The One Thing We Can All Agree On: Tom Petty and American Music

By Charlotte Hollingsworth


The earliest memory I can reliably bring back to life is very simple. It’s me, I’m very small, probably 5, and my mom is cleaning the house. It’s Sunday, I know this because Sunday is cleaning day. The house smells like PineSol because mom is mopping the hardwood floors, and we are listening to Into The Great Wide Open by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. After that, we will listen to Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers Greatest Hits. This is something we do every Sunday, and when I start learning how to sing I practice on Tom Petty lyrics. This music is home, and even though we move so many times while I’m getting older, Tom Petty and open windows and my mom and I singing at the top of our lungs is always the same, and is always home.

When I think about American music, one of the first sounds that comes to mind is Tom Petty’s rough vocals rolling over the syllables in “American Girl.” During his 40 years of music making, Petty painted a picture of an America both specific and abstract, small towns without borders and a Los Angeles we can all remember going to, even if we’ve never been to California. I have yet to find another artist so consistently capable of delivering that kind of late-day energetic nostalgia you get when you hear a Heartbreakers song on the radio. He wove a 40 year long story of a place we’ve all been to, that we can all relate to, that was still specifically from his heart and experience. He played rock music that was everything you needed from it, and nothing you didn’t.

Someone once described “Free Falling” as a song that enters through the body and leaves through the mouth, and I can’t agree more. That song builds up in your gut, slowly fills your whole circulatory system, and then that chorus hits and your head is back, your mouth wide open before you even realize you are singing, and then you’re part of it. You’re part of that song, and you’re free.

When I first saw the news that Tom Petty had gone, I didn’t want to believe it. I was just looking back into real life after a weekend spent blissfully attending concerts with my boyfriend, The Shins had played a cover of “American Girl” on Saturday night and I was walking on air. First, I read about Las Vegas and felt the floor move under me. Then, I read about Tom Petty, and my stomach dropped to the center of the earth. When news started getting shaken out that he was still alive, I didn’t let myself have hope because I could not lose him twice. I sent my mom a text message, and she called me immediately from her office. She and I have only ever talked on the phone about one other celebrity death, Robin Williams, but I needed to talk to her about Tom. We didn’t say a lot, just that he was rock n roll, he was everything rock n roll should be, and that it was horrible. Then I sat down on my couch and cried.

I want to be the kind of writer who can say “you don’t know how it feels to be me” and strike such a chord that everyone relates to those words. I want to be the kind of person that owns up to mistakes and stands up for what I believe in. I want to be the kind of person that loves with all my heart and sees freedom as an attitude and a destination. Tom Petty spent the majority of his life making music that everyone, no matter where they’re from or what they believe, can embrace with open arms. He wrote with the simple and focused intention reserved for poets like Whitman and Yeats, and never let the fads of the music industry sway the music he wanted to make. He was both inside and outside, a hit maker and the music your dad listened to in the car. That’s the kind of American Icon I want to believe in, someone who is unabashedly himself but never wanting to impose his desire on anyone. He made his corner of the world and invited us all in.

Anyone who knows me knows I love Petty, but to be fair you can say that about most people you meet in America. I am so happy that I had the great luck to be born to a Petty fan and raised to idolize this particular kind of rock n roll. Heartbreakers music was how I escaped the sad times in my life, and even though it breaks my heart that he’s gone, this music will get me through this time, too. And the story that Tom Petty gave us about an America full of connected stories, full of shared experiences, that story is still going. We’re just going to have to keep writing it without him.