Tom Petty's Widow and Bandmates Reflect on His Unreleased Material - And What's Next

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Gary Miller/Getty Images

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform at KAABOO Del Mar on Sept. 17, 2017 in Del Mar, Calif.  

It’s not mere happenstance that the generous upload of material known as Tom Petty: An American Treasure arrives very close to the one-year anniversary of his abrupt, shocking death on Oct. 1 of last year. Such a tribute is apt and consoling, engendering a feeling of celebration, not mourning.

Curated by a team that included Petty’s widow Dana, daughter Adria, Heartbreakers bandmates Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, and producer Ryan Ulyate, the release comes in four different tiers of price and inclusiveness, ranging from the 26-song standard release to three 60-cut versions with various extras.

From the moment the opening chords of the 1976 debut album outtake “Surrender” ring out to kick off the collection, it’s clear why the Petty team sought the track out as a hidden gem, a song Ulyate calls a “white whale” that long eluded proper capture by the band. At a listening event held in Los Angeles to introduce the package, the early Petty/Heartbreakers sound of “Surrender” spilled out of the speakers as a bit raw, but already commandingly distinctive. The chiming guitars, the passionate harmonies, the plaintive young-love lyric -- “On your balcony/You said you loved me/Don’t say you don’t remember” -- led readily into a reminiscence by guitarist Mike Campbell regarding the band’s influences: “We had a set of songs that were kind of "Byrds-y,” he said, “We dug up this track -- what I really like about it, is when you hear Tom singing, he is so full of urgency and youthful energy about what he is creating. I heard it and thought, 'This has got to be on there.' It’s just Tom, as a young guy, at his best.”

Speaking to the feelings summoned by the occasion, Dana Petty says she especially appreciates that her companion of many years had the chance to perform a trio of tour-closing shows in the landmark Hollywood Bowl in his adoptive city of Los Angeles: ”He had those three shows in L.A., and the day before he died he was pounding his chest going, 'I'm on top of the world!' Never had he been so proud of himself, so happy, so looking forward to the future -- and then he's gone.”

It was a tour, she said, that some performers might never have undertaken. On the eve of kicking off the nation-spanning, four-month, 53-show endurance contest, band leader Petty was fully aware that he had not just pain and mobility challenges but the onset of lung disease. And yet he didn’t want to scrap the much-anticipated enterprise: “He would do anything to help anyone -- his bandmates, the crew, the fans -- and that's why he did the last tour with a fractured hip. He was adamant. He found out a few days before the tour was gonna start -- and that he had emphysema.”

In the final days of the both arduous and rapturously received tour, his bandmates quietly acknowledged their gratitude to their soldierly leader, and all hands were eager for a restful break. Petty was scheduled for the surgery that could mend his aching hip, and ideally free him from the prescribed pain meds that were all the more needed after his onstage exertions. Says Dana: “That's why he wouldn't go to the hospital when his hip broke. He was like, 'I just got home. I want some time. I don't want to go to hip replacement surgery. I want to be home with my wife and my dog.' I was just like, dude, you can't hobble around the house… insane in pain, but he was stubborn. He’d had it in mind it was his last tour and he owed it to his long-time crew, from decades some of them, and his fans.”

Much as the tour’s live shows needed to include an ample helping of crowd-pleasers, the team compiling An American Treasure wanted to offer some of the familiar favorites -- “Breakdown”, “Insider” (with Stevie Nicks), “I Won’t Back Down.” “It kind of made sense to keep some of the hits there,” says Dana Petty, “To show the story of his songwriting and the process of how it all evolved. But man, there's some great covers and unreleased songs that no one's ever heard that you just go, 'Wow.' And a lot of them I'd heard and just forgot about, and I'm sure Tommy forgot about them.”

Keyboardist and founding band member Tench says the process of culling songs for the set was a kind of continuing dialog with the perfectionist principal who often set more-than-serviceable tracks aside. "During the process," Tench says, “we tried to keep the quality control up…we might put something out that we would have to argue Tom into -- like 'Keep a Little Soul,' with that line, 'Don’t be afraid to live what you believe.' Good Lord, I almost started crying when Ryan retrieved that [from the recording trove]. I have no idea why it never came out, never came out of the [1995] Playback box set -- nothing. But we don't ever want to put anything out where Tom would go, 'Hey, I don't want that out.' I think what we're doing is stuff where he would hear it and say, 'You're right, that's actually really cool.' "

A particular favorite for Tench, who per familiar band legend grew up near Petty in Gainesville, Florida, was the highly autobiographical “Southern Accents” from the album of the same name. Tench recalls a particular verse:

There's a dream that I keep having
Where my mama comes to me
And she kneels down over by the window
And says a prayer for me

Says Tench, “It took my breath away when he showed me the song and he sang the bit about his mother. Because that was a strong bond. She meant a lot to him. The bridge in that song really took my breath away when he played it. He was a very soulful man. I regret that he's gone, so much. I'm grateful that we're getting to shine such a great light on him through this and what I hope are the future releases.”

Regarding such potential future releases, the Petty team seems likely to pick up on an initiative the singer himself started. A landmark album for many Petty fans is his 1994 second solo album, Wildflowers. Though the Rick Rubin-produced album de-emphasized the Heartbreakers’ participation, it’s close to Tench’s heart: “Wildflowers was a soundtrack to my life, too. I was there when they were put on tape, so I heard them before anybody else -- I liked those songs as much as anybody does. I felt like they were really speaking to me as much as anybody, and I know he didn't write that stuff to me, but he wrote it to people who felt like me.”

Petty was ever reluctant to laud his own efforts, but at the time I interviewed him for Billboard about the 2014 Hypnotic Eye album, which would be his first No. 1 on the Billboard 200, he was eager to see the release of what might be termed Wildflowers II, which the posthumous producing team is likewise eager to see: “There are some beautiful songs,” Petty said then, “I think people who liked Wildflowers will certainly feel like they got part two of that record."

“That was originally done as a double CD, and in the final hours, Lenny Waronker came over from Warner Brothers, listened to the whole thing with me and [Rubin], and said, 'Listen, this is just too long to digest, you know? And it’s really good, but I think people are gonna take it in better if you cut it down to one disc'…. so, we kind of raided the second disc, put everything we could fit into one CD," Petty said during the 2014 interview.

Four songs were shunted to the She’s the One film soundtrack, still leaving an album’s worth of strong material. “This can’t be too etched in stone, but I think there’s ten tracks on it,” said Petty in 2014. “It’s pretty killer when you bring up the faders and that sound is there. I go, 'Oh man, we were on the money there. We were really deep into it, weren’t we?' ”

Further depths beckon, not just studio rarities but 15 years of recorded live shows -- notably a legendary 20-song stand at Fillmore West. Dana Petty feels Ulyate, after cranking through tracks for the seven months American Treasure required (he also recorded 200 episodes of Petty’s Sirius Buried Treasure show), is equal to the task of sorting through it all: "He’s been such a comrade. Such a true friend who worked night and day for months. I don't know if he slept."

Says Tench: "Tom's standard never dropped as a writer, our standard never dropped as a band. We kept shooting for the absolute best, because he was our songwriter -- and Mike is important and often overlooked, as Tom's frequent songwriting partner. The process of making this was argument -- we didn't fight but we argued, like, 'But if we put those on we can't have this on.' It was very emotional. It was very good for me because it made everything still alive and it reminded me that the music is still alive, and therefore what he accomplished is living and breathing.”

Dana Petty recalls, “Tommy was professional, so professional, and he so cared, every show was like the first and the last for him. He gave it his all, but he went out -- if you had a choice, I think that would be his choice really, so that's what gets me through. And I had so many wonderful years with this man. I was so blessed. And my heart is shattered, but I had him. And my kids had him, and fans and friends. Fifty years of music is pretty impressive. It's a beautiful gift he gave us for a long time.”