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A Discussion on Tom Petty’s Southern Accents

Check out the latest episode on the 33 1/3 podcast: Michael Washburn (@WhaleLines), author of Tom Petty’s Southern Accents, discusses Tom Petty’s attempt at a single-concept album on the American South. The 1985 album led to a fall from grace and a subsequent reinvention. Washburn’s book, and the case of Tom Petty, is an appealing study in celebrity, identity, and misrepresentation.  

With the exception of the album’s opener “Rebels,” nothing about the album strikes as particularly southern. For reference, “Rebels” hits the listener over the head with a trite description of what it is to be a Rebel (that is—one who rebels against the federal government and the union of the 50 states, specifically in the context of the Southern secession from the Union): “I was born a rebel, down in Dixie / On a Sunday mornin’ / Yeah with one foot in the grave / And one foot on the pedal.” Thus, immediately we are presented with the symbology of southern Rebel, Christianity (via Sunday morning, when one would typically attend church), as well as a stubborn death wish or fate to be driven toward death for one’s ideals or ambitions.Throwing together these lyrics seems insincere and lacks proper nuance. The remainder of the album presents a mish mosh of themes. While both “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “Make It Better (Forget About Me)” say “good riddance” to the girl who’s left, “The Best of Everything” is more wistful, and the female subject may not be a lost love but rather simply a person of interest to the singer. The lyrics “She probably works in a restaurant / That’s what her mama did” speak to a lack of opportunity or ability to deviate from one’s past. 

Overall, the stronger theme for the album is one of being alone and tied to one’s past. These are terms used to describe the white, working class American who perceives that they’ve been left behind by progress and policy decisions toward, to name only two items, an outsourcing of manufacturing and influx of immigrants. Yet it doesn’t seem that this is what Tom Petty was striving to intimate. Rather, the band used their “Pack Up the Plantation!” tour to superimpose a radical and memorable visual of what it means to be from the American South. They grossly miscalculated how using the Confederate battle flag as a key image in the tour would lead to both concerning adoption as well as widespread critique among fans. In short, the album itself is not particularly memorable as an emblem of Southern-ness. In fact, it sells the American South short. 

Tune in to hear Washburn’s discussion of the ramifications of this album and tour and how Tom Petty went about reinventing himself afterwards. With great insight, Washburn details how this low point in Petty’s career would cause the late singer to reflect and recreate.

And keep an eye out for upcoming interviews on other 33 1/3 titles like The Raincoats’ The Raincoats and D’Angelo’s Voodoo. The Bloomsbury Academic podcast releases new content every Tuesday, so be sure to check out our other episodes!

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