Tribute to a Legend: Our Favorite Driving Songs from Tom Petty
Roll down the windows, hit that back road, and let the air blow through your hair!by Robert Moore, on
Who would have thought that a young boy born to an abusive, insurance salesman of a father would have ever had such a strong effect on the world we live in? Dead at 66, Tom Petty was legendary and iconic to the world of music and touch the hearts of many, generation after generation. Looking back, it’s still hard to believe that the lead single of the first album put out by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Breakdown) wasn’t even popular enough to chart at first – at least not until the group hit the road and found themselves in Europe where that very album made such an impact that it topped the album chart in the U.K. And, the rest, as they say, is history.
Well, you know what they say… gone but never forgotten. Tom Petty will certainly never be forgotten, at least not by those of us who still find ourselves switching over to a Petty track from time to time when the mood strikes. Like other legends that have come and gone – Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye, Kurt Cobain, and Michael Jackson, to name a few, Petty will continue to be played for years to come and as some of us learned from our parents, good music can live on long, long after the artists have left us behind.
Heroes get remembered, but legends never die. As such, here are a few of our favorite Tom Petty songs. Kick back, grab yourself a glass of whiskey or scotch, fire up that stogy (or whatever else does it for you,) and let some of the world’s most iconic songs drizzle into your mind as we honor yet another musician that was taken too soon but not before he left a permanent mark on the not only the world but our hearts as well.
R.I.P Tom Petty…
Mary Janes Last Dance (1993)
You might find yourself asking why I would pick a song like Mary Janes Last Dance as not only one of my favorite driving songs but favorite songs period. I can’t blame you for asking, really. After all, it is a fairly depressing song, and it’s not exactly as upbeat as others I could have considered. Learning to Fly, Free Fallin’, and even Runnin’ Down a Dream are all great driving songs that are a little more upbeat for hitting the road, but there’s just something about Last Dance that really does it for me. Maybe it’s not quite as depressing for me as the video you see above depicts. Maybe it’s not about having that final dance with your recently departed lover. Maybe Mary Jane is symbolic for anything you need to leave behind and move on from, but want to have that one last dance with before you go – that final night out drinking with the boys, that last cigarette before you put them down for good, that last 8ball of blow. For me, it was one last night in a town with friends that I had to leave, doing things we shouldn’t have been doing, but never wanted to forget. That was my last dance with Mary Jane, then I got into the car, blasted the radio, and listened to this very song as I left town for the very last time, never to return again. So, yeah, to me, this is the ultimate driving song.
Learning to Fly (1991)
There are too many great Tom Petty songs to just pick one, but pick I must. Petty’s voice embodies that classic American free spirit and instantly conjures images and feeling of driving a car, windows down, along a long stretch of highway with the radio supplying anthems to our lives. For me, Learning to Fly is one of Petty’s greatest showcases of that feeling. The song not only carries Petty’s iconic sound of soft rock and 1980s awesomeness, but its lyrics talk about dealing with difficulties in life and learning to overcome them; that no matter how many times we fall down, we have to move past our challenges (not having wings) in order to do something great (fly). Even without concentrating on the words and their meanings, Petty’s soothing voice and The Heartbreakers’ mellow electric tone have such a calming effect. Put this song (and the rest of Petty’s albums) on repeat and drive into the night.
"Breakdown" is definitely one of Tom Petty’s most popular songs, but I know quite a few people that wouldn’t put it on their top five lists from The Heartbreakers. While I like more than "Learning to Fly" or "Runnin’ Down a Dream?" Well, it has that special 1970s blues vibe combined with a bit of roots, swamp, and southern rock. It’s unique, but if I were to compare it to other things I listen, I’d say it blends in elements from Creedence Clearwater Revival and early ZZ Top. And both of them are on shuffle in my car. Driving while listening to "Breakdown" on a warm summer evening is as good as it gets.
Runnin’ Down A Dream (1989)
When it comes to driving songs, Runnin’ Down A Dream is one of the all-time best. Period. It perfectly encapsulates that sense of momentum on the black top, like the beating pulse of an engine at the command of a heavy right foot. From the moment the guitar riff hits, you’re off on a long stretch of two-lane, just you, your co-driver, and the road. The lyrics are on point as well, offering a snapshot of the American road trip, cruising at high speed to get somewhere, anywhere. MOVE the song seems to urge, get out there and get going. I defy you to listen to this song and stay motionless – by the time you get to the chorus, I’m almost certain some part of you will be twitching, whether it’s a toe or a finger, moving to the pulse as Tom Petty takes you for ride out on the highway.
Free Fallin’ (1989)
I admit to not being a big fan of Tom Petty, partly because I grew up listening to a different kind of musical genre. But there is one song from this musical maestro that I’ve been listening to even before I was old enough to drive. Free Fallin’ is one of The Heartbreakers’ biggest hits and you can be sure that it’s kept permanent residence in all of my playlists all these years. Indulge me this one time and answer this question: when was the last time you heard “Free Fallin’” on the car radio and NOT rolled out your windows and turned up the volume to sing along to it? If you answered “never,” then you have the same answer as me. “And I’m freeeeeee, free fallinnn’!”