Keller Williams can remember Oct. 2, 2017, perfectly.
He was in a music studio, working on a new album. But he just couldn’t focus.
Earlier in the day, legendary singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tom Petty passed away after suffering from cardiac arrest.
Throughout the day, numerous celebrities, artists, musicians and just regular music-listeners shared their tributes to the famed singer. People all over the world were in a state of shock. Petty had seemed fairly healthy for his age and had wrapped up a world tour with his longtime group, The Heartbreakers, just a week prior.
Although Williams felt a sense of distress due to Petty’s passing, he remembered something while standing in the studio: some voice memos stashed away on his phone.
About two years beforehand, Williams and his sound engineer were goofing around while the musician was working on another album. In between takes, they would sing some of Petty’s songs while putting them to a bluegrass beat. Williams ended up using this idea during a free show he performed just after Christmas 2015.
“Skip ahead to the day Petty dies, and I remembered those voice memos on my phone,” he said. “My sound engineer and I decided to take those files, master them pretty quickly, and we put them up on SoundCloud the day after Petty died.”
Not long after Williams posted the songs to the free audio sharing website, he was contacted by a group based out of Springfield, Missouri – the Hillbenders.
The group had heard Williams’ bluegrass covers of Petty’s music, and it got them intrigued. They wanted to expand on this idea of playing Petty’s songs with a bluegrass twist.
At first, Williams wasn’t really into the idea. He was busy enough with his numerous musical projects to consider a new one.
“I’m glad they talked me into doing it, though,” he said. “Those guys are fantastic. We’ve done, like, 20 shows together, and I’m really excited about working with them more.”
Next Saturday night, Williams and the Hillbenders will perform their own bluegrass interpretations of Petty’s music at the Cheyenne Civic Center.
“PettyGrass is basically exactly how it sounds,” Williams said. “I think people need to be prepared to come out, have fun and sing along to some songs that you might not have realized were his. There’s nothing more powerful than having a big room of people singing the same song, especially when they’ve been written by the kind of guy like Petty was.”
Petty is still considered one of the bestselling artists of all time. He penned such massive hits like “American Girl,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “I Won’t Back Down.”
As someone who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, Williams knows the integral part Petty played in popular culture. With the radio constantly playing in his home, it’s like Petty became absorbed into his psyche.
“You can sing along to 10 of his choruses and not even realize you know the song so well,” he said.
He noted that it wasn’t at all difficult to translate Petty’s music into bluegrass; but after delving into the songs like he did, he has a new appreciation for Petty’s songwriting skills.
“I’m really proud of the work we’ve done with PettyGrass,” Williams said. “The arrangements are pretty close to the originals, but we’ve definitely enhanced it with our harmonies. These shows are a lot of fun to do, so we can’t wait for Cheyenne to hear and see it.”