Records: Tom Petty puts Dixie in his rock
By Allen Hogg
The Daily Iowan — Thursday, April 18, 1985
Southern Accents | Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | MCA
One wouldn’t expect Tom Petty to be the one to bring back Southern rock. Although he is a Floridian, Petty has always been more associated with the Springsteen-Seger style than with the sound such 1970s bands as Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers rode to fame.
But on his new album, Southern Accents, Petty seems determined to put Dixie back on the rock ‘n’ roll map. While he doesn’t abandon the Springsteen-Seger line completely, from the title on down he makes it clear his roots are south of the Mason-Dixon line.
This is not insignificant either, because thus far the 1980s have not been kind to the roots-conscious, no-frills boogie sound of Southern rock. With the exception of that little old band from Texas, Z.Z. Top (which depended on MTV for its resurgence), the only Southern bands to hit it really big in the rock world this decade have gone the route of .38 Special and washed the South out of their sound.
Petty, however, starts right off with an angry rocker which is titled “Rebels,” but might as well be called “Born in the C.S.A.” “I was born a rebel/Down in Dixie/On a Sunday Morning,” Petty snarls. “Yeah, with one foot in the grave/And one foot on the pedal/I was born a rebel.” There’s also the title track, a string-accompanied ballad on which Petty announces that “everything is done/With a Southern accent/Where I come from.”
The album’s highlight, however, is a seemingly slight number in the middle of the second side called “Spike.” On this song, Heartbreaker Benmont Tench delivers a piano line which conjures up images of a dark, wet Southern backstreet as Petty takes on the role of a redneck gang leader taunting a punk who’s encroached on his territory (“I’m scared; ain’t you boys scared?” he sarcastically laughs). The song is both humorous and somewhat frightening; as with Randy Newman’s “Rednecks” or Warren Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long,” the performance of “Spike” makes it unclear whether the narrator’s views are being supported or made fun of. But since Petty is a Southerner, “Spike” manages to have an extra air of authenticity those other songs lack.
For an LP which features regionalism as its main theme, Petty has chosen a surprising collaborator for three numbers — British techopopper and Eurythmics mastermind David A. Stewart. But the songs Stewart co-wrote, co-produced, and performed on — “It Ain’t Nothing to Me,” the single “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “Make It Better (Forget About Me)” — actually fit in amazingly well. This is especially true with “It Ain’t Nothing to Me,” a super dance track on an album with several great ones. On this song, Petty and company manage to express the feelings os Southern isolationism, while at the same time disassociating themselves from the televised evangelism of Jerry Fallwell.
By no means is Southern Accents all fun and games; it is filled with people like the narrator of “Rebels,” who is facing things “that are hard to swallow.” But the LP uses these troubled souls as a basis for displaying a hard-earned sense of hope. Petty ends the album with a ballad in which he wishes a former love “The Best of Everything.” It is a sincere statement, and the skill with which he delivers it — and, in fact, the whole album — shows Petty to be in rock ‘n’ roll’s first rank.
The South is going to do it again.