Revisiting Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Ambitious ‘Southern Accents’
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers took a three-year break from new music between 1982-85, but the band wasn't on vacation. In fact, they were hard at work on Petty's most ambitious project to that point.
Southern Accents, the band's sixth LP, arrived in record stores on March 1, 1985 — and while all those years of dogged creative pursuit were audibly reflected in nine of the most intricately produced songs Petty had released to date, the album was actually a heavily truncated version of the project as he'd initially imagined it, and it was only completed after months of painful and occasionally chaotic effort. Ultimately, while it gave the band another Top 10 album, and a pop crossover hit with "Don't Come Around Here No More," Accents got the best of Petty, and left the band emotionally drained as well as physically battered.
It started innocently enough. During a run of dates in the Deep South during the early '80s, Petty — a Florida native — found himself driving around thinking about an album inspired by the region's rich past. "I just would write one word titles. 'Apartment.' 'Rebels.' 'Trailers.' Things like that," Petty told Paul Zollo in Songwriters on Songwriting. "So when I came home, I had kind of a sketch of what I wanted to do. And then I just started sketching them out."
Those sketches hinted at musical depths that were, by Petty's own admission, occasionally beyond his reach. "What a really crazy album that was. It was intentionally going to be a double album. And it got cut down to one. We never even finished. That was a weird period because I don’t think we’d ever been off the road that long. That was the first time we’d really stopped. It was like, ‘Go, go, go, go, go, go!’ The whole time. And then suddenly, boom. We stopped."
That sudden halt produced a disorienting effect in some ways but, in others, it allowed Petty the time and energy to add another layer to his songwriting. On tracks like the album opener, "Rebels," he adopts a storytelling approach like the one employed by Randy Newman, getting inside the skin of a fatally flawed protagonist whose essential humanity still came shining through, drawing the listener inside a story that — while distinctly regional — is also universal.
"I was just thinking about the average young guy down there who is brought up in this tradition that tells you, 'This is the way it has always been and the way it should be.' I'm not just talking about jobs, but a whole way of living," Petty said of "Rebels" during a conversation with the Los Angeles Times. "In the song, the guy is born with it all lined up against him, but for some reason he just can't get in line and play the way he's supposed to."
It's a character Petty could recognize from his own past -- and, on some level, his personal journey out of the South. "I never bought the idea of having your life laid out for you and I got out, but a lot of them never do," he continued. "It's hard to understand why, but that tradition is so strong that they don't ever realize that two hours in any direction gets you somewhere else. I could see the creases in the curtain at a real early age. One thing that helped me break away was music."
Plenty of the songs Petty and the Heartbreakers worked on during the Southern Accents sessions were cast by the wayside after tortuous rescue attempts, but they didn't all require hard work. The title track, which Petty himself still regards as one of the better songs in his catalog, came out quickly during a late-night writing session.
"I started with the title," Petty told Performing Songwriter. "I thought at the time I was going to do an album based on southern themes and southern music. I wrote it at the piano -- very late at night, about four or five in the morning. I still think it’s probably one of my best two or three things that I ever wrote. I thought it was very personal, so that was one where it just took me over. I don’t know what happened there. I do have a vague memory of being extremely glad when I hit the bridge. I actually woke up my wife and made her listen to this song."
"The Best of Everything," originally written for 1981's Hard Promises, also earned an early spot on the Southern Accents running order — and offered one of the troubled album's sweetest stories when Robbie Robertson volunteered to take over the arrangement, contributing a Band-worthy horn chart and inviting Richard Manuel to sing harmony vocals.
But looming behind Southern Accents' bittersweet beauty was a roiling chaos, compounded by the lack of oversight that went with recording the bulk of the album at Petty's home studio. Struggling to realize his vision for the songs while supervising increasingly fractious sessions -- and developing some seriously unhealthy habits -- Petty and the Heartbreakers started losing focus.
"Tom was dancing with the devil at that point," Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch told Uncut. "I imagined he was going to go. ... Something was going to happen real bad." In discussion with Paul Zollo, Petty agreed. "This is the first time that the evils of success started to creep in -- because we had all this time on our hands," he said.
"And we were living in Los Angeles, and we started doing cocaine and pot, and drinking started to show up. I remember there was cocaine around then and a lot of drinking. We were the wildest we ever were then in our personal lives. We were just wild and crazy. We had too much time on our hands. I didn’t know how to live in the world. I just didn’t know how to do it."
This period may have reached its nadir at the infamous moment in which Petty, exhausted and sick of trying to figure out how to sculpt a coherent narrative out of the mass of music they'd recorded, ended up taking a swing at one of the studio walls. The wall won, leaving Petty with a broken hand and a lengthy period of rehab and recovery just to get back to the point where he could play guitar again.
"It wasn't like I was furious and smashed my hand against the wall," he insisted later. "I was just at a point where I had been working on the album for over a year, and I thought I was finally about done. I kept wanting to say, 'That's it. We're finished,' but I sat down and listened to one of the songs and I knew it still wasn't right, so I started walking back up to the house and just swung my hand -- like I've done a lot."
Cautioned by his doctor that his guitar-playing days could be over, Petty insisted, "I never really accepted the possibility that I couldn't play again. The band also tried to keep it real light. They'd joke about how I'd have to take less money if I was just the singer." Those lighter moments came in greater abundance after Southern Accents was finished, even if the final track listing -- which included a trio of co-writes from producer/Eurythmic Dave Stewart -- fell frustratingly short of Petty's original idea. In the end, perhaps the album's greatest lesson for Petty and the Heartbreakers was that it was better to work quickly than to labor for perfection — an aesthetic that was applied to 1987's Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) as well as Petty's 1989 solo debut, Full Moon Fever.
"In therapy and in the hospital I started to realize that I had taken intensity about as far as it could go in my personal life and with the guys in the band and business people and everybody,” Petty later told Q. “I realized I couldn’t go on living so intense and revved up and stuff. Because, with some kind of flash of realization, I realized that I had actually never really enjoyed myself. I’d done partying and I’d done work, but I’d never genuinely enjoyed myself. I’d been very reclusive, and I didn’t know a lot of people and I didn’t ever see many people. I wasn’t very social at all, because I was revved up all the time. And I just was not very happy. It was time to calm down. And I made this great discovery: people are quite fun, you know."