Interview: Benmont Tench Talks Solo Album, Dylan, ‘Free Fallin’ and ‘Wildflowers’
By Brian Ives
If you’re a fan of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, you know him. He’s been playing keyboards for that band since they started in 1976.
Or, if you’re the type who reads liner notes, you definitely know his name. He’s played on records by, among many others, Johnny Cash, U2, Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, the Rolling Stones, Don Henley and that is merely the tip of this particular iceberg.
But it’s only this week that Benmont Tench is releasing his very first solo album, You Should Be So Lucky. Certainly, the man has had a full dance card over the years, between his day job and the fact that he remains a very in-demand session keyboardist. Why did it take so long to do a solo record?
“I’m pretty shy and I’m not seeking the spotlight,” he tells Radio.com. “I like having a big grand piano to hide behind when I’m playing with the Heartbreakers.”
There’s also the company that he keeps, which can be intimidating to anyone who calls themselves a songwriter: “I first sat in with Tom when I was 17. So, I’ve been around a top-notch songwriter my entire life: I’m sixty. It’s daunting when you’re a songwriter… I was fortunate enough to work with Bob Dylan, to work with John Prine. I’ve worked with Rosanne [Cash]. I’ve worked with Johnny Cash. And then you say, ‘I’ve got these little songs.'” Being rather humble, he doesn’t mention here that one of his “little songs” was a number 1 country hit for Rosanne Cash: “Never Be You.” He revisits another song he wrote for her, “Why Don’t You Quit Leaving Me Alone,” on You Should Be So Lucky.
While Tench takes lead vocals on this album, hardcore Heartbreakers fans have heard him on the mic before. He sang lead on “This Is A Good Street,” from Mudcrutch’s 2008 reunion album. Mudcrutch was the band that Petty, Tench and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell played in before they formed their current group. Petty often says he’d like to do another Mudcrutch album, and Tench would love to see that happen as well.
“I’m really dying to do it. It’s a real blessing to be in two of my favorite bands. I was a fan of Mudcrutch: I used to follow them around and see them long before I joined. I’d love to bring Mudcrutch all over the country,” he says, noting that their ’08 tour was restricted to the West Coast.
These days, he’s still an in-demand keyboardist, having played on recent releases by the Beach Boys, the Avett Brothers and Aaron Neville, to name a few. He told us about an ill-fated studio gig with, of all people, Bob Dylan for the Shot Of Love album.
“Jimmy Iovine produced one track,” he says, mentioning the Interscope Records/Beats headphones mogul, who, back in the ’80s, was the producer of choice of Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks, among others. “It isn’t on the record, it’s called ‘Caribbean Wind.’ He brought me along for that. He proceeded to leave during the session because of some disagreement with Bob. Without telling me he was leaving! So, I’m in a room with Bob Dylan, who I’ve never met before, and a slew of other great musicians, who I’ve never met before. It’s not a big deal session,” he demurs. “It’s just Bob.” Tench and the Heartbreakers would go on to back Bob Dylan on a tour a few years later; Dylan’s “Duquesne Whistle” is one of two covers on Tench’s new album (the other being the traditional “Corrnia Corrina”).
Petty and the Heartbreakers have been working on a new album, their first since 2010’s Mojo, which hopefully will lead to another tour. One song that usually makes their setlists is “Free Fallin’,” from Tom’s 1989 solo album, Full Moon Fever. Legend has it that Petty played it for the Heartbreakers, who didn’t like it. Tench has a different memory: “I asked them, ‘Can I play on this? Please? Let me play on it, let me play on it.’ [Full Moon Fever producer] Jeff Lynne does not like Hammond organs… it didn’t need me on it, but it’s such a beautiful song, I wanted a chance to play on it. Now I get to play it with the Heartbreakers. That song knocked me out.”
Petty’s solo followup to Full Moon Fever was 1994’s Wildflowers, which turns 20 this year. But Tench bristles at the idea that it’s a solo album. “I’m sure there’s a reason that Tom called it a solo album. Maybe it’s a mental state he was in, you’ll have to ask Tom.”
He continues: “The fact is, it’s the first Heartbreakers album with the new drummer,” he says, referring to Steve Ferrone, who has been in the band ever since. “At the time, the idea wasn’t to replace [original Heartbreakers drummer] Stan [Lynch]. Tom set out, I believe, to make a solo record, but very quickly we were all on it except for Stan. It’s a Heartbreakers record… It’s a really good record, I think it’s one of our best.”
Tench’s You Should Be So Lucky is out now; he just played his first few solo shows at Largo in Los Angeles. No other shows have been announced.