The retired NASCAR driver is scheduled to play his guitar and sing at the Willow Tree Coffeehouse and Music Room from 8-10 p.m. Thursday. Petty played at the venue back in April in front of an enthusiastic crowd.
His most requested number was the Rodney Crowell song "Oh King Richard," a tribute to his father, seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty. However, he also played many other songs, including some of those he had written, that night and left Johnson City with a special souvenir.
"I had a great time, and when I was leaving they gave me a Willow Tree sticker, which I told them was my first tour sticker," Petty said. "It wasn't a big crowd, but it was fun with people from Georgia and North Carolina even coming."
Petty hasn't played in public since that show. He and wife, Morgan, welcomed a new son, Overton, in June. Over the last few weeks, Petty has been traveling to the races as an NBC Sports analyst.
Whether in public or at home, music has been a huge part of his adult life. Petty, who founded the Victory Junction Gang Camp for children with serious medical conditions to honor his son, Adam, who was killed in a practice crash in 2000 at New Hampshire, said the music has helped him through the toughest times.
"Music has always been that safe place, that place of solace," he said. "Even when I drove the race car, I would still grab the guitar and take it with me everywhere I would go. Off and on through the years, I've dabbled, but now that I'm not driving, I've gotten into writing songs. If you write a song, there is a little of you in it, and in some cases, 100 percent of you in it."
Petty describes his time growing up as the "Golden Era of Country Music and the Golden Era of NASCAR." He recalls listening to artists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, George Jones on the old 8-track tapes as his father was driving down the highway to race against rivals like David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough.
"I remember eight or nine years old, those songs sounding so sad — like Johnny Cash would put his heart and soul into those songs," he said. "For me, that's the way it is. You put it out there, and you hope someone likes it and they get something from it."
THE PREACHER AND MARTY ROBBINS
Bill Frazier, a preacher from Alabama who would come around the race track, was the first person Petty remembers playing the guitar live. The second was a country music legend and part-time NASCAR racer.
"Bill Frazier was the first guy I saw play the guitar and sing, and then Marty Robbins was the second guy I saw play the guitar in person," Petty recalled. "I remember Marty running Talladega and some of the bigger races. After leaving the track, we would get to the hotel and sit out by the pool, and he'd play and I would be mesmerized. I said to myself, 'I'm going to play the guitar someday.'
"Later, Bill Frazier gave me his guitar, and that's the guitar I learned on and the guitar I still play most of the time."
When Petty started racing in the NASCAR Cup Series, he wanted to run the No. 42 like his grandfather Lee had. But that number had been assigned to Robbins by NASCAR. As a nervous 18-year-old, he called Robbins to see if the country music star would relinquish the number. Robbins obliged, and Petty ran the No. 42 early in his career and during his best seasons in the sport with car owner Felix Sabates.
BRISTOL AND THE OTHER 42
Petty, an eight-time winner in the Cup Series, made 50 starts at Bristol Motor Speedway during his driving career. His best finish came in the No. 42 Mello Yello Pontiac when he wound up third behind Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt at the 1993 Food City 500.
The current driver of the No. 42 is Kyle Larson, who finished runner-up to Kyle Busch in April. Petty believes Bristol, site of Saturday's Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, is the track that best suits Larson's driving style.
"Bristol is as close to sprint cars and dirt tracks as we get in the Cup Series," Petty said. "You're running up next to the wall, just inches from it, and hung out. You're having to go back to the gas and drive with the accelerator, with the steering wheel and with the feel of the seat. That's the way Kyle Larson drives.
"He's an incredible talent who appears to be fearless in the things he does. He never stops driving, and at Bristol, you have to drive every split second of every lap. With the tracks he came from, he just fell into a natural rhythm there."