During his 25 years living in Nashville, Tom Leadon has seen countless shows at the Ryman Auditorium. But the rail-thin 64-year-old has never stepped onstage – until tonight. Leadon, who has spent the past few decades working as a guitar teacher, recently went on hiatus from his day job after his old buddy Tom Petty called him up to get their teenage band, Mudcrutch, back together for their first-ever U.S. tour.
For the group’s May 27th show, Leadon grins as he rips solos during the Flying Burrito Brothers classic “Six Days on the Road” and sings lead on the bluegrass rocker “The Other Side of the Mountain” for a crowd that includes dozens of his guitar students, many close friends, Lucinda Williams and his brother Bernie, a founding member of the Eagles. “I keep waiting for somebody to tap me on the shoulder and go, ‘Uh, Tom, this is a dream and it’s time to walk up,'” says Leadon. “What a wonderful turn of events this is.”
Mudcrutch feature Petty on bass and fellow Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench on guitar and keyboards, respectively – along with Leadon and drummer Randall Marsh, who spent his post-Mudcrutch years playing in various bands, including Campbell’s side project the Blue Stingrays. (Guitar ace Herb Pedersen also joins the band for this tour.)
Mudcrutch built their name playing six days a week at a popular Gainesville, Florida club that featured topless dancers. Leadon, one of Tom Petty’s closest friends since childhood, was thrown out of the band in 1972 after getting into a heated fight with the owner of the club. The group moved to Los Angeles a couple of years later with a slightly revised lineup that featured Danny Roberts on vocals and guitar and Charlie Souza on bass. They signed a deal with Shelter Records, but were dropped after “Depot Street,” their lone single, failed to chart. “We had all this energy at first,” says Marsh. “But then we lost some people and things got switched around. The very end was a little dark.”
The band split up in 1975, but the label retained Petty as a solo artist, and he recruited Campbell and Tench to join his new backing group the Heartbreakers. That band didn’t include Marsh, whose drumming didn’t impress the label president. But Petty became nostalgic about his first band while watching raw footage of Leadon’s interview for Peter Bogdanovich’s 2007 Petty documentary, Runnin’ Down a Dream. “I just realized how much we loved each other,” says Petty. “We taught each other so much and I thought, ‘Why don’t we just share that again?'”
He called Leadon out of the blue, and caught him in the car while he was driving home from the grocery store. “I hadn’t talked to Tom on the phone in about 30 years,” says Leadon. “I didn’t believe it was him for a while. I thought one of my friends was playing a joke on me, but he kept talking until I recognized his voice. Then I pulled over to hear him better and after a while my frozen food began melting.” Petty laughs at the memory. “I think I freaked him out,” he says. “It’s a weird call to make, right? But I wanted to try it. I figured if it didn’t work out, we just wouldn’t do it.”
It worked out far better than Petty even dared imagine. The band cut a record in a little over a week. “I don’t usually play my stuff, but I play that one,” he says. The album got rave reviews, and they supported it with a very brief California club tour. “As soon as we started playing with them again,” says Leadon, “it felt like we were home.” But the Heartbreakers had a big tour on the horizon and there was no time for more Mudcrutch shows.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recorded two more albums (2010’s Mojo and 2014’s Hypnotic Eye) and like that, eight years had passed since the first Mudcrutch record. “I honestly didn’t realize it had been that long,” says Petty. “We just kept saying we were going to do it. We were just looking for a hole in the schedule.” Leadon began feeling like the group might never come back together, but when he went backstage at Bonnaroo in 2013 to visit with Petty, the singer reassured him a second Mudcrutch album was very much alive.
They were supposed to begin work in early 2015, right around the time Leadon was diagnosed with a serious lung ailment. Doctors told him they could either remove a portion of one lung or give him antibiotics that would likely get him through the Mudcrutch record and tour. “One of the first people I called was Tom,” says Leadon. “He said, ‘No, go ahead and have the surgery. We’ll wait.’ I was really glad they were so patient.”
Six months after the successful surgery — they only removed 10 percent of a lung — Leadon was well enough to begin work and flew out to Los Angeles, crashing at Petty’s estate with Marsh. “You have to understand that the place is pretty spread out,” says Petty. “They just became part of the scenery.” Leadon and Marsh wound up staying at Petty’s house for the three months it took to record the second Mudcrutch record. “We had blocks of hanging out in Tom’s kitchen talking about old times and just sharing our opinions about stuff,” Leadon says. “I hope we didn’t wear out our welcome.”
Planning the tour, Petty wanted to play small venues, limiting their set list to Mudcrutch material and a few covers. “I insisted we not play anywhere bigger than 2,000 people,” he says. “I just don’t feel like we earned the right to headline 20,000-seaters.” They broke the rule when they accepted a couple of festival dates, including Cincinnati’s Bunbury: “We only did that so we could pay our expenses,” says Petty. “We aren’t rowing in money from this tour at all.”
“Tom is in a position where he could do anything he wants with anyone he wants,” says Campbell. “The beauty of this is that he wants to reconnect with his old friends, not for money, but the pure joy of revisiting the energy that we started with. It’s been very, very spiritual. It’s commendable that he’d do something so generous.”
Touring with Mudcrutch requires Petty to take on a new role. Mudcrutch jam extensively, and everyone in the band sings lead on at least one song. “I’m playing bass, so I’m not that free to be an entertainer,” he says. “I need to be locked into the rhythm. It’s a totally different kind of gig. But I’d say, no bullshit, we’re really enjoying this. I’m extremely engaged in what we’re doing now.” For the other members of the Heartbreakers, the shows present challenges they haven’t faced in decades: “We aren’t playing all those hits, so you can’t rest on your laurels,” says Campbell. “We live or die on how good we make the show.”
Tench enjoys the challenge. “When we play ‘Refugee’ [at Heartbreakers shows] we play it to the best of our ability and we’re in the song,” he says. “But the truth is when fans hear the opening drum fill they’re going to cheer because they love the song. When you hear an opening drum fill with Mudcrutch you don’t know what’s coming next. I love that our fans are sticking with it anyway.”
They could have played “Don’t Do Me Like That,” which began as an unreleased Mudcrutch song before Petty re-recorded the track for 1979’s Damn The Torpedoes. “Somebody brought that up and it is true,” says Tench. “Randall does play it very differently. But that would open the door to people saying, ‘Why don’t you do this, too?’ I don’t want to open that door.”
Traveling by private jet and staying in luxury hotels is routine for Petty, Campbell and Tench, but Leadon hasn’t been on the road in any capacity since his country rock group Silver opened up for the Doobie Brothers and America on a short run of arena dates in 1976. “We flew commercial back then and had to wake up at 7:00 am,” he says. “This tour is very different. I keep carrying things myself. They go, ‘No, no, no. You don’t do that. We’ve got guys to do that.’ I go, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ In my world I do everything, so I’m adjusting. It’s not too bad. They’re taking really good care of me.”
Leadon is a vegan with strict dietary requirements, so he was a little concerned about how that would work on the road. “I found out Tom wasn’t kidding about 24/7 room service in this hotels,” he says. “And I eat a special kind of bread, but I got in touch with this website that gave me the number for local health food stores.” He then gets into a detailed description of traveling by Uber to these health food stores before Petty lets out a loud sigh and cuts him off. “Oh God,” he says with a laugh. “Please don’t make this article about Tom’s diet. Please.”
The Ryman show runs over two hours, and the crowd doesn’t seem to mind that it doesn’’ hear a single Petty classic, even if one dude occasionally screams out “Southern Accents!” The highlight is a 10-minute version of 2008’s “Crystal River.” As the bandmates trade solos, Petty wanders the stage, as if lost in a trance, occasionally asking them to play longer. He pogos throughout the rowdy encore, Jerry Lee Lewis’ “High School Confidential.” After taking a bow, he stays onstage to sign autographs.
The Mudcrutch tour ends on June 30th, with everyone hoping to record another album … one day. “I have so many things I want to do musically,” says Petty. “But there’s certainly a possibility that down the line we would return to this.” Leadon’s boss at the Jan Williams School of Music & Theatre has been handling his guitar students during the tour, but once it wraps he plans on returning to work. “You never know what the future will hold,” he says. “That’s one reason we’re really trying to enjoy the moment, and just treasure the time we’re having right now.”
Marsh concurs. “How many groups that ended 100 years ago have ever done something like this?” he asks. “I just don’t think about it a whole lot because if you start dissecting it it gets too mental. It just is. It just is.”