Music •••½ Sound ••••
This is the first Tom Petty album that doesn't have his name on the cover. That's because the band here is a reunited version of Mudcrutch, the precursor to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
The story goes that Mudcrutch's record company, Shelter, didn't like the whole band, so in 1975 the label divided it up and reassembled it. Two-fifths of Mudcrutch - guitarist Tom Leadon and drummer Randall Marsh - were shown the door. Another two-fifths - guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench - became Heartbreakers. And golden boy Petty was anointed the frontman.
The abominably named (even T.P. says so) Mudcrutch ceased to exist, but it was off to the races for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. In the back of his mind, Petty must've viewed Mudcrutch as a piece of unfinished business that needed tending to, because in 2007 - 40 years after the group formed in its hometown of Gainesville, Florida - the Phoenix rose from the mud and recorded its just-released debut album.
Mudcrutch is a pleasantly tuneful, toe-tapping, low-key set of songs that hark back to the wellspring of folk-rock and country-rock into which the group originally tapped. The band lays out the territory by opening with a traditional folk song, "Shady Grove,' taken at a brisk tempo. As the album progresses, there are echoes of the late Byrds (whose gruff, earthy "Lover of the Bayou' is covered) and the early Eagles - not surprising, since Tom Leadon is in fact the brother of Bernie, a founding Eagle. Gram Parsons, another roots-rocking icon who left Florida to chase the California dream, is a spectral presence as well; Mudcrutch covers "Six Days on the Road,' a song associated with the Flying Burrito Brothers. More broadly, the band mines the proto-Americana mother lode that Parsons dubbed "cosmic American music.'
You might even detect a touch of the Grateful Dead's '70s-vintage psilocybin-cowboy vibe on "Crystal River,' a noodly epic that, at nearly 10 minutes, is the longest piece of music with which Petty has ever been associated. He and his pals flirt with honky-tonk country on "Orphan of the Storm' and "Queen of the Go-Go Girls.' The group's Deep South roots show on the flinty "Bootleg Flyer,' whose dual-guitar and organ climbs tell me that Mudcrutch knew exactly what the Allman Brothers Band (who also lived in Florida for a while) were up to. The only songs that don't ring completely true are "Scare Easy' and "The Wrong Thing to Do,' which sound like Heartbreakers retreads.
In the end, what makes Mudcrutch work is the easy camaraderie and unpretentious virtuosity among these five old friends. A note on the back says it all: "Recorded live, vocals, harmony, everything. Arrangements done on studio floor. Made in 10 days, no headphones.' Compare that with the agonizing years that the latter-day Eagles spend getting their overworked shtick together, and viva la difference.