Petty's great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, of English, Scotch and Irish lineage, was a Revolutionary War veteran from South Carolina. He was rewarded for his service with 1,000 acres in what would become Tennessee. He left to claim the plot in 1801 and went on to purchase an additional 1,001 acres for $1,001.
The Petty family still lives on a patch of that land. Yet, for all their attachment to the area, Jason's parents were impressed that their son was going to New York to perform in a play—a show that has gone on from sold-out audiences at Manhattan Ensemble Theatre to a commercial transfer at the Little Shubert Theatre on West 42nd Street.
"They're very excited," said Petty in his easy, unexcitable Southern accent. "We've always thought of New York as the king of theatre in the world."
Petty plays Hank Williams, the country music icon that left an indelible stamp on American music before dying of a surfeit of booze and pills in 1953 at the age of 29. Before he burned out, Williams wrote such timeless classics as "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Lovesick Blues," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)."
Petty was doing an impersonation of Williams—as well as a collection of other country music legends—at the amusement park Opryland in the mid-90s when the someone from Nashville's newly renovated Ryman Auditorium saw the show. He told Petty that a Hank Williams revue was going into the auditorium. That was Hank Williams by Mark Harelik, which had its start back in 1986 at the Denver Theatre Center. Petty was invited to participate in a reading, at which future co-author and director Randal Myler sat in as an advisor. Myler subsequently asked Petty to be part of another music-themed production, Appalachian Strings, at the Cincinnati Playhouse.
"He's a hell of a researcher," Petty said of Myler, whose other shows include Love, Janis, about Janis Joplin, and Ain't Nothin' But the Blues. "A hell of a music historian. He gets into the nuances of these characters, into their lives."
Petty won the role of Hank and starred in the revamped show at the Ryman Auditorium, winning acclaim. "The first thing I wanted to do the music right," he said. "In Nashville, you get a lot of people listening to every word, every syllable."
The show then went on to performances in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Cleveland Playhouse, where David Fishelson of the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre saw the show and quickly booked it for its New York debut.
More than 20 Hank Williams songs are played during the course of the show, which tracks the singer-songwriter's short life and career. Petty not only sings all the tunes, but must deliver them in Williams' distinctive baritone, rather than his own natural singing voice. The heavy songlist will force to cut back to six shows a week once the show is underway at Off-Broadway's Little Shubert.
The actor recently met the new creative personnel for the commercial transfer. "It's like going from amateurs to the pros," he said. "It's a whole new system. Everything's bigger and more professional. We met the team yesterday. I said, 'Wow, we've got teams.'"
Petty's wife stayed in Nashville during most of the MET run, but, he said, "I'm hoping if the show does well enough, she'd come out and join her permanently." That might ensure that Petty doesn't mistakenly play out Williams' legacy in the loneliness department.
"I think he wrote from a lonely spot on this earth," Petty said. "He had a hole in him he couldn't feel. He couldn't communicate his personal feelings. He couldn't talk to people. But he communicated it through his songs."