Tom Petty gives a hug to ‘big town’ Gainesville. It’s the place where things got started

Rocker Tom Petty’s unexpected death a year ago at 66 from cardiac arrest will be remembered Friday with the release of a boxed set curated primarily by his wife Dana and daughter Adria. The set, “An American Treasure,” offers another look at his catalog by bypassing familiar studio originals that are gathered elsewhere.

Perhaps no song has more relevance to his Florida roots than the four-CD, 60-song set’s “Gainesville” track. And no one was more surprised to hear it than a 64-year-old man named Sandy Stringfellow, who lives in Starke.

That’s because Stringfellow, a musician and songwriter, was “the first official roadie” for Mudcrutch, Petty’s pre-Heartbreakers band that got its start in his Gainesville hometown in 1970, and he gets name-checked right at the top of the song.

Petty sings in the opening line: “Homegrown in the headphone/Sandy loading up the van” and sets the music scene at the time in the hook phrase, “Gainesville is a big town.”

In an interview with WUFT News posted to Soundcloud, Stringfellow recalled his days loading up the van for Petty and his bandmates, which included guitarist Mike Campbell who joined Fleetwood Mac earlier this year following Petty’s death. “I had a Volkswagen microbus. That was the van,” Stringfellow says, chuckling.

The pair met at junior high dance at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School where a teenaged Petty was already crafting tunes. They would meet up soon after at a Pure gas station on Northwest 13th Street, sharing cigarettes, sodas and plans. “I kept bumping into him.”

But he says he knew even then that a nascent Petty, “this blond-haired kid,” was going to be big someday — as big as Gainesville.

“People, I’m sure, will laugh, but I thought these guys are going to be great someday,” Stringfellow says in the audio clip. The four-minute reflection of the Gainesville music scene in the post-Beatles 1970s is “captured perfectly. It was a time here, this little oasis where all these people came and went.”

In a follow-up Q&A with WUFT, Stringfellow said he was “honored” to hear his name so prominently in Petty’s old “new” song.

“The first time I heard it, I thought, ‘Oh how nice. I got a mention.’ There’s a lot of depth to the song. It really captured perfectly what was going on in Gainesville. It was a big time. There’s no question about it. I don’t know how else to describe it. There was something in the air and it was pure musical magic from my persepective.”

“Gainesville” was originally recorded during the 1998 sessions for the Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers album, “Echo,” Rolling Stone reported, but that dark album, fueled by Petty’s divorce from first wife, Jane, wouldn’t have been an appropriate setting for the sunnier tune.

On “Gainesville,” Petty sings over a laid-back beat along to an acoustic guitar strum and bits of Campbell’s electric guitar. The sound isn’t far removed from the music Petty recorded with producer Jeff Lynne for his 1989 solo album, “Full Moon Fever.”

“An American Treasure” producer Ryan Ulyate told Rolling Stone, “‘Gainesville’ is this guy looking back on this early life. It is very self-referential from a guy who has some nostalgia for a simpler time.”

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