Country music is in the DNA of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' catalog.

Decades ago, before the Heartbreakers even existed in their full form, Petty was playing country songs in what he would later describe as "real redneck country" Floridian bars, trying to earn a living as a burgeoning performer.

"[The crowd was] always kind of weirded out by us because we had long hair, playing country music," Petty said in 2005's Conversations With Tom Petty. "And that was completely unheard of in those days."

Petty's country influences were the classics — people like Carl Perkins, George Jones and Conway Twitty — and over the course of his career, he never dropped the torch, collaborating with people like Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr. and Johnny Cash. Perhaps the most blatant nod was 1985's Southern Accents album, whose title track emphasized that while "the youn 'uns call it country," Petty didn't feel the need to label his "own way of talkin'."

There came a point where Petty felt country music had lost its way. "I hate to generalize on a whole genre of music, but it does seem to be missing that magic element that it used to have," he told Rolling Stone in 2013. "I'm sure there are people playing country that are doing it well, but they're just not getting the attention that the shittier stuff gets. But that's the way it always is, isn't it?"

This prompted a response from country musician Chris Stapleton, who penned an open letter to Petty. "I, for one, would like to see you put you [sic] money where your mouth is in a tangible way," he said. "So, in the interest of making country music less 'shitty' (your words), I suggest a collaboration. I'm extending an open invitation to you to write songs with me, produce recordings on or with me, or otherwise participate in whatever way you see fit in my little corner of music."

After 11 years, Stapleton has gotten a small part of his wish, recording a version of the Heartbreakers' "I Should Have Known It" for a new album titled 'Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty,' out June 21. In addition to Stapleton, it features both legends of the industry like Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and George Strait, plus newer faces like Margo Price, Lainey Wilson and Dierks Bentley, all covering the music of Petty.

UCR recently spoke with Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, who appears on the album himself and believes "Tom would be really, really happy with this."

When you first heard there was going to be a country tribute album to Tom Petty, what went through your head?
Well, it made perfect sense to me, you know? Because we grew up in the South and we grew up around country music and there's a lot of country music strings in the Heartbreakers' music, I think. Tom wrote that character quite a bit. And I was just really excited, mostly because I want to keep the history and those songs alive and all these great artists doing his songs, it was wonderful thing.

It feels like a lot of times when the word "country" is associated with an album, there are automatic assumptions made about what it will sound like, but this album, I think, proves that the "country" genre is actually quite versatile. 
Well, you know, you bring up a good point. Country — the idea "what is country?" has morphed so much since Tom and I were listening back in the '60s when it was George Jones and Loretta Lynn. To me, that's pure country, and Tom made up the new country, which sounds like, you know, a rock and roll band with a fiddle in it [Laughs]. The point is that country music nowadays has morphed into pop in a lot of ways. It's big business and it's not hardcore country, but it's got strings of it, you know?

It's cool that there's a range of people on this album. You've got artists like Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and George Strait who have been in this business for decades, and then you've got people like Margo Price, Lainey Wilson and Luke Combs who are newer to the scene. That just shows how influential this music has been across generations. 
Yeah, I think Tom would be really, really happy about this, because he was proud to have country roots and I think he would like the record.

Dierks Bentley's cover of "American Girl" is special because he used one of Tom's actual Rickenbacker guitars. What was it like to see and hear someone else play that song with that instrument?
Yeah, you know, I didn't know that that was the exact instrument, but it's one of my favorites. ... "American Girl" is one of those songs that just lives, you know, and that song always represents the sound of the Heartbreakers to me when we first found our groove and our sound and our attitude. And even 'til the last tour whenever we played that song, I would just get a thrill up my spine, just because there's something about the music, so I'm glad they picked it for the album.

I'd like to go back to Margo Price for a moment. You play guitar and sing some backing vocals on her cover of "Ways to Be Wicked," which is a bit of a deeper Tom Petty cut. Can you tell me about recording that one with her?
It was great, you know, because that's sort of what we call a "Lazarus song." It dies and then it comes back alive. The Heartbreakers cut that back with Jimmy Iovine, I think on our second album [You're Gonna Get It!], but we never got it right. And then Jimmy Iovine took it and gave it to a band called Lone Justice, [and they cut] a version of it. But I always loved that song and then Margo cut the track and told me "Yeah, I've cut this track. Would you help me finish it?" And I put some guitar and sang a little low harmony with her. And I'm just so happy that song is out there because it's a great lyric by Tom, and a real exuberant — she's a firecracker. She belts the hell out of it. And she really did the song justice, but it's out there now, it's alive again. So I couldn't be more pleased.

Listen to Margo Price's Cover of 'Ways to Be Wicked' With Mike Campbell

Just recently you played "I Should Have Known It" live with Chris Stapleton and "You Wreck Me" live with George Strait. What was it like to play with those guys in front of an audience?
You know what, Allison, it's just kind of an out of body experience for me to be doing this because I've kind of entered the second chapter of my musical life. And I never dreamed I'd be playing a giant stadium, you know, beyond the Heartbreakers in any way, shape or form. But there I was, you know, with Chris Stapleton and George Strait, doing songs that I co-wrote, with these huge audiences and having them respect me to do the songs and ask me up to join them. It was really, really exciting, I gotta say. It kind of breaks my brain a little bit.

Again, it's proof that the Heartbreakers' music is multigenerational.
Yeah. It's simple really: I'm so proud of our legacy. And I think maybe the reason that that is, is because the songwriting is strong, and Tom's delivery was so unique. It connected with a lot of people, but mostly the songs, you know, the songs hold up over time. That's what I'm most proud of.

Do you have any other favorites on this album?
I like Marty Stuart's song ["I Need to Know"]. I like them all, you know? Dolly's ["Southern Accents] really tugs at your heart. Probably my favorite would be the Margo song because I didn't know that song would ever see the light of day, and I got to play on it with her. But everybody did a bang-up job on all the songs. A lot of the artists, I hadn't heard of them before, because I'm not in that world, but when I listened to it I thought "It's good, these young whippersnappers have got it down."

Listen to Dolly Parton's Cover of 'Southern Accents'

Another thing that stood out to me with this album is that it's really cool to hear a bunch of these songs sung by women. Wynonna Judd and Lainey Wilson's cover of "Refugee" is really powerful and works great as a female duet. It's almost like these songs take on a new life that way.
I agree. And, you know, it's the strength of the song, really. A woman's point of view singing Tom's lyrics sometimes is very powerful, even if you go back to "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," which was going to be just a Heartbreakers song. And Jimmy Iovine heard it as a duet. Stevie [Nicks] came in and when the female character comes into the song the lyrics take on a new meaning.

I know you've said before that you're wary of doing Heartbreakers tribute concerts, which is understandable. Has this album, though, made you think any more about the possibility of other people performing these songs?
It hasn't made me think more about it, but to be honest with you, I'm open to anything that honors the legacy of Tom and the band. I don't know what the future holds, but if it's got integrity and and it holds to the honesty that Tom and I helped build with the Heartbreakers...We didn't really follow any trends or anything, so anything going forward that I feel that Tom — actually it comes down to if I feel like Tom would like this, I'll say yes.

What does that mean? What are the criteria for whether Tom would like it?
I mean, that would be — I can't speak for Tom. I just know that integrity, purity, believability, no phoniness...like what Dolly Parton put into "Southern Accents." She made it her own, and I think if Tom had heard that, he would have been really happy. So if I hear something I think, you know, Tom would like this idea — I knew him pretty well, and I use that as the criteria for what I might do in the future. It's as simple as that.

Watch Mike Campbell Perform 'I Should Have Known It' With Chris Stapleton

Tom Petty's Heartbreakers: Where Are They Now?

The surviving members continue to forge new paths. 

Gallery Credit: Allison Rapp

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