Jimmy Iovine tells an excellent story about the pairing of Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks in Peter Bogdanovich's great film about Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Running Down a Dream. Iovine loved having Nicks sing lead on "Stop Dragging My Heart Around" because he loved hearing a woman sing the role normally sung by a man. It was "Cougar Rock" before movies like Thelma & Louise became box office dynamite.
Petty went back to that idea on his Echo record, only this time he sang the songs himself. Both "Swingin'" and "Free Girl Now" had heroines making a run for it. Of the two songs, "Swingin'" is the best.
We're not sure why, but our girl is on the run. The escape is from circumstances unknown, but there is also a literal run because she declares herself free when she reaches the Georgia state line. She may be running from the law or her husband or her in-laws, all of which is alluded to but never specified in the song.
It's a great story – one of many Petty has told throughout his career – but the ending seems a bit unclear to me. She reaches the Georgia state line and declares victory. She wishes her mom could see her now. It sounds like she's won, but the refrain is "she went down swingin'." I always associate that phrase with someone who comes out on the losing end. Maybe the "fight" in this song ends in a draw. She escapes, but she took some lumps for her trouble. She gets to the state line and has left her troubles behind, but it didn't come without a cost.
The ambiguity is fine because I don't think Petty sat down and storyboarded this out. "Swingin'" has the kind of free association in the lyrics he has done so well so many times. The song holds together, but this is a sketch, not a painting. There are enough details to give the song flesh and life but no one will accuse Petty of overwriting.
In addition to the great storytelling, we get the last great contribution to The Heartbreakers from the late Howie Epstein. His backing vocal on "Swingin'" is why Petty hired him to replace Ron Blair (now back with the band) in the first place. Howie could play bass, but it was his ability to harmonize that won him a place in the band and this is one of the last great harmonies he sang before he died.
The great Mike Campbell delivers another of his patented compact guitar solos and lurks in the empty spaces giving texture and depth to the song with simple runs, buried in the mix. His ability to be brief and interesting should be studied by all rock guitarists. Tom Petty should have taken a refresher course because Echo was too long. It had some great moments, though, and "Swingin'" is one of the best.