Tom Petty's music has something for everyoneBy Emily Strickland | 10/12/2017 10:00pm
I was 16, and it was the summer before my junior year. I looked through the discounted CDs at Walmart, debating over a Fleetwood Mac album and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Greatest Hits.”
I settled on the Heartbreakers. I’d never listened to much Petty, but I was in the midst of yet another high school attempt to figure out who I was and what I liked.
I bought the album and put it in the CD player of my car. The album opens with the twangy, upbeat riff of “American Girl.” I listened to the first lyric and was hooked.
“Well, she was an American girl, raised on promises;
She couldn’t help thinking that there was a little more to life somewhere else.
After all, it was a great big world with lots of places to run to…”
Like I said, I was 16 and just experiencing the freedom of having my driver’s license and my own car. College decisions and graduation were slowly rising over the horizon, but I still had two whole years of high school left.
Still, these lines reached out to me in a way that few songs have since.
Recorded on July 4, 1976, Petty tells the story of a small town girl with ennui that I had already experienced: that longing to go out and experience something else, to see something new. I didn’t know much about myself yet, but I knew that I related to this girl.
As I listened to the rest of the album, I realized that, more than a songwriter, Petty was a storyteller. He tells the story of the small town dreamer, the girl that makes the world less hopeless, the refugees, the losers, and the lucky.
A staple in my car’s CD player, that greatest hits album has followed me since then. Through the rest of high school and now into my third year at the University of Alabama, I’ve continued to unpack the album and grown to better appreciate Petty’s artistry. As I’ve gotten older, the message remains as poignant as ever; good music has a way of doing that.
Tom Petty passed away last week at his home in Malibu, only 66 years old. He and the Heartbreakers had just finished a tour that the Gainesville, Florida native quipped would likely be their last, as he was looking to forgo life on the road to spend time with his granddaughter.
After an artist dies, there is always a resurgence of appreciation for the unique art they created; the reaction for Petty has reflected this reality, as it should. In his music, Petty channeled the storytelling of folk music while capturing the attitude and heart of rock 'n’ roll to develop a truly inimitable sound.
“Greatest Hits” has something for everyone, especially the rebellious dreamers like Petty. I found a kindred spirit in “American Girl;” you might in “I Won’t Back Down,” “Learning to Fly” or “Listen to Her Heart.”
So, listen to the album. Watch the Heartbreakers’ documentary on Netflix. Take some time to appreciate Tom Petty and the art he created; maybe you, too, will find yourself in the characters he gave voice to.
Emily Strickland is a junior majoring in journalism. Her column runs biweekly.