Column

Oliver: Tom Petty proved to be perfect ‘Highway Companion’ for years

Joan Oliver
Joan Oliver

Like a lot of people, I find myself shocked and saddened at the unexpected death of rocker Tom Petty last week. One minute he’s finishing up a tour, and the next we’re hearing that he’s clinging to life after a heart attack. How many of us were hoping against hope that the initial reports about his demise were fake?

By the looks of my Facebook feed, I’m not alone in my sadness or my fandom. Everyone I know had a story or a video or a song to share about Petty. With a discography of 10 albums and a career that spanned from the 1970s until now, well, that’s probably not all that surprising.

My offering in the “favorite Tom Petty song” hit parade (“Saving Grace”) was a bit more obscure than the usual “Free Falling” or “Learning to Fly” or “Refugee.” Don’t get me wrong; these are all very good choices, and I love them all.

It’s just that none of those songs are on my favorite Petty album, the tragically underappreciated 2006 release, “Highway Companion.”

For me, Petty’s last solo studio album just speaks to me in a way that I can’t even explain. Isn’t that how it usually is?

My husband has resigned himself to knowing that if we are going on a car trip, the album is coming, too. The rest of my musical tastes may change on a whim, but this is one of the stalwarts.

Maybe it has something to do with the opening song, “Saving Grace,” which just screams “Tom Petty song” to me. It starts with a loping bass line and adds a bit of guitar swagger to a tale of a traveler “passing sleeping cities, fading by degrees.” Oh, and it also has a bit of the Petty wordplay that I’ve come to love.

Or maybe it has something to do with the imagery of the album coinciding with the scenery that would pass by as we listened to it. More than once it was part of the trip to see my mother when she lived in Georgia. Almost every time, as we passed through the horse country and verdant green hills of Kentucky, we would listen to “Ankle Deep,” a song about a stolen horse and a dream gone wrong.

Then there were the times when the sun was just starting to set as we approached our destination after visiting friends in Kentucky. There would be “Night Driver”: “Me I’m drifting home again / headlights in my eyes / Fighting sleep with windows down / worn out from long goodbyes.”

In a lot of ways, Petty was one of the contributors to the soundtrack of my life. It’s still so hard to think that he has played his final chord.

At least we’ve got his extensive catalog of songs that will continue to rock for years to come.

Still, this “American Girl” will miss him.

• Joan Oliver is a former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at jolivercolumn@gmail.com.

Loading more

Digital Access

Digital Access
Access nwherald.com from all your digital devices and receive breaking news and updates from around the area.

Home Delivery

Home Delivery
Local news, prep sports, Chicago sports, local and regional entertainment, business, home and lifestyle, food, classified and more! News you use every day! Daily, weekend and Sunday packages.

Text Alerts

Text Alerts
Stay connected to us wherever you are! Get breaking news updates along with other area information sent to you as a text message to your wireless device.

Email Newsletters

Email Newsletters
We'll deliver news & updates to your inbox. Plan your weekend and catch up on the news with our newsletters.