From the moment Jason Hedges first heard the down-home, heartland melodies of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the O’Connell Center, he was hooked. Now, each year, he draws thousands of people to Gainesville as the frontman of cover band Heavy Petty celebrating the life of the artist himself.
“All the odds were against him, and he made something of himself — became this rock and roll legend,” Hedges said.
Hedges has never wanted his efforts to uphold Petty’s legacy to seem insincere, which is why the Tom Petty Birthday Bash and Heavy Petty’s performances remain local to Gainesville, he said. Through the free festival founded by Hedges in 2017, people from all over have come to Gainesville, he said.
The beauty of Petty’s music is through its lyrics and the musicianship of five people performing on stage together, Hedges said. That’s what resonates with a lot of people regardless of whether they stand for the same ideals, he said.
“People perceive art differently, but especially music because music is so immediate,” he said. “You could hear a song and I could feel one way about it and then you could feel the exact opposite, or even think the song is about something completely different.”
The universality of music is an important factor to consider when taking into account the recent conflict between the Petty family and the Trump campaign, Hedges said.
On June 20, the Petty family issued an official cease and desist warning to the Trump campaign regarding the usage of the song “I Won’t Back Down” at an Oklahoma rally. This raises the question of whether music and politics are mutually exclusive, but to Hedges, the issue here is mainly one of copyright infringement, he said.
As the lead singer of a Tom Petty cover band, Hedges stays within respectful boundaries of appreciating Petty’s work by maintaining communication with the family, he said. It’s just common courtesy to check with an artist, or in this case, the estate on their feelings regarding the usage of their loved one’s material rather than assuming entitlement, he said.
“People are taking other people’s art, and using it to promote themselves or their business,” Hedges said. “That is something that, definitely the Petty’s don’t agree with, I don’t agree with and I think most artists don’t agree with it either.”
The music scene has changed a lot in Gainesville since Pat Lavery became the facility and events manager of the High Dive, he said. And though there aren’t many newer artists sounding like Petty, people are still inspired by the spirit of his music, he said.
Anybody can take a song like “I Won’t Back Down” and turn it into an anthem for their movement, Lavery said. The beauty of Petty’s music is that it can be interpreted in many ways, but the family had to stand by their own principles, he said.
“It was more about their particular beliefs, wanting to say unequivocally, wanting to say publicly, ‘We don’t back this person,’” Lavery said. “They’re saying, ‘We don’t want anybody to think that because our song is playing, we agree with anything the president says.’”
The digitization of the media has led to art becoming a public domain, Lavery said. Most people aren’t doing this with malicious intent, they use the media as a badge of honor — which is why there are still laws protecting the work of artists, there has to be some balance, he said.
“People love a movie, they love a song — they identify with it,” Lavery said. “It doesn’t matter what the original purpose or message was, people identify with it, and they do so in their own way.”
Tom Petty had a gift for writing songs that could appeal to a lot of people, Lavery said. But just because people form emotional bonds with certain artists, doesn’t mean they can take their work and do whatever they want with it, Lavery said.
“The most positive music is going to leave things open-ended for people to interpret the way that they want to,” Lavery said. “But then there’s the other side where some people can twist things and turn them into something for their cause."
On June 20, the Petty family issued an official cease and desist warning to the Trump campaign regarding the usage of the song “I Won’t Back Down” at an Oklahoma rally.