Album: Highway Companion
While Tom Petty’s third solo album, Highway Companion, wasn’t nearly as great as his first two — Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers, in case you forgot — it also didn’t have to be.
After all, the stakes surrounding it were much different than they were in 1989 or 1994, both personally and professionally. Not only was the final line-up of the Heartbreakers — Petty, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, Steve Ferrone & Scott Thurston — solidified (and in fact, they were ironically, the longest-running version of the band, lasting for the last 15 years of Petty’s life), nobody really expected Petty to come up with a massive smash, even on rock radio.
Part of that was the failure of The Last DJ, and part of it was that Tom Petty had been releasing records for 30 years. Which isn’t to say that Highway Companion didn’t do well on the charts: it made it to #4 on the album charts and even went gold, thanks to diehards like your humble correspondent. But the chance of having a zeitgeisty single like “Free Fallin,” or even “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” were slim to none.
And so Highway Companion was probably the most relaxed album Petty had ever made, as evidenced by “Down South,” a conscious return to writing about where he came from, but this time with a really dry wit.
Headed back down south
Gonna see my daddy’s mistress
Gonna buy back her forgiveness
Pay off every witness
One more time down south
Sell the family headstones
Drag a bag of dry bones
Make good on my back loans
I love the way Petty just tosses off those lines, even each and every one could be the logline for a 500-page novel. What happened with his daddy’s mistress? What did the witnesses witness? Who would buy the family headstones? Is he going to pay off those loans before he gets whacked? He ain’t telling, because there’s just too much to be done.
I also love Mike Campbell’s guitar hook, which somehow both disguises and emphasizes the fact that the music of those verses are stealing pretty heavily from Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero / No Limit,” which itself was probably stolen from some old folksong. And so it goes, as Petty has so many things to do, maybe he figured it was fine to steal from Dylan.
Sleep late down south
Look up my former mentors
Live off Yankee winters
Be a landlord and a renter
Create myself down south
Impress all the women
Pretend I’m Samuel Clemens
Wear seersucker and white linens
At this point, “Down South” has abandoned all pretense of being anything else but mid-1960s Dylan, with Jeff Lynne’s organ fills leading the way both around that verse, and straight into the second chorus, which then steals from Petty’s own “Walls (No 3).”
So if I come to your door
Let me sleep on your floor
I’ll give you all I have
And a little more
After that, it’s a typically lovely Mike Campbell guitar solo, echoing around the melody, and one last verse & chorus bringing the song to its end, an absolute low-key late period gem.
“Down South” Live in Gainesville, 2006
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