Mudcrutch

MUDCRUTCH: Randall Marsh, left, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Petty and Tom Leadon got together at Petty’s behest. “This is all about the music,” Petty says. “Being in this band is so much fun." (Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times)

THE misadventure began, as so many do, in a dingy Florida strip club. This one was called Dub's, and it was cinder-block roadhouse in Gainesville where, in the early 1970s, a dancer named Bubbles shimmied for students, townies and truck drivers while a band with the unfortunate name of Mudcrutch played muscular music that melded old-man country with new-kid rock. It was a Southern solution to the British Invasion.

Mudcrutch was better than good too. They did five shows a day, six nights a week and, by all accounts, they were the second most interesting thing on stage. Everyone predicted the scruffy kids would be stars someday. That didn't happen, at least not the way anyone expected.

The young band headed west to L.A. and cut a single, but the record fell flat. Mudcrutch was one and done, so, 33 years ago, the members called it quits.

The story should end there, but it doesn't. They have a new album -- their debut album, in fact -- hitting stores Tuesday from Reprise Records. They are on tour too and have six sold-out nights booked at the Troubadour after a recent run at the Fillmore in San Francisco, despite never having been played on the radio.

The reason for all this? The band's lead singer and bassist is Tom Petty, who of course became one of the signature rock stars of his generation as well as one of its maverick souls. Now one of the great things about being a rock star is watching your whims come to life, and that's exactly what happened when Petty decided last year, against all logic, that Mudcrutch should live again.

"You wouldn't exactly call it a career move, would you?" Petty says as he doodles on a pad of Clift Hotel stationery. He was sketching a picture of the man sitting across from him, Tom Leadon, Petty's childhood friend and fellow Mudcrutch founder. "What this is all about is the music. Being in this band is so much fun, there's something pure about it."

Petty was speaking with nostalgic endearment, but the expression on Leadon's face was the kind you see in snapshots of wide-eyed lottery winners. "When Tom called and said he wanted to get the band together," Leadon says, "I felt like a bolt of lightning went through my body."

Leadon was headed home with a carload of groceries on a Saturday morning last year when his cellphone rang and he heard a voice -- it sure sounded like his old buddy Petty -- on the other end talking about a Mudcrutch reunion. He thought it was a prank.

Leadon has been a music teacher outside Nashville in recent years, while the drummer in Mudcrutch, Randall Marsh, was teaching drums back home in Florida. Marsh's old roommate back in the Gainesville days, Mike Campbell, is on guitar and is familiar to Petty fans as the "co-captain" of the star's more familiar band, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-honored Heartbreakers. The four original Mudcrutch members are also joined this time around by Benmont Tench, the Heartbreakers keyboardist who also grew up in Gainesville and, being a bit younger than the others, remembers watching Mudcrutch up on stage with an opening act from nearby Jacksonville, a band called Lynyrd Skynyrd.

"I watched Mudcrutch play 'Dizzy Miss Lizzie,' and I remember thinking, 'Who are these guys? They're great!' "

No mere trivial pursuit

TENCH eventually sat in with a later version of Mudcrutch. But even with all that talent, the band wound up nothing more than a record-store trivia answer, just like the Warlocks and the Quarrymen and other names that fall into the category of footnote. The whole reunion thing reeks of stunt -- until you listen to the album, see them on stage and hear them talk about their band heritage.

The album, titled simply "Mudcrutch," has more swamp, stomp and twang than records that made the Heartbreakers famous, and there's a dappled, Southern psychedelic feel to parts of it -- especially the epic "Crystal River," which the band performed only once in the studio and has presented without overdubs or tinkering.

"There are no ornaments," Campbell says of the music. "We performed without headphones in the studio, all live takes, playing in a circle."

The revelation in the music is hearing Petty share vocals with Leadon. The pair, as teens, learned to sing and play together, Petty says, and each "can predict the phrasing and tone" the other is thinking of when they stand side by side. It's no coincidence that two cover songs on the album come from the Byrds ("Lover of the Bayou") and Flying Burrito Brothers ("Six Days on the Road") because Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman were the compasses that always pointed to musical south and west for Mudcrutch.

Leadon's brother Chris had been west and brought back the first album by the Burrito Brothers, which was like a dispatch from an alien planet to kids in Gainesville. Another brother, Bernie, went to find a place in the Southern California scene. He ended up playing in the Burrito Brothers and then the Eagles.

"All of it ties together; Gram was from Florida too," Tench points out. Sitting at the Clift, the five members finish one another's sentences and veer off into tales of the old days, when the band members shared a four-bedroom house on the Santa Fe River in a sleepy area called Earleton just outside of Gainesville.

"We didn't have a TV, but in the living room we had a record player set up between two big guitar amps, and we each got to pick an album and put it on and everyone would sit and listen and discuss it," Petty says. "And I mean, we really listened and that was our music education. Randall would put on a Hendrix album, Tom might bring Doc Watson, Mike might have Chet Atkins. . . . "

Then there were Mudcrutch Farm Festival shows, a part of Gainesville lore to this day; the series of guerrilla shows at a farmhouse pulled in 1,000 or more kids. They came for a singular sound in the region: Parson's cosmic cowboy dreams with the added snap of British Invasion music and a swagger of the band's own personality. "We were good, man," Petty says, "and that wasn't a secret."