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A Q&A With The Van-Loading Man Named Sandy From Tom Petty's New Song 'Gainesville'

“Sandy loading up the van” is the second line of the Tom Petty song “Gainesville” unveiled last week as part of the “An American Treasure” box set due for release Friday. He’s referring to Sandy Stringfellow, now a 64-year-old musician and songwriter living in Starke.

Stringfellow said he was “the first official roadie” for Mudcrutch, a forerunner band to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. He and Petty, a Gainesville native, first met when the future rock ‘n’ roll legend was with the Sundowners and playing at a junior high school dance at P.K. Yonge.

“We had some fond adventures,” Stringfellow told WUFT News after the “Gainesville” release. “One of the reasons perhaps was because I had a car and he didn’t. Anytime he needed a lift I was right there. I guess I was today what they call his homeboy. He had a great sense of humor. I would say he was the coolest cat in any room.”

What follows is edited for length and clarity.

Q: What were your thoughts when you heard your name in the song?

A: Oh, I was honored. The first time I heard it, I thought, “Oh, how nice, I got a mention.” There’s a lot of depth to the song. It really captured perfectly what was going on in Gainesville. It was a big time. There’s no question about it. I don’t know how else to describe it. There was something in the air and it was pure musical magic from my perspective.

Q: Tell us what the line “Sandy loading up the van” means?

A: I had a Volkswagen microbus. That was the van. We hauled a lot of stuff in that thing. They were glad for the help. They didn’t have a van. And I was glad to help because I was a huge fan – and still am.

Q: Can you describe what Petty was like as a person?

A: A lot of people who don’t know Tom think, “Oh, what a mellow dude.” But he had a fiery side. He was a very passionate person. How could you not be to write at such a level of emotional depth? Most artists can only dream of plumbing that level of extraordinary authenticity from a creative standpoint. We shared songs back then. Needless to say there was big difference in quality. Mine weren’t all that great, although he did like a few of them, which was extraordinary flattery.

Q: Did you ever think that Petty and his band would achieve such success?

A: People, I’m sure, will laugh, but I just always thought, “These guys are gonna be great someday.” In fact I said that to Tom’s face one day. He had just played a song he had written, “Unheard of Kind of Hero.” This was around ‘72 or ‘73. I heard that song and I looked at him and said, “You know, someday you’re gonna be really famous.” He just looked at me like I had lost my mind. And he said: “I don't know. I hope so.” He was really skeptical. And sure enough, that was probably one of the only futuristic calls I got right.

Q: How have you remembered Petty in the year after his death?

A: For me, it’s been a barrage of memories. Stuff I hadn’t really thought about for years just came tumbling back into my consciousness. It’s been very cathartic for me to look back and go, “Wow, I’ve got to be the most blessed guy in the world – as someone that’s in love with writing songs – to be in the company of the greatest songwriter in the Western musical canon.” Who’s better? A lot of people say Bob Dylan, but I’m willing to have that debate.

Karina is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.