Oct. 2, 2017: T.J. Cronin was at work when his phone started chiming.
It was a hectic day, he told The Daily Times recently, and it wasn’t until later when he finally caught a break and checked the cavalcade of messages from friends and loved ones to read the devastating news: Rocker Tom Petty was dead.
“My phone kept buzzing, but I had to ignore it because I was so busy, so it was a little later when I found out,” he said. “When I did, I actually went to the bathroom and cried.”
A lot of fans probably relate, but for Cronin, it was even more personal: He’s the frontman, singer, rhythm guitarist and Petty doppelganger who fronts The Petty Hearts, a tribute band that performs Friday evening at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend. Cronin was 14 years old when he discovered Petty’s music for the first time, and he set out to pay tribute to the iconic leader of the Heartbreakers even before he graduated from high school, he said.
“The first song I ever heard was ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream,’ and I remember thinking, ‘This is right up my alley. Who is this guy?’ I kept digging further and further, and I couldn’t find a song I didn’t like. I was already singing and playing guitar, and I remember picking up the ‘Full Moon Fever’ album when I was in high school, and I learned it from front to back on guitar, playing and singing it.
“Right away, people started telling me how much I sounded like him — my mom, my friends in high school at the time — so it wasn’t something I had to work very hard at. It came natural to me, and after I graduated high school in 2012, I decided I wanted to try my hand at a Tom Petty tribute. I had done cover bands and garage bands all the way up until then, but I didn’t have one at the time, so I started looking.”
It took a while to get the right combination of guys — after all, it’s no easy task finding dead ringers for players like Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell and the late Howie Epstein, musicians every bit as talented as Petty was. Cronin was admittedly picky, he said, but he also wanted a commitment to professionalism that would allow The Petty Hearts to focus on their craft more than they did spectacle.
“I had to pick the right guys, personality-wise and skill-wise, but once we got the right mix, we took off pretty quickly,” he said.
The key to a successful performance, he added, is nailing the hits — “Refugee,” “The Waiting,” “American Girl” and so many more that made Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers household names — while also pulling some deep cuts out of the band’s catalog to please diehard fans.
“‘Down South,’ ‘The Best of Everything,’ ‘Zombie Zoo,’ ‘All Right for Now,’ ‘Depending on You’ — those are pretty obscure,” he said. “But really, playing all those songs and seeing people get emotional when you do one like ‘Room at the Top’ or ‘Wildflowers’ is so rewarding. They might tear up, but they’re good tears, and they tell us, ‘Thank you; that song reminds me of my dad,’ or their mom, or they just miss Tom Petty.”
Over the years, the group has performed at dozens of festivals, performing arts centers, theaters and clubs across the country, and while there are other Tom Petty tribute acts out there on the road as well, Cronin doesn’t see what The Petty Hearts do as a competition. In fact, he encourages fans to check them all out … but be prepared for something a little different when The Petty Hearts take the stage.
“If you choose to see my band, we’re going to play all the hits, some of the obscure songs, and some deep cuts for the diehard fans, and you’re not going to hear that anywhere else,” he said. “The Petty Hearts are a good band, but there are other Tom Petty bands out there, too, and that’s OK. It’s all good music, and we all should celebrate his life. I would just encourage people to see them all and just enjoy Tom Petty, because it’s beautiful stuff, but hopefully we can give you something different.”