Program book from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' 1985 tour.
q&a / culture

Tom Petty: A Cool, Gray Neo-Confederate?

Michael Washburn explains what we can glean from the failure of Tom Petty's 1985 concept album "Southern Accents."
As you mentioned, Petty wanted Southern Accents to be a concept album and you argue that the significance of this album lies in its failure. What did Petty want to accomplish with Southern Accents, and how exactly did the album fail?

I think there’re a couple of different ways to answer this. If you want to look at Petty as rock star, [he was] tired of what he’d been doing up until that point. He’d been on this decade-long record, tour, record, tour cycle. The record before Southern Accents, Long After Dark, had not been as large a commercial hit as people had anticipated or expected from him. And [Petty] thought he was starting to sound the same. So partially Petty was trying to vie for artistic legitimacy and make this big bold move to be considered a Springsteen-like force. Someone who could paint on a broad canvas with more vibrant colors.

From Petty’s perspective, for reasons aesthetic and narcotic, the conceptual frame of an album about the South didn’t end up making sense when he released it. There are a core of songs that fit the Confederate, sorry, Southern theme. But then he hooked up with this guy Dave Stewart and they cooked up “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and some other stinkers that fractured what little coherence there was to an album about the South.

Why that record’s failure is important today is the cultural assumptions embedded in what Petty’s South was. Petty’s vision of the South was flawed from the beginning for two reasons. His vision of the South was the white South. And his South, however unconsciously it might have been, was deeply indebted to the sociologically sophisticated theory of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. I’m not saying at any point that Tom Petty is a racist, [but] I am saying that he effectively made a neo-Confederate record. And, even if you don’t want to go that far with me, he did make a record about the South that effectively denies the existence of African-American people in the South, which is not a record about the South.

I’m not so naïve to say that there is one South. He made a record about one guy’s South and that one guy’s South was indebted to the Lost Cause. 
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