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May 4, 2020

From driving days to a musical encore, Kyle Petty finds his voice in heartfelt second act

On May 22, 1987, Kyle Petty stepped on stage with a guitar at Hampton Coliseum. His career as a next-generation driver in NASCAR’s big leagues was already gaining momentum, but the on-again, off-again exposure to country music stardom was back on, with Petty opening for the popular Janie Fricke in a 10,000-seat arena.

Petty performed well enough that the thought of an encore wasn’t out of the question. However …

“Couldn’t do it,” he told reporters days later. “I only knew 10 songs, and I already had sung them.”

Petty whisked back from that Friday night concert in Virginia to Charlotte Motor Speedway, where questions loomed about whether his heart was more in becoming a twangy troubadour or continuing the family tradition as a stock-car driver. That Sunday, Petty was in Victory Lane after another standout performance, surviving a sweltering Sunday to win the Coca-Cola 600 in the Wood Brothers’ famed No. 21.

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Racing Photo Archives | Getty Images

Two career breakthroughs, less than 48 hours apart, almost presented Petty with a choice.

“What’s that saying: jack of all trades, master of none? I think that’s where I was going to get to that point,” Petty said earlier this month. “I was going to get to the point where they were going to start detracting from each other. For me, probably at that point in time, the music was going to detract from the racing, more so than the racing would detract from the music. I thought in the beginning, being naive, you could just stand up and sing a song and that would be the end of it.”

Petty attracted some big-label attention, but the recording industry had many of the same obligations that racing did.

“So all of a sudden, there were two jobs, and I never wanted a job, period — zero. No job,” he says. “And I felt like driving a race car wasn’t a job, and I didn’t want music to become where I despised it or resented it because it was a job, because I enjoy it so much. So I kind of put one on the shelf for a while and said, you know, maybe I can come back to that later.”

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Petty’s career in racing continued for nearly 20 more seasons as a driver and for more than a decade after as a broadcaster, now with NBC Sports. But the guitar never found a permanent home in storage, making frequent trips with him from track to track as a near-constant creative outlet.

Petty’s musical path could have unfolded on a glossy Nashville route, where he sang other people’s songs in big-budget productions. Instead, his lifelong side project has guided him to intimate clubs, where he connects with smaller audiences through his own deeply personal acoustic messages that blend country and folk.

“He writes some songs that are really special,” says Dolph Ramseur, who has a long-running association with Petty through music and his early days as a Wood Brothers fan. He also knows a measure about special songs, having discovered the Avett Brothers and bringing their gritty, hybrid brand of alt-bluegrass to prominence through his Ramseur Records label.

“I hope that people in the NASCAR world understand,” Ramseur says before pausing, “Kyle just might be … how can I phrase this … a very good driver, a very good TV personality, he might turn out to be a world-class excellent songwriter. He’s got a talent.”

Petty now has more than 10 songs in his supply, and they tell revealing stories about his family and his experiences. They’re also finding a platform to help others, conveying messages of sympathy and hope as the world deals with a public-health crisis.

At age 59, the driver who grew up as the son of stock-car racing’s king is still learning with each note and lyric, and his best songs may be ahead of him.

Radio gold and early influences

In Kyle Petty’s estimation, the miles spent riding in cars in his youth numbered in the millions. His father, Richard, sat alongside mother Lynda up front while Kyle and his three sisters crammed into the back. The radio played front and center with country gold: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, early Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty. The advent of the 8-track player only expanded that spectrum.

Petty’s preteen years included a brief affair with big-band music, and his adoration of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller led him to play saxophone in his middle school band. But an appreciation also developed for songwriters who blurred the lines drawn by his country influences — artists like Harry Chapin, James Taylor, John Prine, Carole King, Jim Croce.

Two childhood experiences galvanized Petty’s path toward music. Brother Bill Frazier, the founder of Motor Racing Outreach, would sometimes play the guitar during trackside chapel services; he gave Petty his first six-string, which he still has in his extensive collection.

The second was watching Marty Robbins, a legendary country singer-songwriter and NASCAR hobbyist, playing poolside outside of Talladega, Alabama. Those events, plus a realization, steered him from woodwinds to a closer relationship with guitars.

“One thing was that it was a lot easier to converse with the opposite sex with a guitar in your lap than a horn in your mouth,” Petty says, “so when you’re 12, 13, 14 years old or you’re in that zone a little, it’s like, which one’s cooler, and the guitar won out.”

RacingOne | Getty Images

Petty goes national

Petty claps his hands and laughs when one of NASCAR’s musical skeletons is mentioned. Laughing is probably the better reaction, and cringing would be the worst-case reflex.

A 1984 recording called “World Series Of Country Music Proudly Presents Stock Car Racing’s Entertainers Of The Year” came with slick (for the era) production and a collection of NASCAR racers taking the microphone for a terrifying 22-track double LP of original country songs. A producer wrote songs that correlated to each driver — Hall of Famers and journeymen alike — based on interviews that summed up their personalities. It’s what led Bill Elliott to warble “Crazy Racin’ Man,” Dale Earnhardt to croon “Hard Charger,” and Richard Childress to warn about the crash they call “T-Bone.”

“Listen, it didn’t age after the first week, it was bad,” Petty says, thankfully still smiling. “It was always bad. That’s the way it was.”

Petty’s song — “The People Who Love Me (Worry a Lot)” — was the first song after Ned Jarrett’s spoken-word introduction. It was the double album’s clear standout, but it also insured that the recording got no better after that track. “I would love to be able to tell everybody we did that horrendous album and made a ton of money, but we didn’t,” Petty says.

Token promotion of the recording meant a return trip to Nashville, where Petty was booked for an appearance and a brief musical interlude on what he thought was a local talk show. At the following race weekend at Riverside, California, multiple people came up to him to say they’d seen him perform. It was only explained later that Petty had appeared on “Nashville Now,” a top-rated cable show hosted by Ralph Emery on The Nashville Network.

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“I’m like, oh my God, this is a national show?” Petty recalled. “You mean I went on TV and sang on a show that’s on national cable? And they were like, sure did. So that was the part of the whole deal of it that was amazing to me or I would have never … If I’d known it was a national show, I would’ve said no.”

What followed was no novelty act. By 1985, Petty had left his family-owned team for Wood Brothers Racing and scored his first Cup Series win the following year. That time frame overlapped with his first record deal with RCA and his association with manager Don Light, who had discovered Jimmy Buffett and dabbled in racing at a grassroots level.

Petty admits now that he was “scared to death” each time he took the stage, but that he learned from his exposure to that side of the music industry. When the music side stalled, he opted to sharpen his focus on racing, waking up to the realization that he needed to commit to one career path or the other.

“If I’d have torn down a bunch of walls early in my career, I’d have probably gone off in the music direction,” Petty says, “but by this time I was so deep into racing. I’d wanted to be a race car driver since I was 5, and I just couldn’t give that dream up to chase another dream. Although I had two dreams, I guess.”

Crafting handmade songs

Dolph Ramseur was a teenage fan at Charlotte Motor Speedway on that steamy Memorial Day weekend in 1987, watching Petty’s victory in what he still calls the World 600. But his fandom of the Wood Brothers predates that momentous win back to the team’s glory days with David Pearson, who was often a thorny rival of Petty’s father.

Ramseur watched Petty play to a six-figure crowd back then, but the former driver’s audiences now are far more intimate. Petty still soaks in the bustle of the race track with his role at NBC Sports, but he also feels the pull toward rural music halls or cozy neighborhood clubs. Even as his driving career transitioned into his broadcasting tenure, Petty would show up unbilled at open-mic nights at Charlotte’s The Evening Muse, which holds little more than 100 people at best.

Chris Graythen | Getty Images
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

His songwriting has matched the well-worn, comfortable personality of these rooms. There’s a measure of hardship, as writing music helped him mourn the loss of his son Adam in a racing accident in 2000. But there’s also underlying joy behind the weighty nature of his songs, which draw inspiration from his parents, his wife Morgan and their 22-month-old son, Overton. Some of the songs were so personal that Petty kept them in what he described as a “cocoon” with his family members, but his desire to connect with others as a creative release eventually won out.

“He’s very funny, so he really gives people a little bit of sugar to help the medicine go down when he performs,” Ramseur says. “I mean, he really pairs laughter with the somber kind of moments of his songs really well. So it’s a very good roller-coaster of emotions, but Kyle, these songs are very personal. They’re really intimate. They all come off like a handmade quilt. They’re very revealing, I mean, opening his soul so people can see it.”

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While Petty has built a solid musical baseline, he’s also made a point to ask Ramseur for advice on how to develop as an artist and to add more layers to his craft. Years ago, Ramseur paired him with David Childers — a longtime songwriter and North Carolina native — as a mentor. The two are now collaborators and frequent touring companions. “I walked in and it’s like David and I had known each other our whole life,” Petty says. “Instantly we just clicked.”

While there are similarities in their musical backgrounds, Petty and Childers have found balance in their differences. Petty describes a melancholy quality to his songs, leaving it to Childers’ more upbeat tunes to bring the crowd back up. But Childers has also been impressed by Petty’s appetite to learn more and add texture, describing a breakthrough in the pair’s most recent show together in Sparta, North Carolina.

“There’s a lot of dimensions to the guy,” Childers says. “He’s a car racer and he’s passionate about that, but he has a lot of other interests, some broad interests and I’d like to see more and more of that get into his songs. I don’t think he’s written his best songs yet.”

Ramseur was there when Petty’s career faced its 1987 crossroads, when he ultimately steered down the stock-car racing path. Had his exposure to the mass-produced Nashville sound taken firmer root back then, Ramseur isn’t sure Petty’s personality would have had the chance to come through in his music. Instead of a “paint-by-numbers” music career, he says, Petty’s approach is more like a potter shaping clay at the wheel.

“To be honest with you, these are the kind of songs that ought to be on country radio,” Ramseur says. “I would think a lot of the guys in country music if they heard a lot of the songs he did, they would probably sit up and number one, take notice and then number two, they would do a gut-check on the art that they’re presenting out to the world.”

Childers also isn’t sure what sort of influence mainstream country would have had on Petty’s musical arc.

“I’m not very good at prognosticating any of that, but what I see now, I see a man who has lived a very full life and has a lot of joy in it despite tragedies that he’s suffered,” Childers says. “He has a joyousness that’s infectious. I think he could be a hell of a politician, too, but he’s probably too honest for that.”

Giving back through music

There but for the grace of God stands me or you
Only by the grace of God will he get through
He’s just another sign that we’re living in hard times.

— Kyle Petty, “Hard Times”

Kyle Petty has never had much trouble communicating — outspoken as a driver, vivid as a musical storyteller and never one to hold back an opinion as a broadcaster. So when the racing world — and the world in general — went on hold with the aggressive advance of the coronavirus, Petty found a means to keep the communication lines open.

He found inspiration in the virtual concerts played by other artists in recent weeks and thought, “I’m never going to sell a million albums, but I can sit in a room and play a guitar.” Through his social media channels, “quarantunes” were born.

2020 April27 Kyle Petty Inset 3 Image
Ramseur Records

But there was a greater need to use his voice to help others as well as entertain. When the virus outbreak forced the postponement of the annual Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America motorcycle rally for charity this spring, he found another way to give, again with the help of Ramseur and Childers. Ramseur’s label announced last week a digital split single for charity featuring the two artists, with proceeds to benefit Loaves & Fishes, a non-profit food pantry helping needy families in the Charlotte area.

“I think that affects so many people,” Petty says. “I think that’s something that’s beginning to raise its head that’s been lost in the coronavirus is people unemployed, people running out of food, not having a place to go for a hot meal, not having this or that — just the basic needs of humanity.”

Ramseur says the only digital element to the two-track release is the format, a necessity because of the closure of plants that would have pressed the vinyl. “It’s just him and acoustic guitar. It’s no bells and whistles to it,” Ramseur says of Petty’s cut, titled “Hard Times.” “There’s no smoke and mirrors here. You can’t hide behind a band and you can’t hide behind autotune. This was all recorded on a tape — all analog — so it’s a totally different world that we’re swimming in, and thank the Lord that’s the case.”

Fans of authentic roots music can thank the Lord, too, while tipping a cap toward Brother Bill Frazier and 8-track players, Marty Robbins and Ralph Emery, Dolph Ramseur and David Childers, and whatever it was that kept Kyle Petty from putting his six-string guitar on a shelf so many years ago.

“I just said for the fans that are out there that want to know a different side of Kyle Petty, other than just riding around in circles or just running my mouth on TV, it’s given me an opportunity and I’ve connected with a lot of people, honestly,” he says.

“A lot of musicians, but a lot of friends and a lot of people that I’ve known my whole life that are like, man, I didn’t know you were still doing that. It’s like, I never quit, man. I never quit.”