If a filmmaker were to tell the story of Florida rock group Mudcrutch, it would go something like this: Rock 'n' roll-loving teenagers form a band and head for Hollywood in search of fame, only to fall short and disband.
Flash ahead three decades. The members reunite, record the album they never got to make, play a series of sold-out shows and, having savored their victory lap, return to their lives.
That unlikely story is what happened with Tom Petty's band before the Heartbreakers put him, and them, on the musical map in the mid-1970s.
The key difference between real-life and the silver screen scenario is that instead of quitting for good following a successful reunion in 2008, Mudcrutch is back for a third time at bat.
FOR THE RECORD
Mudcrutch: In the May 15 Arts & Books section, an article about Tom Petty and Mudcrutch said that the band's fundraiser shows at Cal State Northridge on May 23 and 24 would benefit university radio station KCSN-FM (88.5). The shows will benefit the Midnight Mission. Additionally, band member Tom Leadon was identified as Eagles member Bernie Leadon’s older brother. Bernie is the elder Leadon sibling.
“We had so much fun we just wanted to do it again,” Petty, 65, said recently during a group interview at offices of Warner Bros. Records in Burbank, the label that is releasing “Mudcrutch 2” on May 20.
“It was a little bit intimidating to do another one,” he continued. “To top that one, it was going to be hard. But we just decided not to worry about topping it; let’s just make a good record, and this is what happened.”
“Mudcrutch 2” again teams the original lineup of Petty (singing and playing bass) with the Heartbreakers' Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench along with their northeast Gainesville bandmates from long ago: guitarist Tom Leadon and drummer Randall Marsh.
Because Mudcrutch includes 60% of the members of the Heartbreakers, it’s easy to find similarities in sound. In addition to the different singers and songwriters, the key differences include Petty’s return to the bass, his first instrument before shifting to guitar in the Heartbreakers.
“I love playing bass,” he said. “The bass really helps drive the band, so I’ve got a lot more power than I’m used to having,” he said with a laugh.
All five of the band members get a turn on lead vocal and have written at least one song for "Mudcrutch 2," an album with lyrics that often reflect the group's long journey.
The first release is “Trailer,” a country-rock song written by Petty that's about looking back to hardscrabble younger days, and a relationship that fell by the wayside. “Welcome to Hell” is a piano-driven rocker from Tench that evokes some of Jerry Lee Lewis’ and Chuck Berry’s most insistent grooves. Campbell takes a rare turn at the microphone for his song “Victim of Circumstance,” relating a coast-to-coast journey by a man looking for answers to tough questions.
Campbell, who has long handled most of the lead guitar work in the Heartbreakers, shares those duties with Leadon, the younger brother of guitarist Bernie Leadon, who followed his little brother’s advice to take his own shot in Southern California and soon after arriving in the early 1970s, found his way into the Eagles.
Leadon’s “The Other Side of the Mountain” ponders the gulf between people who have drifted apart, and the yearning to find a way to recapture their former closeness. Musically Leadon adapts a minor-key bluegrass-rooted shuffle into a country-rock workout in which banjo co-exists with broadly strummed electric guitars.
“It’s a very different band [from the Heartbreakers], though superficially it sounds similar,” said Tench, the youngest member of Mudcrutch when Petty and the others drafted him at age 17. He required his father’s signature to tour with the group while he was a minor.
“[Petty’s] on bass, and that changes the whole feel of it. Having Randall and Tom Leadon also really changes things up," Tench said. "The two Toms have known each other since they were tiny. I’m the late-comer to this whole gang. The rest of them have played together since 1970 or before, and I came in late ’71 or early ’72.
There’s also the advantage of playing alongside people who grew up in the same area, absorbing the same music and cultural influences.
“You’ve got people who go back that far, who grew up in the same area, with the same regional radio,” Tench said. “There had been local bands that would play whatever the current hit is, but they’d play it wrong, but everybody kind of learned the version that the local band did — wrong. Since everybody comes from the same literal swamp, there’s a lot of instinctive stuff in this band that’s really terrific.”
Also, he said, “Mudcrutch leans a little more toward the country side of life at times, although it was always quirky enough it could do a 180 at any point. Live, it’s a lot more jammy, with a lot more improvisation” than the Heartbreakers typically engage in.
“We tried to throw more of that into the record, too,” said Petty, who wrote seven of the album's 11 tracks. “So when I’m writing, I really try to write a skeleton, not really nail it down too much. I’ll write a pattern and some lyrics, then we really just take it from there and make it into something. There’s no elaborate demos or extreme instructions. You just see what it turns into and then follow that.”
“What I like,” said Tench, “is that the first record was just like, ‘Here we are, it’s a bunch of us just jamming.’ This is more like a record, so we didn’t try to repeat what we did on the first record, we just kind of let it be what it is.”
Mudcrutch is also undertaking a more extensive tour than in 2008, when they were greeted with lines wrapped around the building for several shows at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, one of the clubs they first visited when they reached Los Angeles in the mid-'70s.
Leadon had previously made a trip across the country to scope out whether he thought they’d stand a chance in an L.A. music scene that just a few years earlier had given birth to the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Doors, Arthur Lee & Love, the Flying Burrito Brothers and many others.
The conclusion was that, “We were as good as many of the other bands I heard,” Leadon said. “So I said I thought we ought to come out and give it a shot.”
Not long after they arrived, Mudcrutch was signed to Leon Russell’s Shelter Records label. But their only release, the single “Depot Street,” died on the vine. As they’ve recounted often, Tench set up a recording session following the breakup of Mudcrutch where he invited Petty and Campbell to contribute. With the addition of drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Ron Blair for that session, the Heartbreakers were born.
Mudcrutch’s new tour opens May 26 in Denver, and is slated to conclude with homecoming shows June 25 and 26 at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood and the Observatory in Santa Ana. The band is also playing a couple fundraiser shows at Cal State Northridge on May 23 and 24 benefiting the Midnight Mission.
“It’s tremendous fun,” Petty said of reconvening Mudcrutch. “I’m pretty happy with the way [the album] came out.”
Said Leadon, “We spent more time getting sounds this time, and I think you’ll hear that. The first time, whatever we had plugged in, that’s pretty much what you got. There was a beauty to that. Yet this time we took a little more time with ‘What amp are we going to use? Which guitar? What effects might we use, and how to arrange the parts the right way.
“It was nice to take a little more time and get the best possible arrangements,” Leadon said.
Ryan Ulyate, who co-produced the new album with Petty and Campbell, “was pushing everybody to go beyond their little box,” Marsh said.
“The thing is,” Tench said, “we made the other record, so we don’t have to make it again. And the other record, it just wasn’t where we are now.”
Said Petty, glancing toward longtime sidekick Tench: “I think people will be happy with this one. I mean, look at Ben -- he’s smiling.”
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