Memories of Petty: How singer found way in area
By Alice Wallace
Gainesville Sun — Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Rumors abound when it comes to the specifics of Tom Petty’s days as a fledgling rocker in Gainesville.
Did he drop out of high school to focus on music? Where exactly was the infamous “Mudcrutch Farm?”
Petty’s friends and former bandmates know the answers, and Petty himself discussed many of those details in his recent book, “Conversations with Tom Petty.” Yet friends say the most vivid memories they have of “Tommy” are of a mostly quiet Southern boy with a quirky sense of humor and a serious mind for music.
“The thing about Tom musically is that he is as big a fan as he is an artist,” says former Gainesville musician Marty Jourard, who recalls Petty sitting down to listen to Bob Dylan’s album “Slow Train Coming” when it was first released. Petty listened to it from beginning to end without saying a word, Jourard said.
Petty was born in Gainesville in 1950, and his classmate and fellow Gainesville musician Mike Boulware – who still lives in Gainesville and works at the Butterfly Rainforest – says he can recall standing next to Petty in chorus class at Howard Bishop Middle School in ninth grade.
“To be honest, he was pretty quiet,” Boulware said. “We all sort of didn’t know what to make of him. But he was one of the first guys I knew who had a black turtleneck and Beatles boots.”
Boulware says Petty also didn’t seem to get much of a thrill out of the class. “He dropped out,” Boulware said. “I think because he didn’t want to do sight- reading or something. And his voice was too different – that was the thing. That’s really his best selling point these days. When he opens his mouth, you know right away who it is.”
Petty’s first official band in high school was called the Sundowners. He was 14 at the time.
After a fallout with the drummer in the Sundowners, Petty joined The Epics – with band members Rick and Rodney Rucker, Dickie Underwood and Tom Leadon, the brother of the Eagles’ guitarist Bernie Leadon.
“We realized Tom was the real musician of the band,” said Rick Rucker, who is now a high school teacher in Ocala. “But it took him a while to figure it out.”
To dispel the famous myth that Petty dropped out of school to pursue music, Rucker says he can specifically remember when The Epics were down in South Florida playing a show while Petty’s Gainesville High School classmates were walking across the stage.
“He skipped graduation to play with us,” Ricky says. “There’s a lot of information out there that is totally false.”
Petty describes his time in The Epics in “Conversations with Tom Petty,” as a time “where I kind of grew up.” The members were much older than Petty – Petty was only in 10th grade at the time, whereas two of The Epics’ members had already graduated from high school- and their habits were considerably more rowdy than the 16-year-old Petty was used to.
“They were nuts, just nuts,” Petty says in the book. “These guys were just crazy. But they had a really good drummer. I bet he’s still really good. Dickie Underwood.” The Epics eventually renamed themselves Mudcrutch. Petty says in his book that the name was something “somebody came up with it one night.” But Dickie Underwood remembers a different story.
“Petty came up with the name, because we figured that would be the only way we’d ever agree on anything,” Underwood said, laughing. Underwood also still lives in Gainesville and works at Gainesville Regional Utilities.
After about a year as Mudcrutch, all of the members except Petty and Leadon left for various reasons.
So Petty posted an ad at Lipham’s music store – the hub of local music at the time and a place Petty worked for a time – in search of new musicians. Eventually, Mudcrutch became the band that most locals now remember, including future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on keyboards, as well as drummer Randall Marsh.
The band’s stomping grounds – a tin-roofed house that wasn’t much more than a shack where Boulware says the walls were lined in leather, blacklights illuminated every room and topless dancers were never hard to come by – was located on NW 45th Avenue, near where NW 6th Street curves around to meet NW 13th Street. The Mudcrutch Farm, as it came to be known, was where Marsh and Campbell lived and it was located near the end of NW 45th Avenue. Tom Holtz, a Gainesville musician who says he filled in with Mudcrutch for a two-week stint at one point, said he remembers the area was wooded at the time.
“All I remember is that there was a house and a bunch of land,” said Holtz, who works at Lipham’s music store in Gainesville. “There was a clearing and woods all the way around it. Now it’s all subdivisions there. I’m sure that building and everything else is long gone.”
Marty Jourard – who now lives outside Seattle, teaching music and playing in a bossa nova band – says it wasn’t uncommon for Mudcrutch, or any one of the bands in town, to hold impromptu concerts on prime land like that around the Mudcrutch Farm in late 1960s.
“There was a huge hippie movement in Gainesville, and they all knew what was going on musically,” Jourard says. “Someone would say, ‘So-and-so is playing a free gig on their lawn Tuesday,’ and everyone would show up.”
In fact, Petty talks about holding several “Mudcrutch Farm Festivals” that eventually got Marsh and Campbell evicted in his book.
“That was our ace in the hole,” Petty says in the book. “It was one of those things you just blundered into. There was a huge field behind the shack. And someone got the idea that we could set up in the back field and put posters around, and have people come, and play.”
Mudcrutch also played at various bars and venues around town, with their most regular gig at Dub’s Steer Room, which was located near the Mudcrutch Farm, where they played five nights a week for a time.
“Petty’s band used to get fired from Dub’s on a fairly regular basis for refusing to play covers,” Boulware says.
Thanks to the Mudcrutch Farm Festivals, as well as other festivals held in places like the Plaza of the Americas on the University of Florida campus, Mudcrutch soon became known throughout the Southeast. But eventually, the band members knew they would have to leave Gainesville in order to make a name for themselves.
“We played everywhere you could play 10 times,” Petty says in his book.
“And we realized we were just on a merry-go-round, that we would just keep playing the same bars and the same thing and not really get anywhere. So that’s when California came into the picture.”
In 1970, Mudcrutch headed to Los Angeles – tapes in hand – to seek a record deal. There were detours, and the Mudcrutch of Mudcrutch Farm days fell apart. But Petty and Campbell remained close, and both kept tabs on the soft-spoken keyboard player Tench, whose father was a judge in Gainesville.
Petty’s journey west was a rough road, one that required him to send his first wife, Jane, and their first daughter back to Gainesville while he continued to seek a record deal.
Petty found one with fledgling Shelter Records; with Mudcrutch disbanded, however, Petty had to ponder a solo project or find a new band.
He wanted to stay with guitarist Campbell and, still armed with a record deal, convinced Tench’s Gainesville band The Heartbreakers to join them. Petty, Campbell, Tench, drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Ron Blair recorded their self-titled album (with “Breakdown” and “American Girl”) in 1976.
The band has enjoyed a 30-year career laden with hits and solo/side projects (Petty, in fact, arrives in Gainesville this week behind his recent – and third – solo CD, “Highway Companion”). They are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Petty is widely considered one of the greatest songwriters of his generation.
For the Gainesville musicians who watched Petty grow from a lanky, tow-headed kid with a dream of greatness into one of the country’s most recognizable pop musicians, it seemed as though it was destined – but nobody knew it at the time.
“It was not a sure thing,” Jourard says. “He didn’t leave Gainesville as this conquering hero. He knew he had to go to L.A., because that’s where the record companies were.”
Boulware agrees that no one knew where Petty would eventually end up.
“There were plenty of other talented musicians around town,” Boulware says.
“But I have to credit him for his ability to stick with it, and for his writing. He immediately jumped into the higher level as far as writing a hit song – and they were good songs despite being hit songs.”