Transplanted Floridians Tom Petty and his founding core Heartbreakers (I refer, of course, to guitarist/right-hand-man Mike Campbell and keyboard killer Benmont Tench) have always worn the "L.A. band" mantle proudly. And as worthy successors to the ambitious folk-rock legacy of Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds, they've earned the right.
Now, 30-odd years down the road, it turns out there's a bit more to the bicoastal story, a cosmic country angle, if you will. Take a posthumous bow, Mr. Parsons, because with the forever-delayed debut release from Mudcrutch, Petty's reconstituted, pre-Heartbreakers Gainesville, Florida band from the 1970s, listeners can smell the Burritos from Joshua Tree to Jacksonville.
Rejoined by original second guitarist Tom Leadon (yes, that's former Eagle and Burrito Brother Bernie Leadon's sibling) and drummer Randall Marsh, both of whom had been out of music for years, Petty (who, as he did with the original Mudcrutch, plays bass and sings lead) and his longtime cohorts deliver a polished and eminently listenable set. The generous 14-song collection frequently references the Heartbreakers' catalog, to be sure, but far more often evokes the heyday of Southern California hippie honky-tonk.
While a mid-tempo, melodic warhorse such as "Scare Easy" would be at home on any latter-day Petty record, and both "Topanga Cowgirl" and "Bootleg Flyer" echo the taut jangle-pop of the Heartbreakers' early work, there's scant precedent in the archives for rustic jukebox gems like "Orphans of the Storm" and "House of Stone." Same goes for the twin-guitar, Appalachian gallop of "Shady Grove" and "June Apple," the onry cracker snarl of "The Wrong Thing to Do," and a diesel-fueled rip through the classic trucker anthem "Six Days on the Road."
For good measure, "Crystal River" wafts into majestic jam-band space, and a jagged take on Roger McGuinn and Jacques Levy's "Lover of the Bayou" adds yet another stellar Byrds cover to Petty's scorecard. Leadon, a smooth, string-bendin' son of a gun who's perhaps the album's unsung hero, sings the highly Burrito-esque "Queen of the Go-Go Girls," and sideman extraordinaire Tench logs his first-ever lead vocal on the spunky "This Is a Good Street."
This is the sound of veteran guys making veteran moves and occasionally transcending their professional mettle with some truly durable and inspired music. Mudcrutch's belated rise from the ashes is an illuminating document for Petty collectors and a stone solid country-rock record to boot. • Mike Thomas