As we bring these lines to you, one of our favorite writers is receiving the high honor in New York City. No, it’s not our favorite novelist winning the Pulitzer Award for Fiction or our most well-loved poet winning the Frost Medal … it’s one of our favorite songwriters, Tom Petty, and he is being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. While Petty has already received numerous accolades for his Rock and Roll genius, we are especially excited about this commendation because it is, at its heart, about what we are about – the word, the image, the verse, the character, the story. In fact, one of our RR writers credits Petty’s songwriting in her own development as a writer. “I became aware of the cleverness of songwriting when I was about fourteen years old,” she recalls. “My uncle copied some of his favorite CDs onto blank tapes for my mother and me to take on an upcoming cross-country drive. The Traveling Wilburys [a band comprised of rock legends like Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison] album was one he shared, as we drove across some of the uneventful portions of the nation, the lyrics of these songs became the landscape for me. I memorized every song, and shortly thereafter, Petty released his solo album FULL MOON FEVER. I wasn’t old enough to have a job to make money of my own, and I certainly didn’t have a car to get me to the record stores, so I quickly became a Columbia House member, and built my complete Tom Petty musical library through this mail-order service. His lyrics are the stories of my life. His songs motivated me as I completed English class essays. His voice played as I attempted to complete Algebra problems. His stories escorted me as I moved away to college. Maybe having his creativity present while I was wrestling with intellectual tasks helped me understand or appreciate his craft. Perhaps because I was in a process of putting things together and taking things apart I was able to say, ‘Oh, I see what he did there.’” Many people have similar experiences with Tom Petty’s song writing. It’s probably safe to say that most rock and roll fans have at least one special memory that is instantly called to the forefront when “America Girl” or “Free Fallin’,” for example, begins to play.
His images, characters, and anthems have earned him admission into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Like a poet, he has the uncanny ability to find gold in what he observes, like an artist making masterpieces of regular-life scenes. Take, for example, the opening lines of “Free Fallin’.” Though he admits in a recent interview that he wrote those iconic lines as a way to make his friend Jeff Lynne laugh, they paint a picture of an ordinary life to whom his audience can relate. “She’s a good girl, loves her mama/ loves Jesus and America too,” Petty writes. “She’s a good girl, crazy ‘bout Elvis/ loves horses and her boyfriend too.” This image of an All-American life resonates with listeners, and even some of his lesser-known lyrics provide fans with images that seem to be more from a poet than from a rock star. In his 1987 track “It’ll All Work Out,” he opens with a clever simile that transforms the song to a poetic work: “She wore faded jeans and soft black leather/ she had eyes so blue, they looked like weather.” While he might have made these words choices for the sake of the rhyme, the use of the simile provides the audience with a subtly symbolic reference they can ponder. Die-hard music fans might even consider an image like this to be an allusion to Willie Nelson’s single “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (Fred Rose, 1975). Songwriting like this gives listeners much to consider, which is why Petty is deserving of this commemoration…and with dozen of albums to his credit, fans have ample opportunity to analyze.
Images like these are one element of Petty’s songwriting that give him credence to this induction, and the characters that he has created are equally important. Consider the heroines he has crafted. There’s the legendary “American Girl” (1977) or Mary Jane (“Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” 1993), just to name a couple, and the narratives of these characters remind us of the girls we used to know, the young ladies we want to know, the daughters we used to be, and the women we wish we were.
… but above all, the musical compositions of Tom Petty include themes of doing what you know is right, standing up for what you believe in, and working hard, making him a staple of American songwriting.
We are excited about Tom Petty’s induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and agree that it is most well-deserved honor. We congratulate him on his continued success in the industry, and thank him for the decades of great story-telling he has brought to our ears and hearts.