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From Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash: The 7 best covers of Tom Petty songs

@jackwhatley89

Tragically passing away in 2017, the impact of Tom Petty on the music industry is still being discovered to this day. Not because that impact was small, in fact, he arguably had a denser output than most of his contemporaries, but because Petty struggled with an image problem for some years. The issue was that Petty and The Heartbreakers form of rock and roll was so damn radio-friendly it turned them into a pop-adjacent outfit for some years.

With passing years, however, the real impact of the singer and his marvellous songs is becoming clearer and clearer. Whether it is through the remarkable sounds of The Killers and The War on Drugs, who both channel their heartland rock attitudes or indeed the band of the future who will undoubtedly rest on his canny ability for a hook as an influence for decades to come — Tom Petty’s is a legend ingrained on the very fabric of music.

“Very sad to say goodbye to Tom Petty, he was a kind and generous man, an excellent musician and writer,” said friend and singer Peter Gabriel when he learned of the singer’s tragic death. Elton John shared a similar sentiment: “Tom Petty’s music and songs are timeless. He was a wonderful writer, musician, and singer. Irreplaceable and unique.”

Whether it was with The Heartbreakers, the Traveling Wilburys or out on his own, Tom Petty purveyed a sense of true authenticity. An esteemed songwriter, one need only look at his adoring contempoaries for proof. Take artists such as George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan who allcited Petty as one of the best songwriters they had ever worked with.

We get a real sense of this genius below. Writing a great song perfect for your vocal range and internal expression is one thing. But writing anthems that can not only transcend generation but performer is a whole other ball game. Petty was able to create universal anthems — songs that will outlive us all.

Below, we’ve picked out some of our favourite covers of Tom Petty songs with numbers from Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and many more.

Best covers of Tom Petty songs:

The Killers – ‘The Waiting’

Released in the same year as The Killers frontman Brandon Flowers’ birth, Hard Promises is arguably Tom Petty’s finest hour. Across the entire record, he displays a keen sense of purpose and performance that few have ever matched. On that album was the simply stunning ‘The Waiting’ a song which must rank among the most covered of Petty’s catalogue.

The Killers have made the song a singularly brilliant piece of their live stage performances of late. While under the spotlights the Las Vegas band always deliver a great show, it was their stripped back acoustic rendition in 2020 on CBS This Morning that perhaps hits hardest.

Joan Baez, Brandi Carlisle and guests – ‘Refugee’

With a backing band and ensemble that included not only Joan Baez and Brandi Carlisle but also Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, Steve Earle, David Pulkingham, Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore, this cover was always destined to be a charmer. Warm and deeply laden with musical expertise, the rendition is about as true as you can get.

Vocally, it is one of the most luxurious tones we’ve ever heard, it even transcends the tinny audio recording that smartphones provide. Released on 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes the song was always a visceral piece of Petty’s set and it is given the appropriate reverence with this pitch-perfect cover.

Eddie Vedder – ‘Room At The Top’

Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder can be easily connected to the work of The Heartbreakers and the rest of the heartland set. Though grunge was a rejection of the old ways, it looked back to icons like Petty, Neil Young et al as the pinnacle of true artistry. It makes sense then that Pearl Jam’s leading man would pay tribute to Petty with a simply sumptuous cover of ‘Room At The Top’.

The performance came during the In Memoriam section of the Academy Awards and saw Vedder’s unique vocals deliver a spellbinding rendition of the song. As the ‘Jeremy’ sing began to beautifully sing “I got a room where everyone can have a drink and forget those things that went wrong in their life,” the entire room teared up.

Johnny Cash – ‘Southern Accents’

When Johnny Cash met with Rick Rubin in the 1990s to discuss the opportunity of recording some covers albums, neither man could have expected the resurgence in the Man in Black’s career that it evoked. On one of those covers records, Cash got to grips with the powerful ‘Southern Accents’.

Of course, the choice to take on this track was made easier by two factors. Firstly, Rubin and Cash relied on Petty and the Heartbreakers to act as the backing band for the record and, secondly, if there was ever one man destined to provide a cover of ‘Southern Accents’ better than the original then it was Johnny Cash.

Bob Dylan – ‘Learning to Fly’

Of course, the friendship shared between Tom Petty and Bob Dylan stretches back further than anybody on this list. Petty is often cited as giving Dylan a much-needed break in the eighties, with the freewheelin’ troubadour claiming that Petty had “saved” him from obscurity when he invited the singer on to his tour alongside Stevie Nicks.

Later in the decade, Petty would join Dylan to become a part of perhaps the most well-rounded supergroup of all time with The Traveling Wilbury’s. The band were a formidable unit bonded by a mutual adoration and, following Petty’s passing, Dylan paid tribute to the star the only way he knew how — with a song. Performing the simply gorgeous ‘Learning to Fly’, Dylan said all he needed to.

The War on Drugs – ‘Time To Move On’

If there was a natural successor to the heartland rock and roll that Petty and Bruce Springsteen have delivered over the years then you’d be hard-pressed to find a better act than Adam Granduciel and his group War on Drugs. The band have perfected the sound of Americana and given the chance to cover this classic, they delivered on all fronts.

The cover came during one of the Philadelphia band’s concerts in the weeks following Petty’s passing. Though countless tributes arose during those mournful days, few delivered them with such authentic care as Granduciel and his band.

Foo Fighters – ‘Honey Bee’

During the promotion of The Heartbreakers’ seminal album Wildflowers in 1994, Petty and his band took to the hottest show on late-night television, Saturday Night Live to give a rousing rendition of two songs, ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’ and the brilliant ‘Honey Bee’. That night they also had a young Dave Grohl filling in on drums.

It makes sense then that the Foo Fighters man would bring out ‘Honey Bee’ for his own band to cover for a MusiCares benefit show just a few short months before Petty tragically passed. The cover is as bombastic and bulging as you’d expect, showing off Grogl to be a huge fan as well as a rock star.

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