Heartbreakers stick to what they like: rousing classic rock
By Bill Ellis
The Commercial Appeal - August 6, 1999
On Tom Petty's newest album, "Echo," songs like Swingin' and Rhino Skin are tenacious anthems of the human spirit, the kind of composition at which Petty happens to excel. His band for more than two decades, the Heartbreakers, is living proof.
Crafted from a classic rock mold, the Heartbreakers - guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and bassist Howie Epstein (longtime drummer Stan Lynch left in the mid-'90s) - have stood the test of time, guiding as much as backing their Gainesville, Fla., leader with a sense of rock and roll purpose that never succumbed to disco, grunge or any other trend you care to name since the group's inception (with first bassist Ron Blair) in 1975.
"We all love this band," says Campbell, 49, by phone after a Minneapolis sound check. "We do other things but we always come back to the group. It always feels like, yeah, this is the best thing going on. Most bands don't last more than two years, and after this long it becomes subliminal . . . it's instinct at this point."
So when Petty and the Heartbreakers recap songs from most every record on their current two-hour show, it's not a blatant greatest hits tour. These guys cash in nightly on what comes naturally: the joy of playing together. Campbell even insists that "we're just approaching our potential" and it's easy to believe him given the pop craft of "Echo," one of Petty's finest albums in a career that's had many, from the early masterworks "Damn the Torpedoes" and "Hard Promises" to the more recent (and rustic) brilliance of "Wildflowers."
The trick Petty and the Heartbreakers miraculously pull off is to make music that has always seemed timeless, in both Petty's shoot-from-the-hip sentiments and in the band's tasteful arrangements.
Formed in Florida, the Heartbreakers could have been another Southern rock band. Fortunately, their unshakable love of '60s British pop and rock - the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks - paid off.
Tom Petty, of Ganesville, Fla., has been the frontman for the Heartbreakers since the band's inception in 1975. Far from being long in the tooth, the Heartbreakers, according to
guitarist Mike Campbell, are "just approaching our potential."
"We didn't follow the path of local groups that tried to emulate the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd," says Campbell. "We naturally resisted that because it wasn't what we liked the most. In fact, when we first came out, people thought we were an English band."
Still, a certain Southernness creeps into the Heartbreakers. Campbell admits that bluegrass is an unlikely if heavy influence (listen closer to the band's harmonies next time).
So is Sun Records.
Campbell cites many guitar heroes - Keith Richards, George Harrison, Jerry Garcia - but it all started with Elvis Presley's sidekick.
"The first guitar player would be Scotty Moore," says Campbell without hesitation. "My dad had Elvis and Johnny Cash. Those were the only records he played."
Not surprisingly, Petty and the Heartbreakers have worked at various times with several Sun legends. They were on Roy Orbison's final studio album, "Mystery Girl," and, of course, Petty was a bandmate with Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys.
They also showed up on Carl Perkins's final album, "Go Cat Go!," a session that came about when Perkins paid a studio visit to Johnny Cash, who at the time was making his acclaimed 1996 record, "Unchained," with the Heartbreakers.
Campbell has fond memories of both musicians.
On Perkins: "It was like being in the presence of God, basically. He would sit there with an electric guitar without an amp and start playing; it would sound so good with just his hand on the guitar. We were hypnotized by his presence."
Campbell was equally star-struck by Cash. Even though the guitarist has chalked up hundreds of sessions - including The Boys of Summer, the huge hit he co-wrote with Don Henley - Campbell insists that the best time he's had outside of any Petty albums was playing behind Cash.
"The Johnny Cash record was probably where I was most moved," says Campbell. "To be in the studio with him like that was pretty spiritual."
If Cash were asked, he might say the same. The Heartbreakers bring out those kinds of performances, after all.