Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – American Girl

This may be my favorite song of Tom Petty. The ringing 12 string that introduces it with the Roger McGuinn like vocals…it’s hard not to like. The song peaked at #40 in the UK and #68 in the Cash Box Top 100. Even though Petty and his band were from the US, this caught on in England long before it got any attention in America. As a result, Petty started his first big tour in the UK, where this was a bigger hit.

Roger McGuinn joked that the first time he heard the song he thought it was an old Byrds song he recorded and forgotten about.

From Songfacts.

Tom Petty said of this song: “I wrote that in a little apartment I had in Encino. It was right next to the freeway and the cars sometimes sounded like waves from the ocean, which is why there’s the line about the waves crashing on the beach. The words just came tumbling out very quickly – and it was the start of writing about people who are longing for something else in life, something better than they have.”

Mike Campbell has been The Heartbreakers’ guitarist since they formed the band. Here’s what he told us about this song: “We used to have people come up to us and tell us they thought it was about suicide because of the one line about ‘if she had to die,’ but what they didn’t get was, the whole line is ‘if she had to die trying.’ Some people take it literally and out of context. To me it’s just a really beautiful love song. It does have some Florida imagery.”

In our interview with Mike Campbell, he said: “We cut that track on the 4th of July. I don’t know if that had anything to do with Tom writing it about an American girl.”

Roger McGuinn recorded this on his 1977 album Thunderbyrd. McGuinn was a member of The Byrds and a big influence on Petty. He once joked that this number was a Byrds song he’d forgotten. Petty told Mojo magazine January 2010: “‘American Girl’ doesn’t really sound like The Byrds; it evokes The Byrds. People are usually influenced by more than one thing, so your music becomes a mixture. There’s nothing really new, but always new ways to combine things. We tried to play as good as whoever we admired but never could.”

This was featured in the 1991 movie Silence Of The Lambs. It was used in a scene where a female character is listening to it in a car before she meets Buffalo Bill, a serial killer who abducts her.

The Goo Goo Dolls played this at the 2001 “Concert For New York,” a benefit show organized by Paul McCartney. Classic rockers like The Who and David Bowie were big hits among the crowd of police officers and firefighters, and they responded very well when The Goo Goo Dolls played this.

Petty gave his reaction to the performance: “I was watching the 9/11 concert in New York and the Goo Goo Dolls played ‘American Girl.’ I could see the crowd cheering in this really patriotic context. But it was just a story when I wrote it. In my mind, the girl was looking for the strength to move on, and she found it. It’s one of my favorites.”

Petty credits their producer, Denny Cordell, with helping him understand the importance of crafting a story in the lyrics to this song. Petty says Cordell told him, “When you put a little truth in a song, it elevates things.”

In the Bob Dylan tradition, Petty doesn’t have a typical singing voice, but as heard in this song, he writes compelling lyrics that he delivers with conviction.

American Girl

Well she was an American girl 
Raised on promises 
She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there 
Was a little more to life 
Somewhere else 
After all it was a great big world 
With lots of places to run to 
Yeah, an d if she had to die 
Tryin’ she had one little promise 
She was gonna keep 

Oh yeah, all right 
Take it easy baby 
Make it last all night 
She was an American girl 

It was kind of cold that night 
She stood alone on her balcony 
She could the cars roll by 
Out on 441 
Like waves crashin’ in the beach 
And for one desperate moment there 
He crept back in her memory 
God it’s so painful 
Something that’s so close 
And still so far out of reach 

Oh yeah, all right 
Take it easy baby 
Make it last all night 
She was an American girl

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

11 thoughts on “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – American Girl”

  1. This has always been one of my fave TP songs, too. Maybe it is the similarity to the Byrds, but it’s one of those that I liked from the first moment I heard it. I love that it caught on in the UK first.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s not much by Petty that I don’t like… i haven’t heard Woman in Love in a long time…Nicks and Petty went well together.


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