I originally wrote this piece last yer for FORUM magazine. But with Tom Petty Weekend in full swing I thought it worth rerunning to remind folks about one of Gainesville’s coolest claims to fame. This town rocks!
On a cooling autumn weekend, while the Gators had a bye, Gainesville threw a huge party for its favorite son.
A city park where the Tom Petty played as a boy was renamed in his honor. Friends, family, fellow musicians and fans – lots of fans – showed up for two days of live music at Depot Park. And more of the same at nearby Heartwood Soundstage, a state-of-the-art concert venue and longtime studio where Petty recorded some of his earlier works.
This for Gainesville’s second Petty tribute since the rock star’s death in October, 2017.
“It was pretty amazing,” said Bob McPeek, Heartwood co-owner who has been part of Gainesville’s music scene for 45 years. “We had music inside and music outside. We had people from as far away as Hong Kong, Scotland and Canada.”
Jessica Hurov, tourism director for Visit Gainesville, said the national coverage of the Tom Petty Festival amounted to $1.7 million worth of promotional advertising for the city.
“That’s not a bad return on investment” for the $20,000 her bureau spent as a Petty Festival sponsor.
Not bad indeed. Still, the activity generated by Gainesville’s tribute to its own rock legend was relatively constrained compared to the fuselage of screaming guitars that would jolt the town on the very next weekend.
For the 17th annual Fest.
Three hundred bands. Thousands of punk rock enthusiasts from around the world.
For three days Fest fanatics strolled through the streets of downtown Gainesville. Stopping at Looseys and Rockys Piano Bar, at Durty Nelly’s and the Hardback. Moving from Boca Fiesta to the Palamino to Depot Park to Bo Diddley Plaza (named for another famous, albeit adopted son).
To listen to Lagwagon, The Get Up Kids, Cursive, The Menzingers, Audio Karate and Sarchasm – to name a just a few of the scores of Fest punker bands.
Eating at local restaurants. Filling up hotel rooms.
As it turns out, Gainesville is not all about the football.
“We have a music story to tell,” Hurov said. “We have a huge market opportunity to grow band tourism with signature events that we can grow year after year.”
This, after all, is the college town whose music legacy has spawned at least two books: Marty Jourard’s “Music Everywhere: The Rock And Roll Roots Of A Southern Town,” and Matt Walker’s “Gainesville Punk.”
A town that nurtured no fewer than nine Rock And Roll Hall of Fame inductees: Mike Campbell, Stan Lynch, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, Stephen Stills, Don Felder, Bernie Leadon…and of course Tom Petty and Bo Diddley.
Minnie Ripperton lived here. Petty’s Heartbreakers, the Dixie Desperados, Sister Hazel, Less Than Jake and countless other bands had their genesis here.
“We used to joke that there must be something in the water,” Mike Boulware, a longtime Gainesville musician and one of the organizers of a campaign to purchase the old Masonic Temple on Main Street and convert it into a Gainesville music museum.
“It will not be just a rock museum,” Jeff Goldstein, a former Gainesville-area concert promoter who launched the campaign. “It will include every type of music that has been part of Gainesville’s history…opera, country and western, rock.”
If that effort is successful, the museum would be within walking distance of the just-recently restored Cotton Club, the “Chit’lin Circuit” era night spot where B.B. King, Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, Brook Benton, James Brown and countless other black entertainers played back in the days when white venues were mostly off limits.
As a lively city of the arts, Gainesville has murals – its 352 Walls project is bringing in street artists in from all over the world. It has a world class art museum in UF’s Harn. The newly opened Cade showcases the art of science. Its reservoir of artistic talent is wide and deep.
But what distinguishes Gainesville’s arts scene from other Florida cities is a music legacy that promises to be increasingly vital to the local economy as signature events like the Petty Festival and Fest attract more and more visitors.
“For a long time this was kind of the Bermuda Triangle of band promotion,” Boulware said. “That’s changed. Now Gainesville is becoming a destination.”
And it’s not just attracting visitors. Gainesville’s music scene is also key to attracting and retaining the city’s youthful high-tech workforce.
“Music has become really important to the creative economy,” said Richard Florida, author of the “Rise Of The Creative Class.”
Florida ranks cities according to their ability to attract creative workers – artists, scientists, technicians, start-up entrepreneurs and so on. Gainesville ranks 13th in the nation by Florida’s reckoning.
“Without question Gainesville is Florida’s creative economy leader, far out in front of the major Florida metros,” Florida said. “It is playing in the same league as Boston, San Francisco and D.C. And music has been under-appreciated for its importance to the creative economy.”
But heck, Tom Petty could have told him that.
“Homegrown in the headphone,” Petty’s song “Gainesville” begins.
“Gainesville was a big town.”