Last Friday, about a month after the untimely death of beloved rock and roller Tom Petty, Canadian folk trio The Wailin’ Jennys released Fifteen, their first album in six years. Track two is one of Petty’s most intimate songs, “Wildflowers.”
“I remember jamming it in a hotel room a few years ago and it came together really naturally. And then we started performing it and people just loved it.”
So says Wailin' Jennys co-founder Ruth Moody who went on to say "Wildflowers" was a key impetus behind their latest project. "And so people have been asking us for years to record it. And so when this covers album idea came about, that was kind of the first cover that we thought: we should do that one for sure.”
And they're not alone in thinking that. A few weeks earlier folk rock icon Chris Hillman, formerly of The Byrds and the Desert Rose Band, released the solo album Bidin’ My Time, which he made in Petty’s studio with Petty producing. Its album-closing take on “Wildflowers" moves a bit faster, more optimistic than melancholy. Austin American-Statesman music writer Peter Blackstock calls the cut "pretty much perfect," writing that "I think Hillman's version will rise to the level of an American classic in the years to come."
Those versions were conceived before there was any inkling we’d lose Petty, at age 66. Since his death, the song seems to be everywhere as a kind of healing anthem and homage to a musical hero who transcends genre. New Orleans band The Revivalists were one of several artists that played “Wildflowers” during the recent Austin City Limits Festival, according to Blackstock. The folk duos Zoe & Cloyd and the Honey Dewdrops encored with the song at a show in Black Mountain, NC in recent days. The a cappella band Street Corner Symphony released a video of their version in the week after Petty died. And Americana fans will even be able to enjoy guilt-free Miley Cyrus’s acoustic guitar with fiddle take, released via Spotify Studios.
"Wildflowers" became the title track of Petty’s tenth album, made in 1993-1994 with producer Rick Rubin, then famous for his work with The Beastie Boys and RUN-D.M.C. but who was at the time beginning a journey toward Americana guru status with his first album with Johnny Cash, American Recordings.
Petty remembered a pretty rigorous 18 months of work to ready the album for his new label Warner Bros., but he said that song came in an inspired rush. "I just took a deep breath and it came out. The whole song. Stream of consciousness: words, music, chords,” he told American Songwriter magazine in 2014. “I just played it into a tape recorder and I played the whole song and I never played it again. I actually only spent three and a half minutes on that whole song. So I’d come back for days playing that tape, thinking there must be something wrong here because this just came too easy. And then I realized that there’s probably nothing wrong at all.”
The album wasn't as universally hailed as it is today. Robert Christgau called it “torpid.” It did fairly well commercially yet it cracked neither the top five albums nor the top ten with a single, despite a hot run at radio with Petty's prior full lengths. With time though, Wildflowers has emerged for many in roots and Americana music as the most important and beloved in his catalog. Chris Stapleton told WXNA’s Tim Hibbs recently that Wildflowers influenced him as a songwriter more than any other album.
Petty’s original arrangement was built around acoustic guitar and the piano of Benmont Tench, but Americana artists have revealed the folky heart of “Wildflowers” with fiddle and mandolin. A dulcimer or auto-harp wouldn’t sound out of place. Bolstering the old-timey Carter Family sway of the song’s verses is an instrumental bridge that lets a band make a lilting little turnabout. But what makes it transcendent of time and genre is its message. Petty was enduring a divorce about this time so informed speculation is that the lyrics - "go away somewhere all bright and new" - are a graceful letting go of someone he loved.
That is of course how nearly ever American musician who writes relatable, rootsy songs feels about Petty. Ruth Moody again: "There are little snippets that just sort of fit with sending him off - Sail away, you belong among the wildflowers - I can see how people who love Tom Petty would want to sing that for him, you know?"
And here's Tom Petty's original studio version with lyrics.