By Alex Rice
“The solo records made me realize how good the band is, but the solo records were also important to the life of the band.” - Tom Petty, Petty: The Biography
All 16 of Tom Petty’s studio albums feature the talents of Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, and all but one make room for the stylings of piano man Benmont Tench. Three records in Petty’s discography, though, are billed as “solo” records. Just how solo are they?
Full Moon Fever (1989)
The title of 1987’s underperforming Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) was nearly prophetic, as Tom Petty called his right-hand man, Heartbreakers axeman Mike Campbell after its global tour and said, “I think we’re done… I’ve had enough of this whole scene.” Turns out all the songwriter needed to do was leave this world for a while. Petty shacked up with Campbell and producer/Traveling Wilburys bandmate Jeff Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra fame) and laid down the career-rejuvenating Full Moon Fever, free from the inter-band politics and problems that had plagued Heartbreakers sessions throughout the ‘80s. Bassist Howie Epstein provided backing vocals on “I Won’t Back Down” (as did George Harrison) and “Love is a Long Road” and pianist Benmont Tench laid down the keys for “The Apartment Song,” but those were the only contributions from anyone else in Petty’s backing band of 13 years. The vocal tracks were pushed way to the front of the mix, so pop tunes like “Free Fallin’” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” rocketed to the top of the charts. Epstein and Tench weren’t happy about their bandleader’s first solo excursion (drummer Stan Lynch had essentially been ousted), but the second half of the Heartbreakers’ career might not have happened without Tom’s temporary change of scenery.
The smash hits of 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open (the title track and “Learning to Fly,” namely) and the unexpected popularity of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” the new song tacked onto Petty’s 1993 Greatest Hits LP, had gotten Tom back into his band’s good graces. The solo attribution of Wildflowers might have you believe the singer felt it was time to move on again, but every Heartbreaker is ubiquitous on this rootsy retreat. Campbell was once again the Robin to Tom’s Batman on the Rick Rubin-produced record, while Tench’s piano and organ are ever-present and new drummer Steve Ferrone kept time on all but one song (“To Find a Friend”; Ringo Star sat behind the kit for that number). Epstein, however, only appears on three tunes - the hit “You Wreck Me,” plus “Honey Bee” and “Cabin Down Below.” Wildflowers also yielded a huge single in “You Don’t Know How It Feels” (the final #1 of Petty’s career) and enough outtakes for a 1996 follow-up - the unusual but lovely Heartbreakers soundtrack Songs and Music from She’s the One - and a seven-disc 2020 deluxe edition). That the singer didn’t credit his backing band on Wildflowers is a bit curious, seeing as it was as much a band effort as Petty-dominated projects like Damn the Torpedoes and Southern Accents. Even with them at his side, he must’ve been somewhere he felt free.
Highway Companion (2006)
More than any other record he made, Highway Companion is ironically the one that saw Tom travel the road alone the most. Petty’s final solo album makes Full Moon Fever’s slender studio crew look like a big-band orchestra, as only he, Campbell and Lynne appear on its 12 tracks. Tom tackled the vocals, drums, piano and some bass; Mike took his standard lead guitar duties; and Jeff handled most of the bass, keyboards and backing vocals. “I’m moving on alone over ground that no one knows,” Petty claims on opener “Saving Grace.” Highway Companion finds the trio recreating the simple majesty of their early ‘90s pop masterstrokes, Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide Open, locating especially gorgeous melodies on “Square One,” “Flirting with Time” and “The Golden Rose.” True to its name and cover art, Petty’s 14th studio LP is a collection worthy of driving with the top down on a two-lane country road towards the horizon. You’re never traveling alone when you’ve got Tom Petty’s melodic wisdom riding shotgun.
Alex Rice is the founder of Bandbox. His writing has appeared in the Denver Post, Guitar World and Minneapolis's City Pages.