Into the Great Wide Open: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Mystery Man” (1976)

Tom Petty sets the record straight with Paul Zollo in Conversations With Tom Petty, concerning a very particular label that is often cast upon the Heartbreakers: “We’re always referred to as a Southern band,” he says. “But the truth is every bit of music we’ve ever made was in L.A. We’ve been in L.A. for over thirty years. We’re a Los Angeles band.”

He brings up a valid point, given that the group’s success was a result of Mudcrutch relocating to Los Angeles in 1974. The move, he says, was largely due to “the South [becoming] completely inundated with the Allman Brothers. The Allman Brothers had gotten big, and every group had become an imitation of that … And we hated it. We liked the Allman Brothers, but we hated all the imitations. We thought it was stupid. We were kind of like a three-minute kind of band. And we didn’t fit in anymore. And we didn’t want to be there any longer. We wanted to go to L.A., where we always felt like we belonged.”

It also didn’t hurt that many of the band’s influences were out there: “We loved the Byrds and we loved the Beach Boys, and Buffalo Springfield and the Burrito Brothers.” Petty’s statement also applies to the Heartbreakers’ formation; although Ron Blair and Stan Lynch were fellow Gainesville, Florida, musicians, they fell in with him, Mike Campbell, and Benmont Tench to create the group while they were in California. And Petty has expressed his love for the Golden State in a handful of songs, calling it “home” in “Hurt” (from You’re Gonna Get It!), name-dropping Reseda, Ventura Boulevard, and Mulholland Drive in “Free Fallin,’” and dedicating a She’s The One track to it, the aptly titled “California.”

That being said, it’s clear that Tom and the rest of the group’s Southern upbringing is a very important part of their history. Mudcrutch cut their teeth in Gainesville, playing five sets a night six nights a week at the local club Dub’s, which became to them what the Kaiserkeller was to the Beatles. “That’s where we learned to be a band,” Petty remembers. “Playing that much is really going to get you tight.” In addition to this, they curated three highly successful festivals at their practice space, the Mudcrutch Farm, and even had the opportunity to open for fellow Floridians Lynyrd Skynyrd multiple times.

Of course, Petty doesn’t disguise his fondness for the South, especially as evidenced by his original concept for the Southern Accents album. The Heartbreakers have been influenced by and covered many Southern artists, particularly culling from classic country and blues. Even the Allman Brothers appear to be a source of inspiration at times, most notably on some choice cuts from 2010’s Mojo. On their first two albums, however, they don’t touch too much upon these influences.

The lone exception is “Mystery Man,” a vastly underrated cut from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Tom’s tremolo-drenched rhythm guitar and Mike’s swampy slide part (his first slide performance), which both kick off the song, would not have sounded out of place on an early Allman Brothers or Skynyrd record. Stan counters with an appropriately mellow drum beat, embellishing in a way very similar to Levon Helm. Although the Band were a Canadian group, Levon’s Southern sensibilities and Robbie Robertson’s fascination with Southern Americana, which played a huge part in his lyric writing, gave them a distinct Southern feel. Thus, Stan’s Levon-esque performance adds to the homey atmosphere of “Mystery Man.”

Another big Southern homage is the song’s instrumental bridge. Mike’s slide playing is brought up to the forefront as Stan and Ron lock into a Bo Diddley-inspired beat; as if these elements weren’t enough to create this particular sound, they introduce a couple of shakers to the mix to complete a perfect down-home soundscape.

At this point in time, Tom hadn’t completely mastered the art of an understated vocal performance. “Strangered In The Night” is certainly impressive, but for a majority of the song, he relies on a Dylan-esque delivery, rather than honing his own style. “Mystery Man” isn’t perfect either (the word “perfect” is used loosely here, considering how many great vocal performances are perfectly imperfect), but it’s a very good performance due to his restraint. Some of his annunciation is still lazy, but this is perhaps due to the song’s easygoing groove, and overall, he stretches out the words with some fantastic melodic dips and sounds pretty much at home in the song.

At face value, “Mystery Man” doesn’t match up to other tracks on the Heartbreakers’ debut. The lyrics aren’t unbelievably impressive; it’s a short declaration to a woman who is playing hard-to-get, and while it’s not offensive or bad by any means, it doesn’t achieve the same romanticism as “The Wild One, Forever,” nor does it have a great thematic approach like “Hometown Blues.” But Petty’s words do work well with the music, and because the group’s playing is so good both in context of the album (a mature, laid-back performance by five musicians in their early-to-mid-20s on their first record in the midst of some more rock ‘n’ roll numbers typically expected of their age group) and out of context (it’s just a really solid song), it really is an overlooked highlight.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers may be a Los Angeles band, but the South has never left them. Fortunately, that has resulted in many wonderful songs, “Mystery Man” being the first.

Dylan Sevey

A Rhode Island-based writer and musician, Sevey is an avid listener of blues, jazz, folk, and rock 'n' roll. He serves as frontman for Dylan Sevey and the Gentlemen (www.facebook.com/ dylanseveymusic), and is the drummer for Smith and Weeden (www.facebook.com/ smithandweeden). Twitter and Instagram @dylansevey; contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.