Tom Petty’s 1994 album “Wildflowers” has finally reached full bloom.
When the late rock frontman made the album – only his second in a then-two decade career not to be labeled as a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers project – Petty initially envisioned it as a two-CD set with 25 songs.
At the suggestion of record label Warner Bros., Petty pruned down the project. He released a single-disc masterpiece, which would go on to be certified triple platinum, selling more than three million copies, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. “Wildflowers” also earned him his first solo Grammy, the 1995 best male rock performance award for the song, “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”
In later years, Petty returned to his vision of an expanded “Wildflowers,” with that original second album of songs. It was a project he wouldn’t finish before his death in October 2017 at the age of 66, shortly after the Heartbreakers finished its 40th Anniversary tour.
Now his family and music mates have finished the job.
“Wildflowers & All The Rest ($19.98-up), out Friday, includes a remastered version of the original album and a second disc of ten songs from those considered for the original two-CD version. More decked-out editions offer additional insights into Petty’s two-year creative flurry with a collection of the musician’s solo home demos, a vast assortment of rarities and previously unreleased recordings, and live performances.
“We just took an opportunity here to be a little more completist about looking at the work he did in those two years with Rick,” said Petty’s daughter, Adria, speaking of producer Rick Rubin, who helmed “Wildflowers” and the subsequent Heartbreakers’ release “Echo.”
Tom Petty’s ‘last project’
Finishing this expanded version of “Wildflowers” was important to the family and band members because Petty “talked about this more than any other project I’d ever seen him putting together,” said Adria, who also served as the set’s creative director and co-directed a music video for “Leave Virginia Alone.”
“It was his last project that he was working on and we know for a fact that he really wanted it to be out,” she said. “It’s been really a treasure hunt for us in kind of a really positive beautiful space to hunt around in.”
Guitarist Mike Campbell, who was among the set’s curators, said he tried to think like Petty in choosing what should make the cut. “I would always try to imagine Tom was sitting with me and we would listen to it and I kept hearing his voice saying, ‘Nah, (expletive) that. I don’t want anybody to ever hear that,’ and I would say ‘No’ (don’t include it). Or I’d picture him saying, ‘Yeah, man, that’s pretty good, that should come out,’ and I would say ‘Yes’.”
At times, it was difficult to listen to old material, Campbell said. “The process was very hard emotionally. I’m still grieving. But I was grieving pretty hard then. There would be times I just couldn’t be in the room. I just couldn’t hear his voice at that moment because it was just too hard.”
‘Wildflowers’ sown in transition
The creation of what would become “Wildflowers,” which began in 1992, came at a tumultuous time for Petty, who faced troubles in his longtime marriage to wife Jane, who he wed in 1974. They had two daughters, Adria and AnnaKim.
There was also friction amid his band as he began writing during a break following the tour supporting “Into the Great Wide Open,” the Heartbreakers album released in 1991 and produced by Jeff Lynne.
Petty was looking for a fresh approach after two albums with Lynne. The Electric Light Orchestra leader had also helmed Petty’s first solo effort “Full Moon Fever,” a multi-platinum hit. Fueled by songs such as “Free Fallin’,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “I Won’t Back Down,” it would go on to outsell previous Heartbreakers albums.
Despite the success, Petty feared stagnation. “I had this clear thought: We were making a certain kind of record,” Petty told Rolling Stone in a 2014 interview that’s included in the new “Wildflowers” set. “If we did any more, it wasn’t a great idea. I felt I have to take off on my own, see what all this adds up to.”
Enter producer Rick Rubin, who had worked with rappers such as LL Cool J, Run DMC, and the Beastie Boys and metal bands including Slayer.
And exit longtime drummer Stan Lynch, who would depart from the band after initially playing on some songs considered for “Wildflowers,” as well as “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” a new song for the 1993 greatest hits collection that secured Petty’s move from MCA Records to Warner Bros. (The hits set has sold more than 12 million copies.)
‘Low pressure’ studio work bore fruit
Moving forward with Rubin, Petty kept things loose. “We began recording songs with no real concept other than let’s just record these songs and see how they sound like with whatever players we could get together,” Campbell told USA TODAY. “There was no deadline, so it was a very easygoing low-pressure project and we had a blast.
When keyboardist Benmont Tench joined Petty, Campbell and Rubin about a month later at LA studio Sound City, “I was a little puzzled because it wasn’t the (Heartbreakers) band, but I was (saying) ‘OK, I trust this process’. And the songs (Petty) brought were so good. I was glad to be coming down every day.”
Kenny Aronoff, a longtime drummer for John Mellencamp, came in and worked on some songs and then came the arrival of Steve Ferrone, who’d drummed in the Average White Band, Saturday Night Live band and played for Chaka Khan, Duran Duran and Eric Clapton.
“When Steve Ferrone showed it up it was like Mike and Tom’s and Rick’s eyes lit up. ‘This is the guy.’ They were right because it sounds nothing like anything the Heartbreakers had ever done,” Tench said.
Ferrone would go on to play on most of the original “Wildflowers.” Ringo Starr handled drums on “To Find a Friend.” And after the album came out in 1994, Ferrone became a permanent band member.
“Wildflowers” served as a revival for Petty and the Heartbreakers, which would continue on for another 20-plus years. Petty and his wife divorced in 1996. In 2001, he married Dana York, who he had been seeing for several years and who helped Petty through a post-divorce heroin addiction.
On “Wildflowers,” Petty told Fricke, “I broke through to something else … My personal life came crashing down, and it derailed me for a while. But I was at the top of my game during that record.”
Fricke called the album Petty’s “solo masterpiece,” and “Wildflowers” sits firmly at No. 214 in Rolling Stone’s recently revised 500 Greatest Albums list.
Petty moved on but didn’t forget
Those abandoned songs were never far from Petty’s mind. “He would bring it up from time to time, ‘We should do something with that’,” Campbell said.
While the Heartbreakers were making “Hypnotic Eye,” an album that would be released in 2014, compilation producer and engineer Ryan Ulyate dove into the performer’s vault of unreleased material after Petty told him, “there’s some tracks from ‘Wildflowers’ that we never put out. I want to go back and look at all that stuff and see what we can do with it.”
Between recording sessions and tours, Petty in 2015 sequenced the songs for a second Wildflowers disc. Then Petty began perusing some home demo recordings he wanted to accompany the release.
As the project grew, Petty realized “he didn’t want to just put this disc out without promoting it because he felt it wouldn’t get the attention he thought it deserved,” Ulyate said.
Petty wanted to mount a smaller venue tour showcasing the “Wildflowers” songs, perhaps even having additional singers performing the songs. “He was thinking about a different way of doing a small tour,” Campbell said. “That was in his mind for sure.”
But the Heartbreakers would spend much of 2017 on a 40th Anniversary tour. Petty died Oct. 2, 2017, of an accidental drug overdose. He had been battling “unbearable” pain from a hip fracture, his wife, Dana, and daughter, Adria, said in a statement in January 2018 upon the Los Angeles County coroner’s office finding.
The family assisted Ulyate, Campbell and Tench on the 2018 four-disc retrospective “An American Treasure” and reached an agreement on his estate.
A treasure trove for Petty fans
Here’s a look at what fans can expect on the new “Wildflowers” release.
“All the Rest”
The lustrous, and previously unreleased, “Something Could Happen,” recorded with the Heartbreakers in early “Wildflowers” sessions leads off the second disc, “All the Rest.”
“I’m glad that one is coming out,” said Tench, who assisted Petty’s wife Dana Petty, daughters Adria and AnnaKim, and Campbell in curating the box set. Closing it out is an alternate version of “Hung Up and Overdue,” one of several songs that didn’t make the trimmed-down “Wildflowers,” but landed on the soundtrack of the 1996 film “She’s the One.” Starr plays drums on the song and the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson provides harmonies.
Petty’s home demos
Among Petty’s recordings made at his home – he played all the instruments including guitar, bass, harmonica and piano – is “There Goes Angela (Dream Away),” a touching track Ulyate found while listening to tapes. “All of a sudden this song shows up. It’s just beautiful,” he said. “That was really part of the fun thing about this process, these little gems you didn’t know existed.”
These home demos, collected on a separate third disc, Adria Petty said, “is just one of the most beautiful things this estate will ever release.”
Recorded by the Heartbreakers on various tours between 1995 and 2017, the fourth extra disc boasts an extended rendition of “It’s Good to Be King” from 1997, which explores jam band terrain at longer than 11 minutes. “When we went on tour it just seemed to lend itself to going on a little longer and building on the mood of the song and allow for a little improvisation here and there,” Campbell said. “I guess that was one night where it got away from us. It kind of shows … we can also play off the top of our heads really well and make things up on the spot.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.