It’s interesting that “Hometown Blues” is featured on two Heartbreakers best-of compilations — 1995’s five-disc, career-spanning box set Playback and 2000’s double-disc Anthology: Through The Years.
Firstly, there are arguably better songs from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers that didn’t make the cut for these releases. “The Wild One, Forever” doesn’t appear on Playback, and “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It),” a group and fan favorite, is mysteriously absent on both collections.
Secondly, and ironically given that it appears on their self-titled album, it is not quite a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers track. Looking at its personnel, “Hometown Blues” actually resembles more of a Mudcrutch track, with Tom and Mike Campbell on vocals and guitars, Randall Marsh on drums, and Charlie Souza, Mudcrutch’s bassist, on saxophone. The late Donald “Duck” Dunn, of Booker T. and the MGs, also contributes the bass part; it was during these sessions that Petty and Dunn would strike up a lifelong friendship, which led to Dunn also playing on “You Tell Me” and “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)” (from Damn The Torpedoes and Hard Promises, respectively). Neither Ron Blair nor Benmont Tench play on the track, making it one of the extremely rare Heartbreakers songs that doesn’t feature Benmont. Stan Lynch also appears to be absent, although it’s possible he provides background vocals (the liner notes do not specify who sings the high harmony).
Indeed, Tom refers to the song in Conversations With Tom Petty as “Mudcrutch’s last hurrah.” He details the initial recording session at Leon Russell’s house in Encino, California, where he engineered the basic track with Marsh on drums. He adds in the Playback liner notes that even though he presented it to the Heartbreakers and they liked it, they “could never get the right swing from Stan and Ron.” Producer Denny Cordell was the one who called Dunn in to add the bass; accompanying him in the studio was Steve Cropper, guitarist for the MG’s, who in Mike Campbell’s words, “directed the track as Duck played. We’d get to the bridge and Steve would be saying to Duck, ‘Walk it here, walk it. Now go up, now go down.’ He was conducting the bass. We were very impressed.”
They had every right to be impressed, as Dunn’s playing serves as a steady anchor for the song. It would be easy to argue that without his contribution, “Hometown Blues” would not sound nearly as good. He especially shines in the choruses, where he effectively switches from a driving, straightforward part to a classic walking line. He greatly complements both the staccato rhythm guitar (presumably Tom) and the somewhat more involved rhythm guitar (presumably Mike, the part that incorporates a walking line at the end of each phrase). He also somehow manages to make Marsh’s stiff drum track swing by filling in all the gaps; in Marsh’s defense, he might not have known this would be the final drum track, and his playing on 2008’s Mudcrutch demonstrates his solid abilities.
Tom and Mike’s playing is sufficient, but not interesting to the point where the guitars could hold the song together without the strong foundation behind them. The same can be said for Charlie Souza’s saxophone performance, although its quirkiness does end up benefitting the track. Dunn, living up to his spotless reputation, takes all of these elements and ties them together marvelously, drastically improving the outcome.
If “Breakdown” was Tom Petty’s first great vocal performance, “Hometown Blues” was the first song to display his knack for a great melody. He begins the verses with a catchy, albeit relatively simple theme, before moving onto its logical descending resolution. Then, out of nowhere, he brings the third line up an entire octave to create a line even catchier than the beginning of the verse, and far more exciting. Not many writers are capable of making the middle of their phrase even more memorable than the beginning; Petty does it on a semi-regular basis, and this was just the first time he accomplished the feat.
His delivery is expressive and commanding — though there is one discernible flaw. On the third line of the song, “Do a little song, do a little dance,” the same line that announces the great melodic change, he fails to fully pronounce the last word, leaving it to sound like, “Do a little song, do a little dan.” It’s a minor flaw in the long run, if not slightly maddening, but it is worth noting; even at the points in Tom’s career when he slips into a Dylan-esque delivery, circa Blonde On Blonde (“But in the morning, she don’t re-mem-ber iiiiiit” from “Shadow Of A Doubt”), he rarely shows a lack of discipline when it comes to pronunciation. This small issue aside, the high quality of his melody and singing, combined with Dunn’s playing, elevates the song to a higher level.
The concept of “the hometown blues” is incredibly relatable, and has been the subject of many classic songs. “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” “Born To Run,” and “She’s Leaving Home” are particularly lasting moments that discuss, from multiple viewpoints and for different reasons, the desires to break free from home. With this song, however, Petty touches upon an compelling concept: The characters in “Hometown Blues” exhibit typical behavior of people wanting to move on. The girl in the first verse is preparing for a late-night television show performance, wanting to “make the best of her big chance.” In the second verse, he introduces a girl whose talent is, in her own words, “the best in the whole wide world … it’s so good … it’s unreal.” Finally, in the last verse, we meet a whole group of girls who “want to be the queen of their little scene.” Each of them are met with the same statement: “Don’t really matter if she don’t or if she do; just trying to make the best of the hometown blues.”
It’s a bleak thought, the idea of accepting the blues as an inevitability. It’s hammered home further in the bridge, where his calls to “save me with your sweet smile” are just for him to “kill a little bit of time.” Clearly, it’s not as romantic as the images put forth by the Animals, Springsteen, or the Beatles. Unfortunately, it’s very much a reality for some lower- and middle-class people, either for lack of effort or ambition. For a few, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as happiness and success are still achievable wherever said hometown is. For others, ones who feign complacency or succumb to bitterness, it’s not as nice a picture. Either way, Petty’s take on the hometown blues is quite approachable and relevant.
For the most part, the song’s bouncing rhythm and playful tune doesn’t exactly reflect the lyrics — not that it would be necessary. However, the one instance where the music, vocal melody, and words do match up is pretty interesting: the way Tom’s voice dips at the beginning of “Just trying to make the best …” in the chorus, cast against the minor chord, echoes the more somber undertones of the track. “Hometown Blues” is somewhat of an anomaly on the record, given the musicians who performed on it and its overall sound, but it undoubtedly has many positive aspects, most notably its melody. And although the subject matter is a tad sobering, it perfectly sets the stage for the Heartbreakers’ first great love song.
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