Singer and guitarist TJ Cronin has been stepping into Tom Petty's shoes for five years as the frontman for the nationally touring tribute band the Petty Hearts. But after the longtime leader of the Heartbreakers broke fans' hearts with his sudden death in early October, Cronin had to take on an even tougher role: consoler.
Cronin founded the Petty Hearts in the summer of 2012, and they've been touring the nation continuously ever since. The five-piece band had just completed its fifth-anniversary run when the news came that Petty had died of a heart attack just shy of his 67th birthday, only one week after wrapping up his 40th-anniversary tour with the Heartbreakers at the Hollywood Bowl in California.
"I was lucky enough to see Tom Petty three times before he sadly passed," Cronin says. Their shows, he says, have "always been fun, upbeat. I'm a funny guy up there; I crack jokes, don't take myself too seriously... Granted, we take the music very seriously."
Cronin says it was difficult to adapt the Petty Hearts' lighthearted show after Petty's death, especially on such short notice. "You know, we play almost every week, and we had a show literally a few days after he passed. It was very difficult 'cause I didn't know how to approach it, you know? It just felt wrong. I didn't want to step on any toes. I didn't want to say the wrong thing, so I was a nervous wreck."
The weather during the band's first performance after Petty's passing, at a Halloween-themed family-fun night on a baseball field, didn't help either. "It rained. It was freezing," he laughs, "right as we started, by the way. [The weather] was good all day. Literally, it was some kind of sign, I swear. As soon as we started playing, it just came down in buckets and it was freezing, and most of the people left. It was rough."
He says audiences were emotionally raw and reeling from the sudden passing of one of their music idols. "It was an emotional week, and it was different. The vibe changed for a while there in the fall — everything from people getting emotional, crying. I had to tune it back a little bit, not say so many jokes, and say a couple lines... send it out to Tom and his family and what the music meant to me."
The reason Petty meant so much to the world and the reason his songs resonate with people is that he always wrote music for the underdog, Cronin says. He cites the ready-made stadium sing-along "I Won't Back Down" as a prime example. In Petty's songs, he says, "even the losers get lucky sometimes. He writes for the shy kid in class."
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Cronin never got to meet his favorite songwriter, but he bumped into Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench at his first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert in 2012, the same year he began playing in the Petty Hearts. "[He] walked in front of me and got stuck behind a crowd, and I screamed and grabbed him and yelled, and he was laughing. He saw how ecstatic I was. I had a quick chat with him very briefly.
"I was really hoping to see [Petty] a few more times," Cronin says. Though the Heartbreakers had just wrapped up their 40th-anniversary jaunt, Petty had said in interviews that he would continue to play festivals and short runs of shows. Cronin thought there would be a "next time."
"I was going to fly out to Chicago to see him at one of his last shows at Wrigley Field, and I couldn't go. I got tied up. Now, you know, that burns. I really wish I would've [gone]."