine. His accident in the factory caused him to lose the tip of his middle and ring finger on his right hand — he was left-handed, so he played that way. He fashioned some fingertips for himself, and that’s why they tuned down. Just all this s*** that happened that felt like it was just meant to be. I don’t think they would’ve tuned down otherwise.

Robin Trower is one of my favorite guitar players — a really incredible sound, and a good example of a great Strat player. Who else? Clapton, obviously. He’s a friend and a mentor, and you can’t go wrong with Cream or Blind Faith era Clapton. Just pure Gibson through Marshall power.

I’ve loved Eric Clapton since I was a little kid. What’s it like to be in the room with him?

Well, it's another situation of just a really heavy presence, and he's always been so gracious and so sweet to me and my guys. I feel like when I see Clapton, he's like if the Olympics were a person. It's like every four years, I get to see him and spend some time with him and borrow some of his energy.

The last time we hung out, he was really so gracious with his time and spoke with me and my dad. And my dad just talked to him for half an hour about learning “Sunshine of Your Love” when he was in high school, and he was just so cool about it. He could have had a s****y attitude about it, but he was just as gracious as could be, and I really admire that.

So many people of that stature would not give a damn, and it would show.

I think that's part of the thing that's so cool about him. He felt that what my father was saying was earnest and true, and I think he had enough respect for me to understand I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if my father hadn't been inspired by his playing in the first place and then taught me to play guitar later with those same riffs. I mean, it's all just so meant to be. He's a really deep, deep guy.

That’s a guy who’s been to hell and back. I’m sure you’ve had great conversations along those lines.

He's definitely an inspiration to us all who have that devil inside of us. He's certainly a good resource and he's provided a lot of good resources too. Yeah, he's a beautiful guy.

Anything else on your mind about Mood Swings before we hop off?

It's just a full release of where I was at mentally, and I hope that it resonates with people — whether it resonates with you personally, or from an empath standpoint. Maybe you know someone, maybe one of your loved ones is someone who struggles with these kinds of issues.

And if you don't want to go that deep with it, I mean, [drummer] Chris Dave and [organist] Cory Henry are dope as f***. Just enjoy it from the musical side of it.

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