Ask five Tom Petty fans which of his albums is their favorite and you might get five different answers. But for the man himself, the answer was easy: his second solo album, 1994’s Wildflowers, was what he considered to be his best. A stripped down and casual affair (especially compared to the meticulous studio perfection of his solo debut Full Moon Fever), Wildflowers came at a pivotal point in his life: Petty was on the verge of a divorce, a change in the Heartbreakers’ lineup and in the midst of a label switch. All of that – and, of course, the making of the triple platinum album – is the subject of a new documentary, Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free, which debuted at SXSW on Wednesday (March 18).
Directed by Mary Wharton, the documentary boasts an unearthed trove of 16mm studio footage from ’94 and new interviews with Petty’s daughter (and documentary executive producer) Adria Petty, LP producer Rick Rubin, and Heartbreakers Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench and Steve Ferrone.
Here’s what we learned about the late rock icon and the making of this low-key masterpiece from the documentary Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free.
Why Wildflowers Wasn’t a Heartbreakers Album
Although Heartbreakers mainstays Campbell and Tench play on Wildflowers, there was a simple reason Petty didn’t want the album to be a band affair: “I wanted to be free of the democratic process,” he explains in an interview circa the making of the album.
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” Was Recorded Amidst Wildflowers
After a fruitful but fractious run with MCA, Petty switched to Warner Bros. for Wildflowers, but in order to run out his MCA contract, he needed to deliver two new tracks for one final album, 1993’s Greatest Hits. One of those songs, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” was recorded while on a tiny break from Wildflowers, in a separate studio. The way the documentary presents it, that song – one of Petty’s most enduring hits and a Mainstream Rock Airplay No. 1 – was hardly Petty’s focus at the time; it was merely a song to run out a contract, whereas Wildflowers was what he saw as his “future.” But at the time, Petty was on such a hot streak that even his afterthoughts were pure gold.
Rick Rubin Almost Didn’t Get to Produce Petty
Rubin, who co-produced Wildflowers with Petty and Campbell, got stonewalled the first time he tried to work with Petty. He shares a story in the film about calling up someone at MCA Records in the early ’90s and expressing his desire to work with Petty: “I was told that Tom was exclusively produced by Jeff Lynne and there was no chance I would ever get to work with him. [It was] a real cold brush off.”
Why Petty Wanted Rubin
In the vintage interview footage, Petty explains why he eventually called Rubin to start a working relationship. “It’s not because of his technical skill,” Petty explained. “He has no musical skill, he plays no instrument. He’s learning the guitar. He just loves music. He’s not a corporate man.”
“Wildflowers” Confused Petty
“That one just came to me,” Petty explained of writing the album’s title track in a single sitting. “I played the full song, from the top to the end, with all the music and all the lyric, in one go. I stopped the tape and played it back and I was confused. I kept playing it again and again: ‘What do we work on? What do we change?’ And then I thought, ‘I’m not going to change it, I’m going to leave it exactly stream of consciousness.'” As he said in a different part of the film, “The best ones come quick. They just fall out.” Tench agrees: “You almost take it for granted that Tom is gonna come in with a great song. But ‘Wildflowers’ stood out.”
This Period Saw Petty Part Ways With the Heartbreakers’ Longtime Drummer
Stan Lynch, the Heartbreakers’ drummer from 1976-1994, was sacked from the band during the making of Wildflowers after years of tension with Petty. “Tom called me and said, ‘I can’t do it anymore, I have to let go of Stan,'” Tench recalls. “I said ‘you have to do what you have to do.'” Lynch’s last session with the band was “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” It was during the Wildflowers sessions that Petty began working with Steve Ferrone, who would officially become the Heartbreakers’ drummer shortly thereafter.
It Was Going to Be a Double Album, But….
The sessions produced 25 songs, which the label balked at releasing as a double album. Ultimately, Petty conceded, thinking of the cost to the consumer: “To buy it would have been extremely expensive because of the two CDs, so let’s just take off ten,” he explained with a laugh. “So that was a hard decision, that probably took three months to decide what goes off and what stays.” One of the casualties was “Hung Up and Overdue,” which Petty described as an “off the wall” song with Ringo Starr and the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson. The full 25 track album as Petty originally conceived it was released in 2020 as Wildflowers & All The Rest.