Tom Petty’s second solo album, Wildflowers, stands as a testament to his artistry and songwriting prowess. Working with producer Rick Rubin, Petty delivered a collection of refined songs that showcased both his hard rock flair and his calm acoustic side. While the album was critically acclaimed, it didn’t necessarily have the most radio-friendly singles, which became a concern for his new label, Warner Bros.
In an effort to find a hit song, Mike Campbell, Petty’s guitarist, remembered a conversation among the team. They were discussing the lack of a standout hit on the record when someone mentioned Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” as a potential inspiration. This sparked an idea in Petty’s mind, and he went home with that notion, returning with a song that would become “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”
Drawing inspiration from Miller’s laid-back tempo, Petty crafted a track with a completely different vibe. Rather than boasting about his history like Miller, Petty chose to engage in a conversation with his lover, inviting them to roll another joint and turn the radio up loud. The result was a captivating and introspective song that resonated with audiences.
However, there was one missing piece in the puzzle – a drummer. Stan Lynch, Petty’s drummer at the time, didn’t connect with the material and was soon replaced. The band started experimenting with different drummers until Steve Ferrone entered the picture. Ferrone recalls the audition process as somewhat bizarre, but it was during the recording of “You Don’t Know How It Feels” that he knew they had found the right fit.
Ferrone’s adaptability and skill quickly became evident. Petty was amazed by how effortlessly the song came together with Ferrone behind the kit, stating, “he went down and played the track once without hearing it, and we got a take. And I was like ‘that’s what I’m talking about’.” The chemistry between Ferrone and the rest of the band proved to be transformative, giving Petty a newfound sense of comfort and confidence in the drums.
Although Petty wrote all the songs on Wildflowers, he always emphasized the importance of The Heartbreakers in the album’s creation. Pianist Benmont Tench remembers Petty acknowledging the band’s contribution, stating that it was the best record they ever made because all the band members played on it. The collaborative nature of the album showcased the tight-knit dynamic of The Heartbreakers and their undeniable impact on Petty’s music.
Wildflowers remains a testament to Tom Petty’s musical genius and his ability to create timeless songs. The influence of Steve Miller, particularly “The Joker,” played a role in inspiring Petty to craft the laid-back masterpiece “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” With the addition of drummer Steve Ferrone and the support of The Heartbreakers, the album solidified Petty’s place as one of the most talented and respected artists of his generation.