Where is Tom Petty’s Kings Highway?

For some reason, I do not remember Tom Petty’s song “Kings Highway” from when he and the Heartbreakers released it in 1991 on Into the Great Wide Open. I did not buy the album at the time, but I do remember hearing other songs from the album, like “Learning to Fly.” Maybe I was out of the loop that year, or maybe it was not played that much on the radio. I only fell in love with “Kings Highway” when a live version was included as a free download when I bought tickets to the Petty Mojo tour. Allmusic.com calls the song a “minor gem,” but for me it was like finding a piece of hidden gold in Petty’s back catalog.

Like John Mellencamp, Tom Petty is one of those artists who has been making music that I like for decades, but he sort of comes and goes in and out of my life. There are some artists where I buy every CD they make, but for most artists, it depends on the time and what I think of the latest music. I have never heard a Tom Petty album that I do not like, and I own several of his albums. But I have never felt compelled to own everything he has done, and because of that, I suppose, I have missed some great songs like “Kings Highway.”

I have tried to figure out geographically which Kings Highway appears in the song. There appears to be highways with that name all around the world, and there is even a Facebook page devoted to all of them. Is he referring to the ancient King’s Highway from Egypt to Syria? There is a King’s Highway in Jordan, which reminded one blogger of the Petty song. Maybe he is referring to the 1927 British film, King’s Highway.

Or, more likely is it one of the King’s Highways in the U.S., like the one from Charleston to Boston, or the one in New York state, or the one following the Mississippi River in the South, or one in Pennsylvania or Texas, or one of two in Virginia. Or, most likely, considering he lived in California at the time, it may be the 600-mile El Camino Real in California, which is also called the “King’s Highway.” Perhaps the California connection is why on a recent tour he and the Heartbreakers opened their 2010 Oakland performance with “Kings Highway” (but he’s also used it as an opener elsewhere, like Colorado).

Maybe the apostrophe is a clue. His song is “Kings Highway,” without an apostrophe, while some of the highway names are “King’s Highway.” Several do not have the apostrophe, but the California road does. So, I am back to being puzzled about finding the real Kings Highway. Maybe there is an interview somewhere where he reveals the location.

The song, however, may be less about an actual highway than about a state of mind. In the song, the singer dreams of heading out on the highway with his lover “when the time gets right.” In that sense, it is a classic open road song, like Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” where the highway provides a hope of escape, freedom, and a new life. While Springsteen’s songs in this vein often have a dark undertone, Petty’s “Kings Highway” has a happier tone that focuses on the new life more than the escape part of the open road.

Still, “Kings Highway” is not an entirely uplifting song. The singer fears being alone, and doesn’t “wanna end up someone that I don’t even know.” And, unlike other songs of escape, there is no actual escape to the open road of the song, as it ends with the singer still waiting for the day “Good fortune comes our way / And we ride down the Kings Highway.” I suspect the characters in the song are still waiting. Perhaps, like me, they are still looking for the location of Kings Highway.

May good fortune come your way and you find your own Kings Highway.

Where do you find Kings Highway? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    5 thoughts on “Where is Tom Petty’s Kings Highway?”

    1. “Into the Great Wide Open” was the first Petty album I listened to. My dad had it on a cassette tape and would listen to it in the car.

    2. I’m like you with Tom Petty. I only had Full Moon Fever on tape in college but I played it alot. But there’s a lot to like in the catalog. One thing really turned me off though. I saw an interview with him about ticket prices and fees. His perspective is that they work hard to put on a good show and that’s why it’s expensive–so if you don’t like it, or you can’t afford it, don’t come out to the show and let the real fans come. That was really a turn off.

      1. I’d be interested in hearing the interview to get the context. Petty is notorious for standing up to the record company to keep album prices reasonable (back in 1981 when record sales were a much bigger part of musician income). In several places he is quoted as saying back then, “Look, I don’t need the extra dollar. I’m doing fine. But it makes a big deal to the people buying the music.” On the other hand, ticket sales are how musicians make money these days, and I don’t think his are out of line with comparable acts, so I can’t hold ticket prices against him. I was impressed with one of his recent tours where he included his new CD (Mojo) with each ticket purchased.

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