There are only a handful of musicians whose work evokes Americana in its purest and most distilled form. If there were a Mount Rushmore devoted to them, Bruce Springsteen would be on there. Bob Dylan, too. The third no-brainer would be Tom Petty, and on Monday, we lost him when he passed away from a heart attack at the age of 66.
The tributes started pouring in even before his death was officially confirmed. By the time it was, stories about what the Southern rocker meant to his fans stretched far and wide, to the farthest reaching corners of the internet. The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla recalled singing Petty’s “Alright for Now” to his son after he was born, while Refinery 29’s Courtney E. Smith wrote about how Petty taught her to stick it to the man.
This was a man whose music transcended generations. Just watch his 2008 Super Bowl performance. Listen to his signature twangy drawl soar across the stadium with the same urgency it did all the way back in 1976, when the release of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers announced the arrival of a distinctive new presence in American music.
While I can’t personally call myself a Tom Petty acolyte, I can recognize at least a dozen of his songs based on just the opening chords, which speaks to both his enduring ubiquity, and his prolific ability to write a hook.
But as the internet continues its daylong walk down memory lane, what strikes me most about Petty is how universally beloved he was. In an era when most Americans can’t agree on virtually anything, Petty was a unifier. People on the right loved Tom Petty. People on the left loved Tom Petty. Everyone loved Tom Petty.
Even when he condemned the Confederate flag, his fans in the South never waivered. I personally wasn’t aware of this story until after his death, but it’s worth knowing. For his 1985 Southern Accents tour, Petty used the controversial flag as a prop, something he admitted regretting in an interview with Rolling Stone decades later.
“I was pretty ignorant of what it actually meant,” Petty said in the 2015 interview. “The Confederate flag became part of the marketing for the tour. I wish I had given it more thought. It was a downright stupid thing to do.”
As we were so vividly reminded earlier this year, there are certain swaths of the South that remain very protective over their Confederate symbolism. But when Petty asked his audience to stop wearing Confederate memorabilia to his shows, they obliged. “There were some boos and some cheers,” he said, “But honestly, it’s a little amazing to me because I never saw one again after that speech in that one town.”
Petty’s comments came in the wake of the 2015 shooting, in which white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African American churchgoers. Petty admitted that while the Confederate flag was “the wallpaper of the South” when he was growing up, even in later life he didn’t fully grasp its significance.
“I always knew it had to do with the Civil War, but the South had adopted it as its logo,” he explained. “I was pretty ignorant of what it actually meant. It was on a flagpole in front of the courthouse, and I often saw it in Western movies. I just honestly didn’t give it much thought, though I should have.”
As the debate over whether or not the Confederate flag deserved a place in America’s legacy raged on, Petty didn’t back down from letting us know where he stood. Unlike some artists (who shall not be named), he didn’t worry about the alienating effects his political views might have on his fan base. Just look at what he said about the rise of police brutality an against African Americans and the epidemic of mass incarceration.
“We’re living in a time that I never thought we’d see. The way we’re losing black men and citizens in general is horrific. What’s going on in society is unforgivable. As a country, we should be more concerned with why the police are getting away with targeting black men and killing them for no reason. That’s a bigger issue than the flag. Years from now, people will look back on today and say, “You mean we privatized the prisons so there’s no profit unless the prison is full?” You’d think someone in kindergarten could figure out how stupid that is. We’re creating so many of our own problems.”
Like I said before, I was never one of Petty’s most devoted acolytes. But I can’t help but feel a deep sense of sadness now that he’s gone because in times like these it’s voices like his that matter more than ever.