On Friday, we rounded up the best Tom Petty covers to come since his passing. And today, we begin to dig deeper into the archives for a series of Petty tributes featuring older covers.
Petty tended to write songs more crisp and economical than many of his peers – no Dylanesque word salad or proggy flights of weird instrumentation – which lent themselves to abundant covers. You could play any number of Petty songs within a few months of picking up a guitar (being able to solo like Mike Campbell – well, that might take a little longer).
There are many amazing Petty deep cuts to mine. Why, just in the past year we’ve heard two fantastic covers of songs from his obscure 2006 solo album Highway Companion (by Jane Kramer and The National). But we figured we’d start with a classic, a song so obvious I was frankly surprised to dig through the archives and discover we hadn’t given it the Five Good Covers treatment years ago. Well, better late than never. Rest in peace, Tom.
Roger McGuinn – American Girl
Petty famously idolized the Byrds, so it meant a lot when Byrds founder Roger McGuinn covered his song. He told Terry Gross about his reaction in 2006: “I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it… I was very taken aback by it, and I was quickly invited over to meet Roger McGuinn. And I was very intimidated, but I went over and met him. And he said, ‘When I first heard this record, for a few minutes, I thought it was a Byrds outtake.'”
Melora Creager – American Girl
Goth-cello covers sound like a novelty akin to those The Piano Jazz Tribute to X albums, but there are not one but two women who do great work in the genre: Unwoman, who we’ve featured before (and will be debuting something from later this month), and Melora Creager. Her band Rasputina has featured twenty-some musicians rotating through over the years, but the core is always Creager. They released a fantastic covers EP a few years back, but her “American Girl” cover is solo, a dirge of cello, layered vocals, and thudding drums. It’s Petty and the Heartbreakers meets the Phantom of the Opera.
Ballad of Crows – American Girl
Bluegrass revivalists The Infamous Stringdusters recorded an “American Girl” cover a few years ago, but the one I prefer in that vein is by the lesser-known trio Ballad of Crows. With the harmonies and quick pickin’, it sounds Del McCroury, Ricky Skaggs, Earl Scruggs jamming on a porch somewhere.
Catey Shaw – American Girl
The newest of the bunch, Catey Shaw’s cover came out earlier this summer. It falls somewhere in between a piano ballad and an electronic banger. Either way, a long distance from the original, and an impressive reinvention.
Larkin Poe – American Girl
We ranked Larkin Poe’s cover of “Wildflowers” one of the best posthumous Petty covers last week, but Megan and Rebecca Lovell have been covering Petty for years. They also did “Southern Accents” earlier this year, and even played in the backing band for his MusicCares tribute concert in February. Safe to say, the sisters know their way around a Petty tune.
Bonus: The Gaslight Anthem & Lucero & Titus Andronicus – American Girl
Despite the leather jacket on his debut album cover, Tom Petty was never a punk. But he’s been adopted by a younger generation of bands who love both punk and classic rock, and don’t see a distinction between the two. So it’s no surprise that Titus Andronicus, Lucero, and The Gaslight Anthem have all covered “American Girl” live. As Gaslight’s Brian Fallon even wrote in one of their own songs, “I still love Tom Petty songs and drivin’ old men crazy.”
None of the three have ever recorded it, and there’s no need to really. Unlike all the preceding covers, theirs don’t rearrange the song in any significant way. Rather, they use the song as a room-shaker, a tune so classic and beloved that crowds – already high-energy for these bands – goes nuts. It was the final song Petty ever performed, and no doubt the audience there went equally insane.
Check out more great Petty covers in our archives – and check here later this week for more tributes.