Author Michael Washburn On Tom Petty’s Southern Accents And Lost Cause Ideology

Michael Washburn is the author of Southern Accents, a 33 1/3 Series book which explores a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album of the same name. Released in 1985, the concept album was intended to be a musical immersion into the American South. Released well after the band had notched hits like “American Girl” and “Here Comes My Girl,” the record was an attempt at reaching a new level of artistry.

The results of the album remain mixed. Its most successful high, “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” was an MTV staple due to its Alice In Wonderland-inspired approach. Other aspects of the LP lack the single’s musical punch and contribute to the album’s checkered reception (both musically and conceptually).

Southern Accents did not possess a diversity in its characterization of the South to give it the all-encompassing “Southern feel” it intended. Some of this is attributed to how the record grew out of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, an ideology that justifies the South’s role in the Civil War by focusing on chivalry and historical revisionism.

Over time, this resulted in the record becoming a source of concern for Heartbreakers fans and Tom Petty himself. Washburn’s book provides context for the album and demonstrates how Southern Accents (and its tour) sparked a change in Petty. Two records later, the artist recast himself as the consummate laid back Californian through Full Moon Fever. The image of a free fallin’ Petty would define the commercially-successful second half of his career far beyond his Jacksonville, FL upbringing.

In addition to his work on Southern Accents, Michael Washburn has written for The New York Times Book Review, NPR, and The Washington Post. Washburn is also the Director of Programs for Humanities New York. The organization uses the arts to engage discussion on social and cultural concerns. Washburn lives in New York City and Louisville, Kentucky.

 

When I began reading the book, I anticipated that it would be a track-by-track glorification of the record, but was surprised to find deeper analysis into the Lost Cause identity that informed the lyrics. Why did you choose Southern Accents over records like Wildflowers and Full Moon Fever as a Tom Petty album worthy of detailed discussion? 

You know, I feel like two things become apparent only a few pages into the book. The first is that I’m a Tom Petty Fan. The second is that I do not think that Southern Accents is a great record, and that it failed to meet its ambitions in several ways. This isn’t because Petty was unable to make great records. Damn the Torpedoes is a great record. Wildflowers, which comes together conceptually more perfectly than Southern Accents, is a great record.

There are many great albums. But I found it much more interesting to look at an album that was an ambitious failure than to look at an album that was an uncontested success. Part of that is just my temperament. I would find it difficult to sustain a book-length love letter to any album, even a book with a modest length like a 33 1/3. But more importantly, I think that the manifold failures of Southern Accents – the aesthetic, artistic, historical, and moral failures – are far more important and illustrative than a celebration of success. 

This album was supposed to be a big artistic statement from Petty and, for my money, he didn’t land it. As I say in the book, the reasons range from the aesthetic to the narcotic, but they also have to do with how Americans so often obtain, attend to, and distribute our history, or stunted understandings of that history. “History” is a big word and a big concept, but people wouldn’t blink if I said a Springsteen or a Dylan album were lenses through which to view American history, or a misremembering of American history. But our history informs all of us, and I wanted to show how that was true for Petty and true for many, if not most, white Southerners. Or white Americans, for that matter.

 

The record was conceived as a magnum opus, but wound up as a big misfire. What are some of the reasons that Southern Accents did not meet its intended creative goals as an overarching “southern experience” album?

There are a few responses to this question. The first, most obvious answer lies in how the record sounds and the quality of some of the songs. Southern Accents, as released, contains only nine songs, but in that nine track list there are basically three different sounds. Some of these songs were co-written and recorded with Dave Stewart, the non-Annie Lenox person in a band called The Eurythmics.

These songs sounds like the worst of 80s studio produce excess, and they are mostly just flat dumb songs. The exception to this is “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which was the first thing that Petty and Stewart collaborated on and also the reason they kept collaborating, to diminishing returns. These songs sit alongside tracks like “Rebels” and “Southern Accents,” which were what I think of as part of the “core” southern concept and which sound like rock songs not a collection of studio gibberish. In other words, Southern Accents has a sonic identity crisis and is pretty much incoherent as a record.

Second, it’s hard to nail down any region in a record, but the idea of a record about “the” South is pretty impossible. There is no single South, if you see what I mean, but the South that Petty presents in the record is pretty much a white man’s South, with no black people at all. An American South without black people is in no ways a reflection of the truth. The sole mention of African-Americans or African-American culture related to the album that we have wasn’t included. It is called “Walkin From The Fire,” which only saw light a few years ago as part of the American Treasure box set. This is about the lyrics, of course, but it also goes deeper and into all aspects of the record.

Third, and you mentioned this in your first question, much of Southern Accents is indebted to the spectacularly successful propaganda campaign of the Confederacy known as “The Lost Cause,” which to this day distorts Southerners’ and Americans’, at large, understanding of the Civil War and southern race relations. I mean, I suppose that this could an argument for Petty’s success. That he successfully replicated a bunch of nonsense that gets passed off as history around the country, but that surely isn’t the kind of success he was seeking.

 

The track on Southern Accents that saw the most revision over different tours is “Rebels.” Can you discuss how the track evolved through time?

“Rebels” opens the album. It was a hard track for the Heartbreakers to nail down, and it was one of the reasons that Petty slammed his hand into a wall, shattering the bones and imperiling his career. Cocaine and Don Henley also have something to do with that, as I get into in the book. “Rebels” as it exists on the album is a shot across the bow, a declaration of the album’s intention. It introduces us to the nameless southern “rebel” at the heart of the Southern Accents concept along with his list of grievances against the North and its “blue-bellied devils.”

Soon after the album’s release, fans started showing up with Confederate Battle Flags at concerts. Now, this was inspired by Petty himself, but he made the mistake of assuming his fans would take “Rebels” as a “story song,” not as a first-person call for the South to rise again. He denounced this response by his fans and stopped playing the song for a long, long time.

When it returned to Heartbreakers sets years later he was shorn of all of this revelry and glory and “rah rah rah go get’em” and performed as a quiet acoustic number, plaintive and mournful where it had once been defiant and celebratory. I think that this change was entirely born from Petty’s evolving understanding of American history.

 

Perhaps the most formal rethinking of Southern Accents came decades after its release, when Tom Petty proactively expressed his regret over using the Confederate Battle Flag as part of his tour’s brand. Can you speak on how he took steps to rebrand the Pack Up The Plantation: Live! tour long after it was finished?

There’s a bit of a leap when we are talking about Southern Accents the album and its tour. The problems I see marbling the record tend toward the subtle. But on the tour, Petty went full on unreconstructed Southerner, decorating the stage with faux marble plantation house columns and using a massive electric Confederate Battle Flag when the band played “Rebels.”

Pack Up the Plantation: Live!, which for the most part was recorded during the Southern Accents tour, was the name of the live album and concert video released following the tour. This show has great moments, including an iconic performance of “The Waiting” on both the video and the record, and a truly remarkable cover of “Shout” on the album. But it was also the most prominent relic of Petty’s embrace of the Battle Flag. At the start of the video he’s wearing a long coat with the Battle Flag sewn in as lining. He shows that off. The video – both the VHS and the single that was released from it, of “Rebels” – features the flag prominently.

So all of that was out there. Now, at some point around 1987 Petty started feeling bad about his flag usage. And at some point after the Internet became a big thing, he had the “Rebels” performance, with its big Battle Flag, scrubbed from the Internet. You can’t find it – or if it does appear it vanishes quickly – on YouTube because his crew and now his estate keep that video from showing up. Petty didn’t like the association.

Now, the thing about him publicly renouncing the flag came in 2015 in an interview with Rolling Stone. Some asshole racist who I refuse to name had assassinated 9 parishioners at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, and in the wake of that tragedy, the South Carolina legislature voted to remove the Battle Flag from the state ground. Petty called Rolling Stone up that day and straightforwardly apologized for using the flag.

He said things along the lines of, it was the wallpaper of the South when he was growing up and that he never thought about what a black person would think when they saw the flag. It was, at least to me, a sincere celebrity apology. Nobody was asking Petty to bring  up his usage of the flag. Nobody cared. But he did. And he thought there was a lesson in it. And he was right. And Petty was doing something that’s feeling nearly un-American these days. He was admitting that he made a mistake, he was telling people he made a mistake, and he was asking people to learn from his mistake. And what he was asking them to learn was empathy. That’s truly something else, I think.

 

As you researched the book, you spoke with two Heartbreakers (Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench III) and had scheduled an interview with Petty regarding Southern Accents. You were not able to conduct the interview due to this death in 2017.

While understanding that you are not speaking for Tom Petty, the Petty family, or the Heartbreakers regarding the issue of the cease and desist letter from the Trump campaign event, do you think their actions provide insight into what you wanted to speak with him about? 

I wouldn’t have expected anything else from the Petty estate. He wasn’t always an overtly political person, but his commitments to justice were there if you looked for them. But to answer your question specifically, no, I don’t feel like the statement by the Petty estate provides any further insight. For me, the biggest insight was that Petty was willing to meet with me. There was no reason any writer would be calling up Petty to talk about Southern Accents in early 2017 unless they wanted to talk about the Confederate stuff.

Petty was smart, so he must’ve known that I wanted to talk about that, and still he agreed to meet. Does that make sense? Actions of the estate confirm my suspicion but do not lend insight. Now, I am curious what Petty would have had to say about my argument that he, basically, made a sympathetic-to-the-Confederacy album. That might’ve come as a shock to him. But his response to my criticism of his usage of the flag was already out there.

And for the record, I want to stress that the book isn’t about calling Tom Petty a racist. It’s a book about how we are sometimes imprisoned by the time and the place and the presumptions of our birth, and that it’s a long battle to free ourselves from that. I have a lot of stupid stuff in my past that comes from being a Southerner myself. The point is that despite Petty’s personal history, or heritage if you will, he eventually saw past it. And we can all learn from that.

 

When you spoke with Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, how did they perceive the evolution of Southern Accents from 1985 to the 21st Century?

Those guys were great, but in very different ways. Benmont was listening to the LP when I arrived at his house to talk. He hadn’t listened to it in years, he told me. He was quite frank that he thought the band had lost the plot on the record. He thinks many of the songs are still solid but that the production does a terrible disservice, as does the sad fact that a lot of superior songs were left off of the record in favor of some, well, questionable tracks. Benmont and I talked a lot about the South and the band’s relationship to the South.

Mike is different. He was much more interested in discussing the nuts and bolts of the record. For him, it seems to be just another Heartbreakers album, and he was less interested in discussing the record’s historical and cultural connections. This is leaving aside stories of decadence and substance abuse, which were at a high point in 1985 and then, of course, dropped off precipitously. Some of that is in the book.

I should also note, because all three of us agree, that a track called “The Image of Me” which was left off of album should’ve been included. It’s a cover of an old Wayne Kemp song made famous by Conway Twitty in the 60s. Tracking that tune was the last time the band worked with legendary producer Denny Cordell. It is utterly fantastic. Benmont and Mike were still baffled that the song was left off of the record. I am, too. It may honestly be the best sounding song the Heartbreakers ever cut. It’s fierce. You can find it on the Playback box set. For a while it was on YouTube, but the last time I checked all they had was a live performance. It’s just not the same.

 

After spending so much time dissecting Southern Accents, what do you hear in the record’s music in 2020?

Hmm. That’s a difficult one, actually. It’s all a jumble in my mind. What I hear is a product of confusion – sonic, narcotic, historical – but a very fertile kind of confusion. The album shows just how much everything we do and everything we are is a product of our times and the history we all carry within us. And in the end I detect the seed of a change in Petty that, as I write at length in the book, directly led to not only the Petty of Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers but also the Petty that wasn’t afraid to bring up his own frailties as a way of showing that sometimes learning means making actual, public apologies for your mistakes.

 

Published in 2019, Southern Accents is apart of the 33 1/3 Series by Bloomsbury Press. The record can be ordered through Amazon or your local bookstore. 

 

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