Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Never quite understood why Calways frontman Todd Deatherage idolized Tom Petty so much. Why would someone with Deatherage's voice and songwriting ability deify a man who has always sounded as though he's singing out of Dylan's nose while recycling the same Keith Richards-by-way-of-Roger McGuinn riff? Sure, it's fine to marvel at Petty's inexplicable consistency, the way he turned one idea into one long career. And the fact that someone who looks like Petty has become a video star is nothing short of amazing. But really, Todd -- Tom Petty? It's like being a chef and eating nothing but mayonnaise sandwiches every day.

Yet Deatherage maintains such a fetish for Petty that some people even call him "Todd Petty" (which, admittedly, is about as imaginative as Petty's last two albums), not to mention the fact that earlier this year he entered a contest to see who could perform the best cover of a song from Petty's latest record, Echo. To hear him talk about the contest -- and its top prize, a chance to perform with Petty -- you'd have thought The Beatles had reunited and asked Deatherage to round out the foursome. Well, I guess it's better than John Mellencamp. Besides, Deatherage is only saying out loud what so many others hide, keeping enough Pavement and Guided by Voices records around to divert attention.

You can understand their point, however, because nothing says middle-of-the-road quite the way that Petty does, and has since he stopped calling his band Mudcrutch 20 years ago. He's the equivalent of khakis and Everyone Loves Raymond -- safe and comfortable and steady. You always know what you're going to get with a Tom Petty album: A dozen or so songs about women in varying tempos that you can sing along with by the beginning of the third verse. The only real mistake he's made in two decades is covering Beck's "Asshole" on 1996's She's the One soundtrack when he should have been covering his own ass on a crap tie-in to a worse film. It was a transparent attempt to make himself seem hip, and all it showed was that he was out of touch and almost out of gas.

Echo is built around the notion that it's better to succeed with the same-old-same-old than fail by taking a chance, and once again, it worked. Critics and fans called Echo trendless and timeless, positioning Petty as the kind of songwriter that does what he wants to regardless of what else is happening around him. For the most part, that's just a fancy way of saying that Petty can't change, and any attempt by him to do so will expose all the flaws that he has so carefully concealed by cranking out slight revisions of "Refugee" and "The Waiting" year after year. At this point, no one really expects anything new from Petty, and even fewer people want it. His fans probably wouldn't even notice if Petty kept releasing the same versions of those old songs anyway. And they definitely wouldn't care.

 
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