clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Higher Place: The Full Story of Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers’ and Its Massive New Reissue

The sessions for Petty’s best album bore more fruit than what made it onto the disc. Now, those additional songs are being presented as part of a sprawling new box set. Some of his closest collaborators and his daughter Adria reflect on the legacy of ‘Wildflowers,’ the legendary recording, and how the new collection came together.

Harrison Freeman

Tom Petty was in his happy place. His fortress of solitude. His backyard recording studio. The one part of the house where everyone knew better than to tread while he was in there by himself dreaming, and writing, and recording. “You didn’t open that door unless the house was on fire,” his daughter Adria Petty said. “My dad spent most of his time in his life quarantined in his house or on the road, basically. But he had that room and he’d just go in that room every single day and work and close the door.”

On this particular day, he had a new idea that he wanted to get down on tape. He didn’t have any lyrics written down to guide him, just a simple three-chord progression and some vague visions of the Santa Barbara countryside in all its lush, colorful springtime splendor. So, he hit the big red record button on the tape machine, took a deep breath and began to strum. As the jaunty acoustic guitar in his hands filled the room with a capoed, sonorous chime, he opened his mouth and started to sing.

“You belong among the wildflowers / You belong on a boat out at sea.”

Who knows where those tenderly delivered words came from. Petty certainly didn’t. “I swear to God it’s an absolute ad-lib from the word ‘go,’” he told author Paul Zollo for his book Conversations With Tom Petty. In the next three minutes, Petty waxed poetic about love and freedom, heart and home while the reels on his recorder spun around in a steady rotation. When the song came to its seemingly natural conclusion he reached over his guitar and clicked the stop button. “Then [I] sat back and went, ‘Wow, what did I just do?’ And I listened to it. I didn’t change a word. Everything was just right there, off the top of my head.”

Some things don’t need changing. Some things are born into this world perfect and simply remain that way. “Wildflowers,” the title track to what Petty himself considered to be his greatest album, is an exquisite example of that exceedingly rare phenomenon.

“Everything was right,” the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench said when discussing the heady 18 months that resulted in the creation of Petty’s triple-platinum magnum opus. “It was a lot of work. It took a lot of time. It was so much fun. It was never not interesting … [Wildflowers] was kind of one of those written-in-stone things.”

Thanks to the new, massively expanded Wildflowers & All The Rest box set out Friday, we can finally hear some of those seemingly divine inspirations for ourselves, along with a bevy of thrilling live recordings and totally unheard songs that have remained locked in the vaults for decades. Spread over five discs in its most expansive form, this collection offers the fullest glimpse yet into the process and brilliance of one of America’s greatest songwriters working at the very apex of his powers.

To say that Tom Petty’s life was in a state of flux around 1993 and 1994 would be putting it mildly. After recording seven blockbuster albums for MCA during the preceding decade, he decided to seek out a deal with a new company a few years prior. He ultimately chose to go with two giants of the music industry, Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker, and their label, Warner Bros. The decision paid immediate dividends. “He felt more of a part of his label than he had ever felt before,” Adria said. “He was ready to take the mantle of being a more serious and respected artist at that point.”

Right from the beginning, Petty knew he wanted to make a solo album, and he wanted to do it in a way that was totally different from how he’d created records in the past. So, he took a break from coproducing records alongside his Travelling Wilburys bandmate Jeff Lynne and Heartbreakers lead guitarist (and Petty’s right-hand man) Mike Campbell and linked up with the cofounder of Def Jam Records, the bearded Zen maestro Rick Rubin, who had by that point moved on to American Recordings.

Rubin had long wanted to work with Petty and was fully obsessed with the latter’s album Full Moon Fever. They first met on a private flight from L.A. to New York and bonded over a shared appreciation for Bob Dylan. Ostin eventually set up an official sort of meeting between Petty and Rubin to see about the latter producing, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“He had a lot to do with the energy of the recording,” Campbell said of Rubin’s influence. “We were just trying to impress each other and so that kind of lit a fire under everybody. … We all like the same kinds of music and we all are on a mission to make the greatest record of all time.”

Rubin’s approach to the recording process couldn’t have been farther afield from Lynne’s meticulous method of pop-song construction. And that’s exactly how Petty wanted it at the time. “With Rick, it was kind of like getting back to live playing in the studio as opposed to building tracks up one at a time,” Campbell explained. “He was really helpful with the arrangements, he’d come in with a skeleton of a song and we’d sit together, and he’d say, ‘Why don’t you put the bridge here? Or maybe you should get extra chorus here,’ stuff like that. And it got to be a real teamwork kind of vibe.”

Benmont Tench was especially thrilled by this approach. “I hadn’t played on the previous record much, Into the Great Wide Open,” the keyboardist said. “It was mostly Tom, Mike, [drummer] Stan [Lynch], and Jeff, so this time I was like, ‘Right on! We’re gonna make it old school, we’re gonna play it all together at once,’ and Tom kept bringing in great song after great song.”

Ah yes, Stan Lynch. That was another area of change for Petty. Lynch had been the reliable, beating heart within the Heartbreakers for nearly 20 years. But by 1993, the tension between the drummer and the group’s frontman had reached a breaking point. “Tom and Stan had a thing going between them for a long time,” Tench said. “Tom is incredibly loyal. Stan loved Tom, loved the band, but there was kind of a tense thing there.” And so, for Wildflowers, Petty played around with a variety of different percussionists, including one of the most celebrated names to ever sit behind a kit: Ringo Starr.

“I think the first song we did with him was ‘Hard to Find a Friend,’” Campbell said. “And so, since there wasn’t a band on that session, I was playing the bass. … We cut the track and we went back to listen to it and I was a little awestruck, but still we’re musicians, we’re here to do a job and I was being kind of self-effacing. I said, ‘Well, I think that’s really great, but I’m not really a bass player.’ And typical Ringo, he looks at me, he goes, ‘Well, Don Was is right down the hall, you can go get him if you want to?’ ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, it’s fine,’” Campbell said to Ringo. “‘I got this!’”

Though Ringo was a fun diversion, Petty ultimately leaned on Steve Ferrone to provide the backbeat on the bulk of Wildflowers. “I played with Ferrone at [Royal] Albert Hall with George Harrison,” Campbell said. “And so, when Tom said, ‘We need to go and record these songs, we need a drummer.’ I said, ‘This guy I played with was really, really good.’” It took a blessing from another Beatle, however, to truly seal the deal. “I guess [Tom] asked George Harrison about it. He said, ‘Yeah, you should get him. He’s got great time.’” Ferrone has essentially been a Heartbreaker ever since.

With his band, producer, and record label all in place, all that was left to do was to write some songs. Fortunately, Tom Petty was in the middle of an almost inconceivably brilliant stretch of songwriting. Gut-wrenching verses, hypnotically catchy choruses, and unique bridge sections were pouring out of him at a stunning clip. One of the great fuels for this new wellspring of inspiration stemmed from one of the biggest changes in his life thus far; the disintegration of his relationship with his wife, Jane.

The pair had been married since 1974, but by the time he started putting together the material for Wildflowers, they were on rocky ground. Despite the fact that their separation became legally official in 1996, Petty long referred to Wildflowers as “the divorce album.”

“There was definitely tension in his life,” Rubin told Petty’s biographer, Warren Zanes. “I would say that of all the records we worked on together—and we worked on a good amount of stuff—he was the most engaged and put the most time into Wildflowers. And I would also say that it seemed he didn’t really want to leave the studio. Like he didn’t want to do anything else in his life. I think he wanted to take his mind off whatever was going on at home.”

Typically, Petty recorded the pieces alone at home to an eight-track recorder before linking up with Rubin, Campbell, and Tench at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys and fleshing everything out. “It was a lot fun,” Tench said. “Most of it was done in the same room where we cut Damn the Torpedoes and did 75 takes of ‘Refugee.’”

With so much time to create—well over a year and a half—Petty wrote and recorded more songs than he even knew what to do with: incredible, era-defining songs like the harmonica-drenched hit “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” breakneck rockers like “You Wreck Me,” along with plaintive, heart-crushing ballads like “Don’t Fade on Me,” “Crawling Back to You,” and “Time to Move On.”

And then there was the melancholic masterpiece “It’s Good to Be King”: a sprawling, near-sardonic glimpse of what life feels like at the very top. It remained, throughout his life, one of Petty’s personal, favorite compositions. He was especially proud of the final line: “Excuse me if I / Have some place in my mind / Where I go time to time.” The ultimate dreamer’s lament.

It’s yet another testament to the otherworldly talent of Mike Campbell that the solo you hear on “It’s Good to Be King” was a first take. “Most of my records are first or second take,” he said. “I listen to the vocal really close and I listen to the melody and I imagine the melody on the guitar and get my head in that space. And if I’ve done my homework in a spiritual way, I kind of know what works and what doesn’t work.”

Petty ultimately amassed so many songs for Wildflowers that he thought about doing something he had never done before. “It started out as just recording some songs and it kept going, kept going,” Campbell said. “And then we realized we had too many songs for a single disc. So, then we thought, ‘Well, maybe we’ll do a double record?’”

Unfortunately, his new record label wasn’t too keen on the idea. Petty wasn’t afraid to go to war with music executives: He once filed bankruptcy in 1979 to get out of his existing deal, then held his 1981 album Hard Promises hostage until MCA agreed to spike its plans to raise the retail price of that project by a dollar. But when the label raised some concerns about the hazards of trying to sell a 25-track collection, Petty readily acceded, and we were left with the Wildflowers that we all know and love today.

Wildflowers as it existed in 1994 is really only two-thirds of the story. Especially in his later years, Petty grew more and more eager to let the public enjoy the rest of the tale. He wanted us to hear All the Rest that the Wildflowers sessions had to offer.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Not in his lifetime anyway. Petty died from an accidental overdose in 2017 before he could ever get to revisit Wildflowers to the extent at which he felt it truly deserved.

Since that time, his family and closest musical collaborators have picked up the mantle, and with the release of All the Rest, we can finally hear long-buried gems like “Confusion Wheel,” and “Something Could Happen.” The latter tips its cap to that illuminating final line of “It’s Good to Be King,” in the opening stanza: “I’m not easy to read,” Petty admits in the song, “My mind can change / My moods come and go.”

“We’re really trying to give people access to stuff that’s interesting, that’s really high quality or that is genuinely unreleased and is stuff he was excited about,” Adria explained. “After Dad died and I had a copy of All the Rest and I would sit there listening to it … The sequencing took you on this really incredible journey. I think he rated all of the songs as good enough to go on Wildflowers. I just don’t think he thought they could cohabitate on one CD. And he edited down based on key and based on tempo and based on story arc.”

Some songs on All the Rest might seem familiar to the biggest Petty heads out there. Four of the disc’s 10 tracks—“Climb That Hill,” “Hung Up and Overdue,” “Hope You Never,” and “California”—subsequently appeared in different forms on the 1996 soundtrack album for the romantic comedy She’s the One. Another track, “Leave Virginia Alone,” was given to Rod Stewart a year earlier for the English singer’s record A Spanner in the Works. Petty’s stripped-down take leaves Rod the Mod’s in the dust.

But then you have truly revelatory songs being released for the first time like “Harry Green,” a compassionate, solo acoustic piece Petty wrote about a guy he met in Spanish class back in the day who, “Helped me out from a spot I was in / Stopped a redneck from kicking my ass.”

As it turns out, Harry Green was most likely a pseudonym for a real person in Petty’s life many, many years ago. “I don’t know that that was the name of the person, but I think it was a real person,” Adria said. “My dad was persecuted for having long hair in the ’70s and the late ’60s, because he had such long hair and he looked so pretty and like a girl. He felt a lot of kinship with people who would be persecuted for being gay because that was what he was accused of, nonstop. So, I think it’s interesting thinking about him writing that song when maybe Harry Green was in the closet and he was a football player. And my dad was the one that was out there taking all the blows and this guy stopped a redneck from kicking his ass, which really, it’s cool.”

“Somewhere Under Heaven” is another stunning, long-buried track that finds Petty breaking out the electric 12-string guitars and leaning deeply into his Byrds-tinged roots while crooning at the upper limits of his signature drawl about a little girl named Jenny who danced in the rain in the eye of a hurricane. And then there’s “Climb That Hill Blues,” which sounds like the missing cross-Atlantic link between English guitar savant Richard Thompson and the legendary Mississippi bluesman Son House.

And yet as exhilarating as it is to hear some of these new songs for the very first time, the ability to listen to some of Petty’s most beloved material in their nascent state on the Home Recordings disc provides a plethora of interesting insights. “My dad worked as a demo maker very secretly,” Adria said. “He was a very secret Keebler elf with his demos. ... Sometimes he would go in with something like, ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels,’ virtually finished.”

Other songs, like “Crawling Back to You,” took more time and collaboration, with the end result sounding very little like the initial idea he put to tape. “When you find the demo here, it sounds just like a Hank Williams song or a Patsy Cline song,” Adria said. “It’s not fully developed in movement and dynamics. But Rick said to me, ‘He really made this in movement.’ They would take a song and then they’d break down each movement and really cleanly record it. … They basically got in there and just kept growing with each other, making better and better stuff and just didn’t stop until they had to.”

And then there are the live tracks, including two incendiary cuts—“It’s Good to Be King” and “Walls”—that were culled from a now-legendary 20-show residency Petty and the Heartbreakers staged at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1997. In fact, look to those shows as perhaps the prime source for the next Petty-related project on the horizon.

“That’s the one project that I would love to see happen because I remember it being special, the set lists were different,” Campbell said. “We had guest artists and it was that wonderful sound in that room and we recorded all of it.”

Tom Petty went beyond calling Wildflowers his best record. He asserted that, as a total statement of music, it’s the collection that’s the most similar to who he was as a person and a musician. “I think it kind of hits every area of music that really speaks to me,” he told Paul Zollo. “It’s got a little rock, some blues, some folk … I think as a whole, it’s a real long piece of music—it’s almost 70 minutes long—but that’s the one that really gets me when I hear it. I can kind of go, ‘Wow, I’m really proud of that.’”

“It’s hard to kick any of these songs down the road,” Adria explained. “They have some deeper quality than words can capture, and I think they’re honest and authentic and we don’t get a lot of that these days. … And that was what was unique about my dad. My dad was much more excited to meet somebody who is authentic than someone who was rich or famous, any day of the week.”

Now, more than ever, Wildflowers, especially in its most expansive form, can help shed new light on an artist who notoriously kept things pretty close to the vest. To listen to this music is to understand the man a little bit better. Everything you need to know you can hear in songs like “Only a Broken Heart,” “Wake Up Time,” “To Find a Friend,” and that touching, title track first recorded in his big backyard.

“There is a lot of intimacy in some of these recordings that really show his humor and his songwriting ability and his great singing style,” Mike Campbell said. “I think that if you’re a fan of the band, you’ll feel closer to Tom and more like you understand him as a human being after hearing all this stuff.”

Corbin Reiff is a music writer based in Seattle. His latest book, Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell, was released in July.

Higher Learning

New Diddy Lawsuit, the Wins of the “Uncommitted,” and Fat Joe’s Trump Sneaker Addition

New York, New York

AMA: The Honeymoon Edition

The Bill Simmons Podcast

The Wemby Era, a Women’s Hoops Revolution, Taylor Swift Vs. the Beatles, and Maye Vs. Daniels With Chuck Klosterman

View all stories in Music