Tom Petty Discusses Influences, Career During SiriusXM Q&A Session

12:00 PM PST 04/17/2011 by Erik Pedersen

The legendary rock singer answered fan questions with humor and sincerity during the live special, which marked the sixth season of his radio show "Tom Petty's Buried Treasure."

It was a rare case of Tom Petty sweatin’ it.

He had to cover about 35 miles in L.A.’s rush-hour traffic to make the live Q&A session with listeners of his SiriusXM show, “Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure.” Minutes before the 5 p.m. airtime, he strode into the small room at EastWest Studios in Hollywood. Looking dapper but a little frazzled in a gray suit, open shirt and shades, he sat at a desk and put on his headphones.

“We were in Malibu trying to make it across town, and we got a little nervous,” Petty said before the show went live. “We had the radio on, and they said they were starting in 15 minutes.” He paused. “I thought, ‘Maybe not.’ ”

It was the first of many laughs the 60-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer got from the small crowd of about 70 -- contest winners, their guests and a couple dozen others. The satellite radio company staged the April 14 event to celebrate the sixth season of “Buried Treasure,” which launched in December 2004.

The hourlong show is an eclectic mix of music -- “the best in rock, rhythm, and blues,” Petty likes to say -- interspersed with jokey, freestyling banter and knowledge from the longtime rock insider. Playlists are heavy with but hardly limited to early rock ’n’ roll, the British Invasion, garage bands, blues greats, country rock and R&B. Petty said the shows are “very much what you would have heard at my house the night before.”

The contest, dubbed Tom Petty’s Ultimate Buried Treasure, was conducted over two weeks in March. Listeners submitted questions for Petty about his show and/or career, and winners were invited to ask their questions in person. Twenty-one were chosen from more than 3,000 entries.

The Q&A was hosted by Meg Griffin, a 35-year radio veteran -- the past 11 on satellite -- who broke into the business in 1975 at a small station in southeastern New York alongside a young jock named Howard Stern. Throughout the two-hour event, she offered setups that Petty, blessed with an uncanny comedic timing, rolled with. When she noted that his show launched on XM before Bob Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” did, Petty replied, “Yeah, he copies me.”

When Griffin asked about his musical influences, Petty didn’t hesitate. “AM radio,” he said. “It was a great time for music, and I’m lucky to be born when I was born.” He said the first record he ever bought was “Playboy,” the 1962 pop and R&B hit by the Marvelettes. How did he get money to buy discs back then? “Cashing in Coke bottles,” the Gainesville, Fla., native said. “An LP was three bucks.”

He talked about his briefly held early jobs as a gravedigger – “You didn’t have to look too sharp,” Petty deadpanned -- and a later stint at the University of Florida. There’s a tree on campus dubbed the “Tom Petty Tree” that, according to legend, he planted back then. Petty dispelled that. “I don’t remember planting anything,” he said with a grin. “What I did plant certainly wasn’t at the University of Florida.”

The contest winners’ questions ranged from obvious to insightful, rambling to concise, and often were prefaced by understandable gee-whiz praise and adulation. But Petty -- he of the easy, laid-back, slightly snarky demeanor -- answered them sincerely, sometimes with humor but with genuine thoughtfulness.

One listener asked how Petty got his “badass attitude.” “I got kicked around as a kid, but it was nothing I ever looked for,” he said. Of his move west in search of a recording contract in the 1970s, he said, “I came to L.A. and got a record deal the first week – and it took me years to get out of it.”

Another asked why Petty and the Heartbreakers used Fender amps on their most recent tour instead their usual Vox equipment. Petty said the Fender amps were simply better. “Those Vox, we’ve been playing one since the ’70s,” he said. After a beat, he added, “Uh, I just realized we’re on the radio. But we love Vox!”

After a musical break that featured 1957’s “Lucille” -- which Petty called “the greatest rock ’n’ roll record ever made” -- he mentioned how Little Richard, an ordained minister, officiated at his 2001 wedding to second wife Dana. Griffin said, “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.” Petty quickly replied, “Well, I’m pretty cool.”

A later musical break featured “The Supernatural” by John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, then featuring Peter Green, who Petty called “probably my all-time favorite guitar player.”

One listener phoned from Haiti to ask a question, but the call was lost. When Griffin suggested they go to a musical break, Petty said: “What about that poor girl in Haiti? They’ve had it rough down there.” (She later called back and repeatedly thanked Petty for his contributions to the quake-relief effort. During the band’s Mojo tour, all front-row seats were auctioned off, with the proceeds going to Haiti.)

He got very serious, though, when asked separately about Johnny Cash and George Harrison, one-time idols who became his friends. Of the latter, his erstwhile Traveling Wilburys bandmate, he said, “He was a lovely guy, and I miss him very much.” Recalling rehearsals for the 2002 Concert for George benefit in London, Petty said, “There’s nothing like working on a Beatles song with Paul McCartney sitting there watching you.”

Petty was asked if he ever feels his music has been “borrowed” by other acts. “All the time!” he said. “And I don’t have to tell you who they are. But I’m such a nice guy; I never sued anybody. I wouldn’t mind a point or two.”

He also talked about his early days and 2009 reunion with Mudcrutch; how Don Felder did not teach him how to play guitar – as the former Eagle claimed in his 2009 memoir – but did teach him the piano; his latest album, the return-to-roots “Mojo”; how he was blessed that he “got to know everyone who I really admired – except Elvis”; and how much he enjoys doing “Buried Treasure,” sharing his favorite songs and artists with people who otherwise might not hear them.

“A lot of time goes into putting together a radio show to make the music flow,” he said.

Responding to a listener’s question/gripe about how today’s music is simply not as good as that of the 1960s and ’70s, Petty cited a number of reasons including how physical product has given way to the download era -- “If I hear something I like, I go out and pay for that record” -- and the rise of singing-competitions on TV. “People now think about getting on a game show and getting famous. ... We care so much about our [concerts], and we work so hard on it.”

He added: “We still don’t have corporate sponsors on our tours. We’re brought to you by you.”

“Tom Petty’s Ultimate Buried Treasure” repeats at 8 a.m. PT April 18 on the Deep Tracks station (XM channel 40, Sirius 16).

E-mail: erik.pedersen@THR.com

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