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Benmont Tench on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Legacy and Letting ‘Wildflowers & All the Rest’ Reach Full Bloom

Chris Willman
·24-min read

No rock critic could ever deign to critique the significance of Tom Petty any better than Benmont Tench, whose objectivity about the late superstar’s creative prowess and personal appeal is not much besmirched by the fact that he put in more than four decades of service in Petty’s bands, the Heartbreakers and Mudcrutch. At one point in conversation, the keyboardist even says, “That’s just me riffing on, as if I was fortunate enough to write for Creem,” though the world was clearly even better served by the riffing he did in his anchoring tenure in what many would call America’s most consistently great rock ‘n’ roll band.

The newly released “Wildflowers & All the Rest” collections — which add scores of outtakes, demos and live tracks to the original 1994 “Wildflowers” album — offer another chance for Tench to “sing his praises to the hills.” The hills are alive with the sound of Tench as both virtuoso musician and eternal fanboy in this Q&A, one of three Variety conducted to explore the creation of “Wildflowers” 26 years ago and its expansion into a 70-track set in 2020. (Look also for our interviews with Petty’s daughter, Adria Petty, and compilation producer Ryan Ulyate.) An edited version of our conversation with Tench follows.

VARIETY: This is one of Tom’s official solo albums, and yet it’s hard not to think of it as a band record in almost everything but name, in the end. It feels like a Heartbreakers record.

TENCH: It is. It’s a de facto Heartbreakers record, because (Steve) Ferrone was a session player on the record, and he wound up joining the band. But the way that it went down… We had recorded some of the songs with Stan (Lynch, the Heartbreakers’ drummer through the mid-’90s) at Mike (Campbell)’s house. And then I was working with Rick Rubin on a session — I think it was on Mick Jagger’s album — and he said to me on a break, “Hey, I’m going to produce Tom.” I went, “That’s fantastic.” He said, “Who should I get on bass? Who should I get on drums?” Like, what do you mean? But I went along with the plan because it seemed like Tom had something else in his mind. And by the time we finished the record, actually, I’ll tell you, I was a little surprised that it came out as just Tom Petty. But my ego didn’t get tweaked. It wasn’t anything like that.

Tom himself always said, when he’d be with the band on the plane or wherever, “That’s the best record we ever made!” He always said “we.” So, yeah, I look at it as a Heartbreakers record, because that’s what it felt like to me. If it doesn’t feel like the Heartbreakers, it definitely is the Heartbreakers Part 2. Because the way that Ferrone cracks the snare, and the way he tightens up the feel and gets really precise with the feel, that became the sound of the second lineup of the Heartbreakers, too. But, you know, at the end of the day, it’s a great record. That’s what it is. Just great.

It sounds like Tom was not always into speaking explicitly about game plans, even with Rick. Some of these things get defined in retrospect. But did you have any sense going into it how it was going to be a different-feeling record?

Well, we had already recorded I think “Honey Bee,” “Time to Move On” and “It’s Good to Be King” in Mike’s house with Stan (Lynch on drums) and Howie (Epstein on bass) for this, before Rick was around. And although I thought most of those takes were really, really cool, I could tell that Tom wasn’t completely satisfied with them. So it didn’t surprise me that he wanted to try something different, especially because he and Stan had this long love/hate relationship. Tom was the most loyal man in the world, but he felt pushed by Stanley. And me, I love Stanley — I love the way he plays all down the line. But for some reason… When we went in (later) to do it with Ferrone, we were just recording another quote-unquote solo record, like “Full Moon Fever” had been. It wasn’t going to be the entire band, and Stan wasn’t going to be the drummer. It wasn’t like we were breaking up the band or firing Stan. My assumption was: we’ll tour this with Stanley.

But when we went in and started trying out drummers… We tried Kenny Aronoff, who was terrific, but was a hard rock ‘n’ roll drummer, like Stanley. It was kind of like, well, [if we’re considering using Aronoff], why don’t we get Stan? We played with several really great drummers. But the one that came in where Rick’s eyes lit up, Tom’s eyes lit up and Mike’s eyes lit up was Ferrone. At one point maybe I thought they’d use a different drummer for different songs. But I think I pretty quickly realized once they found the guy, that was going to be the guy. And he had such a different feel. That had so much to do with what that record was. The acoustic tracks, the way Tom sings, the songs themselves, the way that Rick guides you into either a deliberate performance or you just roll the tape and see what happens — all those things contribute. But Ferrone’s a major, major cause of the way that “Wildflowers” sounds. He’s just very different. and so it immediately doesn’t sound like us at all. And the same time, it sounds exactly like us. [Laughs.] It’s pretty wild. It’s a hat trick.

What was happening that entailed a switch from using Jeff Lynne on the previous two albums?

You knew Tom. That guy, who never revealed himself to anybody outside of his immediate circle, that guy who was really funny — like really, really, really funny — and giving, generous, loyal to a fault, with that straight, clear knowledge of what was the right thing to do and what was the wrong thing to do, both in life and musically… that cat, it was fascinating to work with him. Because I didn’t know what was next.

When he made “Full Moon Fever,” I hadn’t been told that he was making a solo record at first, and it was very different because of Jeff’s sound. Then there was “Into the Great Wide Open,” which was kind of a hybrid of a solo record and the Heartbreakers playing on it, especially Stan. I played a few licks on the “Great Wide Open” record. Then he wants to make a record live on the floor, which is back to making a record the way I understand it. He starts doing it with the band at Mike’s house, and then he wants to change the rhythm section. And so we go back in, and I’m very happy that he wants me to stay this time. Most of all, I loved the guy so much, and was such a big fan, I didn’t want to be left out of anything. I wanted to be there to hear the new song first! But I’m not really knowing what’s going to happen.

And what’s going to happen is for Rick to come in and upend it in a way, but bring it back to what it was in a very direct way — bring it back to what it was before Tom and Mike went “I love this guy, Jeff! Let’s do something with Jeff,” and got to get a break from the band and the drama of playing with the same guys over and over and over again. And then to bring it back to, “Oh, here it is. This is how we started out. We’re playing together live, and he’s showing us the songs on guitar, and we’re just playing and trying to find a way to get it right.”

If [the music is] any good, it’s good experience. And even Jeff, who does everything so precisely, one instrument at a time and all that stuff, it’s still a good experience, because he’s pulling it out of some kind of different place, too. But Rick pulls it closer to out of the swamp that my heart lives in. Closer to the swamp. Which is interesting, because he’s from Long Island. [Chuckles.]

In between takes, he would sing blues better than anybody I’ve ever heard that wasn’t a Black person, and it wasn’t some kind of imitation thing. He was really, really, really a terrific blues singer, a real one, and he was a terrific country singer, a real one. You can hear all of that throughout this one record. That’s one of the cool things about “Wildflowers,” that you’ve got the riffs on “Cabin Down Below,” you’ve got the riffs on “Honey Bee,” and you’ve got “You Wreck Me.” At the same time, you have the really Beatle-y stuff. And at the same time you have the stuff that, to me, tips a hat to a Paul Simon. It goes all over the place. And you do always hear that influence that comes in from where it all started. You know, this all started in New Orleans, essentially… And I don’t think that we lost that intent, ever, to stay in touch with that.

In looking at where this album fit into a body of work, is there any sense in which you’d see it as a three-act structure, and “Wildflowers” comes at the end of the second act?

It’s more like a river to me, from my experience with it. But you can definitely look at it that way, and yeah, “Wildflowers” would probably come in the same act as “Full Moon Fever” and “Into the Great Wide Open” and the (Traveling) Wilburys records. It’s at the end of the act where there’s a light in the distance and a character’s going: “What’s that?” And “Wildflowers” is the light in the distance, if you want to look at it like that.

But one of my favorite chapters was Mudcrutch, the band that Mike and Tom had that I saw at the Astro Lounge in Lake City in 1971 or ’72, that I got sit in with and then join. And the last record that we recorded was the “Mudcrutch 2” record. So it went all the way around, full circle, which is pretty great.

As people have talked about “Wildflowers” over the years, the acoustic flavors and subdued textures get emphasized, and I think some people who identify with the Americana world think of it as kind of an Americana touchstone. Maybe it’s possible to exaggerate that, because there’s a lot of actual hits and rockers on the album and not just the folky stuff. But it’s easy to see why it might have been an inspiration.

Well, Americana no longer means folky. Now, Americana means, like, what we do. I don’t know if the term was around during “Wildflowers” or it had just come up, but a long time ago, Americana did mean folky or a little bit country, subdued, thoughtful, etc. But I’m always a little leery of the term Americana, because I think that it’s become such a catchall for anything that isn’t pop, R&B, hip-hop or modern country. “Oh, it must be Americana.” So everything’s Americana these days. If Led Zeppelin showed up, they’d probably be Americana — their third record certainly would be. But the fact that “Wildflowers” has become a touchstone for anything speaks to the beauty of that record.

David Fricke’s liner notes call it Tom’s “most acutely confessional record.” Adria has referred to it as maybe being his “divorce record,” in some sense, even though he was years away from getting divorced. But it sounds like none of you were remotely thinking along those lines when he was bringing the material in.

I certainly wasn’t, and he wasn’t going to come to me and go, “I’m going through all this stuff.” It’s kind of like “Blood on the Tracks.” You can say this is clearly a divorce record, but does it really matter? But is it his most confessional record as a complete body of work? It sounds like it to me. But you could go back… I don’t know about the relationship with the girl in “No Second Thoughts” who takes off her golden band and crushes it with her heel in the sand and takes her silent partner by the hand. I don’t know what’s confessional and what’s not. I know that when he wrote “American Girl,” it sounds like it’s about himself. “She couldn’t help thinking that there was a little more life somewhere else; after all it’s a great big world with lots of places to run to.” Well, it is a great big world. And I love Gainesville! But he got out of there and went into the great big world. So what’s confessional and what isn’t? Songwriters probably don’t even know themselves till maybe later down the line.

Even though probably a lot of fans felt like he was their BFF, he also seemed sort of slightly unknowable. It’s an interesting quality in a superstar, to seem completely accessible and sort of mysterious at the same time. And maybe that was his character, or maybe tied in with the spareness and minimalism in a lot of his lyrics, that you’re left to read between the lines. But as far as how autobiographical this album is, the first lines on “Something Could Happen,” the first song on the “All the Rest” disc, are: “I’m not easy to know. My mind can change my moods, come and go.” And you could think that that’s possibly pretty autobiographical, right there.

Well, he sequenced the “All the Rest” record, and he chose to lead it off with that. He was a guy who paid attention to sequencing and knew what he was doing. So that’s quite a way to open a record, right?

But you’re right. One of the things I love about his songwriting is the way it can be open to interpretation. It’s not as straightforward as “You think you lost your love, well, I saw her yesterday.” Sometimes it is, but it isn’t always like that. It’s not inaccessibly mysterious, like some poets who are also great are. Or Elvis Costello, who’s so brilliant and so wonderful, but until I did a short tour with him in 1986 and would hear him tell the audience “What’s going on in this song is…” and I was like, “Ohhhh, that’s why he said that!” But even without [knowing] that, I glory in the way he says it.

But with Tom, he doesn’t ever get to where you can’t find your way in. And when you’re in, you’re participating. He could also write great, straight-ahead R&B songs like “Breakdown.” “Here Comes My Girl,” nothing could be more straight-ahead than that. Nothing could be funnier than “Century City.” “You belong to among the wildflowers…” Good Lord, who’s he talking to? Maybe himself, you know. Maybe it’s like, “give yourself a break.” The beauty of a song like “Something Could Happen” — this is a guy who clearly felt everything deeply, or you couldn’t write like that.

He wasn’t histrionic in his vocal performances, or in his live performances. Early on, he would slide across the stage, or (feign) a nervous breakdown during “Breakdown.” But there wasn’t really any bulls— in the guy, on stage or off. And every record was made with a completely honest and open heart. Every song was written, I could tell, with the greatest intent to write the best possible song he could. He was very deliberate about record making. He’d never toss something off. There was never a show that he wasn’t completely committed to. And the rest of us as well. You know, we never walked through a damn thing in our lives. When I played “Refugee,” I played it fairly involved every damn time.

This album seems to give a lot of clues as to where he was at then, but it also gives you his heart. You know, he’d come out on stage and rock, and he’d look at the audience and open his arms up with this totally ironic (stance), like “You love me, don’t you? Aren’t I something?” — with his arms out, that thing that he’d always do. But “You belong among the wildflowers,” that song, every line in that song is so open-hearted and gentle and loving, every moment of that song. And on this record, you get to hear the stuff you didn’t hear before. You get to hear (the previously unreleased) “Harry Green,” which is another elliptical song. What exactly was the burden Harry Green was carrying? It’s alluded to, but exactly what is it? You shouldn’t even know. It’s like (Simon & Garfunkel’s) “Richard Corey,” though that is more spelled out.

You know, the best thing to do is get the record and put it on… and put on a record, because if you put on a record, you’re hearing it the way that it was meant to be heard. with side breaks and everything. Also, there’s something about (analog) tape to vinyl, or starting with tape period, that invites you in. Digital media, no matter how good, puts a subtle difference between you and the music. My experience is I can be (digitally) recording and go “This sounds great” and loving it, but after a while, I want to leave the control room and take a break, or I want to stop listening to CDs or go to the next room. There’s something about the vinyl from the tape that makes you part of the experience. And so “Wildflowers” to me is best heard on the LPs. Although I think a lot of the extra things Ryan Ulyate did a great job of mixing (the bonus tracks) in ProTools, and then Chris Bellman mastered this at Bernie Grundman’s and did a great job of transferring it back to the LP or to the CD or to the streaming service or whatever. But there’s something about an LP. And Tom was brilliant at sequencing records. He knew what he was doing; he took time, and so the side break is really important. That’s what you’re supposed to do right then: breathe and turn the record over, if you want to hear the rest of it now. Or, as happened to be the first time I heard “Exile on Main Street,” I couldn’t get past Side 1 for a few days — I just played it over and over and over.

It’s music that doesn’t come from us, and Tom knew it. He knew he was really damn good at having it come through him, but he knew that. Crazy, right? What is that guy doing gone? [Pauses.] How dare you!… [Softly.] How dare you.

But I’m really grateful that we’ve got this stuff (with “All the Rest”).

Is there anything from the outtakes you were especially glad to have come out?

I was really glad that eventually on “She’s the One” they put out “Hope You Never” and “Hung Up and Overdue” [both of which also appear in alternate versions or improved mixes in the new set]. Especially the latter — I was just baffled, like, this isn’t like anything else on the record. Why did this get left off the record? And I thought that about “Something Could Happen.” Because we cut it with Stan and we cut it with Steve and then it just went away. I thought about that song a lot, and I really never thought it would ever come out. I certainly didn’t think he would lead off “All the Rest” with it. And I’m just really glad — and he used the take that I preferred (with Lynch on drums), and that’s always a nice thing.

On “American Treasure,” “Lonesome Dave,” I was waiting for decades for that to come out. There’s lots of songs from all the albums. With the “Mojo” album, there’s an entirely different record that’s great. “Hypnotic Eye,” there’s a way different record that’s also great — some of it came out on “American Treasure.” And there’s so much (unreleased) Mudcrutch. “Wildflowers,” this period, I think we’ve got everything I can think of, if you get to get the deluxe set.

But we’re not going to scrape the bottom of the barrel. We are not putting anything out that we don’t think is really, really good. Actually, the important thing to say is, I have not discussed with Adria, Mike, Dana or with anybody anything about any next project. That isn’t lin the works. I’m just saying that as we go through stuff, I go “Jesus, we left that off?” And that there was a lot of it. Mike has said that he wants to get to the Fillmore next, I think, because we did 20 nights at the Fillmore. We’ll see. The thing at hand is that “Wildflowers” is a unique record in our catalog, or his catalog. It echoed through the later works, but there wasn’t any collected, focused thing that sounded or felt like “Wildflowers.” Whether deliberately or by the grace of whatever God there is or isn’t, it’s a unique offering in his body of work.

Is it a relief that “Wildflowers & All the Rest” after all the legal wrangling that was going on with the family and the estate? The project was even coming up in some of the court papers that were being filed last year, which didn’t seem like a good sign at the time, so it’s almost surprising to see it coming out so soon after that.

It’s a relief that it’s finally out, because I just thought it was so good, and I felt these songs needed to be heard. And especially as we dug deeper and found the demos and found the alternate takes and found the live stuff… I was really glad they didn’t leave off this, that or the other thing and just put out the “All the Rest” set (by itself). Everybody got really excited when we started going farther.

The big relief is that there’s peace. That’s the big relief. There was always peace on my end, for everybody, but there was that whole kerfuffle. And to have that behind us, I’m really glad. … Kindness is the greatest human value. We’ve got to have kindness between people. And Jewel said something on one of her first hits: “In the end, only kindness matters.” And it’s true. Everybody’s gotta be kind to each other. And that goes for people in bands, from the Beatles to whoever, and certainly to what our musical family is. And we’re all being tested every day, and you’re tested in small ways — like “You picked out the wrong tomatoes when I sent you to the grocery store!” — or in big ways, like what’s going to happen on November 3rd. We’re all being tested all the time. But I’m glad that things now are clear.

And as for the Heartbreakers: I talk to Ferrone all the time; I talked to him yesterday. I talk to Mike pretty frequently too. I check in with Ron Blair from time to time. I absolutely check in with Scott Thurston, or he checks in with me. I talked to Adria a few days ago. It’s still family. You need each other. Because we’re the only ones that know about it, you know. We’re the only ones that really know anything, such as we know. We’re the only ones who shared him. And we stayed together for 45 years because we loved the guy, and we loved the sound we made, and we loved each other. That’s why we did it.

When “American Treasure” was coming out in 2018, you were clear that you were not ready for any tribute concerts. Now that we’ve passed the three-year mark from Tom’s death, is that still the case?

I’m not interested in a tribute concert where the Heartbreakers get together and back somebody. Mike had talked about the idea that Tom had for touring “Wildflowers,” which was several guest artists to sing along with him, supplemental players, rethinking some of the arrangements, playing theaters… That sounds like a really good idea, but who is the center? Who is the engine? Who’s Tom? And that’s the problem. Tom was the driving force. Tom was the guy that we could all turn to and know that if we don’t agree with each other on this, he’s going to have the center from which we agree. If there’s the four or five of us standing somewhere and he’s not in the middle of the stage. … Not to mention his guitar playing, which set the rhythm. That’s real hard. I’m not going to close the door on anything, but… the Heartbreakers aren’t a band where you can plug in somebody and they come sing a song and say “bye, bye” and you bring out somebody else and put ‘em into the Heartbreakers… The people that get it, get it. And usually it’s people that are in bands that understand. Usually people that are in bands understand why you wouldn’t be able to do it. A personal tribute to him, me and Mike or something?… . If it’s small and personal… that’s how I am, small and personal.

[Editor’s note: Since this interview was conducted, a 70th birthday-commemorating online tribute to Petty has been announced for Oct. 23, which will indeed feature a performance by Campbell and Tench, together.]

The best tribute concert was “The Last Waltz,” you know? But they were all there (from the Band). They led their own wake! Listen, you never know what the future’s going to hold. Sean Connery did that Bond movie after he had left called “Never Say Never Again.” Same with the Eagles — the Hell Freezes Over tour. So you can’t paint yourself in a corner like that. But it would have to be something where the idea was right, the stars aligned, and it really felt good to all of us. I can play with any of these guys. But to play together… I’m just not ready for it. I don’t know if anybody is. I want to play his songs myself from time to time. Anything I do for him will be from me to him. If it’s in public, great…. I mean, I’m so proud of him and I’m so proud of the band that of course I want to sing to the hills his praises, and that’s kind of what I’m doing right now. I’m singing his praises.

Do you have plans for a second solo record?

I’ve got a rough plan to do it in the winter. And I’ve got songs that I really believe in, and they’re kind of of a piece. Whereas the last record (2014’s “You Should Be So Lucky”), some of the songs were scattered over the course of 30 years, this record was mostly written in a couple of years. If I can find a way to catch what’s in my head, without insisting on what’s in my head — because that’s a trap. If something else cool comes in, you want to go, “Let’s see what this has to say.”

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