S6E4 Southern Accents

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Length: 18:33 - Release Date: December 21, 2022

"There’s so little instrumentation to dig into that I was initially thinking that it would be a fairly short episode. But I’ve ended up realizing that the power of this song is in how you connect with it. Yes it’s brilliant in its arrangement and beautifully played, but the emotion of the song is what carries it, along with one of the most perfect vocal performances Tom ever put onto vinyl."

Check out the song here: https://youtu.be/po8RCVlQZGc

Here's the live version from the Gainesville concert I mentioned: https://youtu.be/ehPUJKk2_dg

And if you want to check out the crazy long Van Halen podcast Livestream I guested on, you can find that here! https://youtu.be/IqnpNBL_dKs?t=3450


(* Note - the transcript is as-written before recording. I usually change a few sentences or words here and there on the hoof as I'm speaking.)

Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, my fine friends. Welcome to episode four  of season six of the Tom Petty Project Podcast! I am your host, Kevin Brown. This is the podcast that digs into the entire Tom Petty catalog song by song, album by album and includes conversations with musicians, fans, and people connected with Tom along the way. 

Apologies again for the late publication of this one folks. I was hit with something yesterday and ended up sleeping most of the day! I’m feeling better this morning but still a little tired. More than good enough to get this episode recorded and out though! I hope everyone out there is happy and healthy and looking forward to Christmas, or whichever holiday you celebrate, if any.

Today we’re looking at one of the most deeply personal songs Tom ever wrote. The title track from this season’s album, Southern Accents. 

I have a distinct memory of this song. Not the first time I heard it, and not connected to a specific person, but a random event. In 2019, I decided to get back into shape and began walking, then eventually running, progressing on to running long distances and thoroughly enjoying the rush of endorphins that that brings. I like to listen to music as I run, or sometimes podcasts, but on those longer distances, I would throw on a playlist and just put miles under my feet. I haven’t been able to run in months due to a pesky back issue (but this is no pity party, don’t worry!) My Tom Petty playlist was, of course, a frequent go-to as I went out to tackle those 10k to half marathon distances. I remember one spring evening I had rounded the corner that would bring me into the home stretch and just as I got to the entrance of the forestry farm and zoo, after a really rewarding run where I pushed myself hard, that opening piano line from Southern Accents cascaded into my ears and took my breath away. I don’t know why, but my chest immediately contracted and I was somewhat overcome with emotion. It was a curious combination of sadness about Tom’s passing, being overwhelmed by the euphoric beauty of the song, and maybe just that other worldly connection we can sometimes feel with nature. It was dusk, it was a beautifully crisp spring evening, and I’d just spent a wonderful forty five minutes lost in music and movement. Tears came to my eyes and I had to take a moment to compose myself and get my breath back before finishing my cool down. That’s one of the most visceral memories I have from all my many miles of running; that one moment where I was caught off guard, in the moment. It’s always stuck with me and I’ve been holding it for months until I knew I’d be recording this episode and that memory flashback is as strong as ever as I recall it.

The recording of the album was famously chaotic, as Tom had built a home studio and lots of people were coming and going and making the ordinarily very tight, very controlled Heartbreakers’ unit much looser and much more party-oriented. Paul Zollo says to Tom; “It’s amazing to me that within the period of craziness which was ensuing, that you wrote the title song ‘Southern Accents’, which is such a gorgeous and spiritual song” Tom says “I remember writing it well. It was around four. Really, really late in the morning. Or early in the morning. I was all alone in the studio, everybody had gone, and I was playing the piano. And boom, here’s this song.”

So, as Wildflowers would many years later come to Tom in a hurry, we have another one of those beautiful songs from Tom that sounds like it came naturally, easily, and quickly. Tom goes on to say “One of the best songs I ever wrote. It just appeared. I did it all real fast on the piano and I remember I taped it on the cassette deck. And I couldn’t go to sleep, I was so excited about it.” 

The image you have in your mind of Tom Petty, or certainly the one I always have, is of him on stage with a guitar strapped over his shoulder. It’s almost never of him sitting at a piano alone. But from the start, this song feels almost too intimate to share with a band. Of course, the arrangement has the band in it, but this is a song so strong that it can be played solo on piano and not lose any of its impact at all.

We open with that stark, stripped down piano and drum intro. Only a side stick on the twos and fours and a shaker keeping eighths. As with the previous two songs on side one of this album, it’s yet another step away from the sound of anything else the Heartbreakers had recorded to this point and sounds like nothing else in the catalogue. A simple piano line around that F major chord. The verse progression is incredibly simple too. Minor 6th, 5th, root repeated three times, then the 4th to the 5th and repeat. Simple. And devastatingly effective when you lay Tom’s glorious vocal over it. So there’s not actually a ton to talk about musically in this one. We get the build in the second verse with the addition of that lone note on strings and those beautiful harmonies from Howie Epstein. Sitting listening to that string progression in that second verse through the lines “Got my own way of working” and “but everything is run” is making me well up right now. There’s something about the way those notes all fit together the huge spaces that are left between them that just hits me hard, every time I listen to this song. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the lyrics. To add to the emotion here, Mike Campbell picks up the melody after Tom finishes singing “where I come from” on that wonderfully played dobro part. Most of you will be familiar with the dobro even if you haven’t heard the term before. It’s an acoustic resonator guitar with a really high bridge that takes the strings far from the neck, so that a slide can be played more easily. It gives the instrument a very easily identifiable swampy feel that fits with the theme of the song perfectly without being cliched or hammy.  This leads into the bridge section of the song. But before we get to that, let’s rewind a little. As well as having a distinctly unique sound, this song also has a somewhat unusual structure for a Heartbreakers song. You don’t really have a very obvious chorus to the song, just the the lines that finish each verse, “With a Southern Accent” where I come from. Song lyrics and poetry differ in many ways, but they also overlap in plenty and this one reads more like a poem in its structure and can be read as such without losing any impact in the emotion and soul that the song has. So rather than the usual A-B-A-B-C-B type of rock n roll format, this is closer to A-A-B-A or really, A-A-C-A. Again this is deliberate. Tom doesn’t delineate the musings in the verses with the final sentiment. It keeps each verse as a self-contained sketch within the central theme without needing the big push that we find on a song like Rebels. It hits your feely buttons in a simpler way. 

The order of the verses in this song and the impact of how they build a scene always blows me away. The first verse sets everything up, by putting the central motif right at the top. There’s a southern accent, where I come from. The same line that closes each verse. The young uns call it country, the yankees call it dumb. Now here we get Tom actually speaking more personally, not in as much character as he is in Rebels (though you can read the song as being entirely in character, but it would be a character based on Thomas Earl Petty). But this as the character in the first song on the album is tapping into the negative history of the south, here Tom is really just observing the callousness with which Southern people can often be dismissed simply because of the drawl in their voice; which acts as a surrogate for the general inferiority with which many Southerners feel treated by the Northern states. This is something that resonates really heavily with me. The part of England I’m from, Wigan, is very industrial and historically spit and sawdust working class. WIth a very specific sense of humour, rich musical and comedic heritage, as well as a reputation for hardiness and straight talking. Sound familiar at all? During my time in the military I was definitely treated differently on a few occasions because of the way I spoke. And given a lot of time and distance away from that, I can also see how easily and stubbornly the chip on your shoulder can form when you perceive that you’re being treated a certain way based on where you’re from and how you speak rather than who you are or what you can do.

In the short 1985 Southern Accents documentary, Tom says that he has mainly lost a lot of his southern accent due to being away for a long time but that it really comes back when he returns to his birthplace and hangs out with family. Again I can really relate to this. Last time I took my family back to England was 2019 and as I drifted further into my old accent, my youngest daughter looked at me at one point and said “Why are you talking like that?” which made us all laugh. But there’s familiarity and comfort in “home”, even if home changes. You never really get completely away from where you come from, no matter how long or far your travel. It gets into your bones. And that’s the sentiment that I always feel Tom is expressing in this first verse. It’s a complaint about that outsider view of the South but also an introspection on him still feeling that connection even though he’s really embraced California by this point. 

For the second verse, we have this wonderful vignette of an itinerant labourer, maybe not too dissimilar to the protagonist in Rebels. No stranger to the drunk tanks of Georgia, he may head south to Orlando depending on the time of year. Johnny Cash famously covered this track for his iconic Unchained album in 1996. The album featured the Heartbreakers as the backing band and Tom tells Paul Zollo, “That song really came to life when I heard Johnny Cash’s version. That drunk tank line. I REALLY believed it when I heard him sing it” Tom has switched here from personal observation to a character study again and it almost has that Grapes of Wrath/East of Eden type of Steinbeck imagery to it. Lean times, hard men, and little hope. 

Alright folks, It’s time for some Petty Trivia! 

Your question from last week was this; Tom Petty’s adopted son is named after one of his fellow Wilburys’ bandmates, but which one? Is it a) Roy, b) Dylan, c) Jeff, or d) Harrison. Each answer received at least one vote on the Twitter poll, but almost half of you correctly identified that Dylan was the correct answer. Dylan is the son of Tom’s second wife and soulmate, Dana. Tom also had two daughters with his first wife Jane, Annakim, and Adria, the latter of whom has gone on to play a significant role in running her father’s estate as well as having a career as a director in her own right.

Your question for this week is this: In which country, outside the US, did Southern Accents chart the highest? Was it a) Sweden, b) Australia, c) the UK, or d) New Zealand?

OK, back to the song. In Conversations With Tom Petty, Tom tells Paul Zollo, “I loved the bridge. The bridge was what made it for me, when I found that.” and goes on to say “That’s what makes you keep doing this. You get something like that. I remember it really well.” There’s a four bar pause between the end of the second verse and this bridge, with the strings and Mike’s dobro playing around that F major. The strings then build us up to that Bb /  Dm progression before the absolute showstopper in this song. That key change to G for the start of the last line of this section is complete genius. Again, simple, well-worm but effortlessly effective here. The first two lines “For just a minute there I was dreaming” and “For just a minute it was all so real” are more abstract, but with that key change, this vision, or memory, or dream, coalesces into something more substantial; “for just a minute she was standing there with me”. 

The dreamstate of the bridge then leads us into a final verse which, if you’re not careful, can rip your heart right out of your chest. Tom’s mom Katherine, or Kitty to her friends, had passed away on October 21st, 1980 at the young age of 53. The devoted love he felt for his mom throughout childhood and into his adult years is finally manifested in this last verse. “There’s a dream I keep having,  where my mama comes to me. And kneels down over by the window and says a prayer for me.” This is the final anchor to the south and the one that holds Tom most firmly to his roots. His mom. The one who, despite the fractious relationship with her husband, despite having a tough life, despite not being able to see the man her son would fully become, would always be an important part of Tom’s life and love.  Paul Zollo describes the “haunting prayer vision of her” and asks Tom whether this dream really happened. Tom pauses before saying “No, I don’t think so. Maybe it was. I don’t think so.” but dreams can often occur while waking. Sometimes they’re just how the muse nudges an artist and connects them to their own memories and emotions. So it would appear to be in this case.

The song ends with the reprise of the bridge, musically, with Tom crying out over the strings, beseaching, searching, and finally compromising, with the final stanza which does now act as a chorus. I got my own way of livin but everything gets done with a southern accent. Where I come from.” We then lead out with that sparse piano

OK folks, that’s all for this week. This one has been a slightly different episode. There’s so little instrumentation to dig into that I was initially thinking that it would be a fairly short episode. But I’ve ended up realizing that the power of this song is in how you connect with it. Yes it’s brilliant in its arrangement and beautifully played, but the emotion of the song is what carries it, along with one of the most perfect vocal performances Tom ever put onto vinyl. He sings very clearly, leaves the vibrato out of his delivery, doesn’t push too hard, even in the bridge and the outro, but hits every single syllable with perfection. 

If any of you live in a different place from the one where you were born and raised, this song really is impactful. “Where I come from” is a line we all relate to, even if we’re still in the same house we were born in. It’s not even really a place, it’s about belonging and family and comfort. It’s about history and struggle and change. And Tom wrapped up so much emotion and beauty into one song that sometimes it can get the better of you, as it did on a spring morning two or three years ago for me. Southern Accents is not only one of the finest songs in Tom’s catalogue, it’s one of the finest songs ever written. Simple, heartfelt, and beautiful. The live version that the band performed in Gainesville that is included on the Running Down a Dream documentary is probably my favourite version of the song and I’ll include a link to that in the episode notes. With all this said, I think it will come as no surprise that I’m going to give Southern Accents the strongest possible 10 out of 10.

Before I wrap the episode though, I actually recorded the first verse of this one on piano and vocals a couple of years ago and sent it to a friend. I never did go back to it to complete it because I think it’s a tough one to get to without choking up. But I might give it another go one of these days, maybe even for the end of the season. I rummaged around and found that video, so I’m going drop into the episode here for you to listen to. It’s a one take recorded on my phone, so the audio isn’t great, but you’ll get the idea.


Petty Trivia

QUESTION: In which country, outside the US, did Southern Accents chart the highest? Was it a) Sweden, b) Australia, c) the UK, or d) New Zealand?

ANSWER: I posted the poll question, as usual, to Twitter and Facebook and had a wonderful comment left on Facebook by Mariana Muñoz that I wanted to read out. She says: “In ARGENTINA!!! My husband, 9 years old daughter and I are Tom's number 1 Argentinian fans. In our country we speak a very distinctive Spanish, absolutely different from all Latin America and Spain and we absolutely understand the heart and soul of his song.” So that’s a similar connection to the one I have with the song and shows the universality that it has despite it being very personal to Tom himself. And thanks Mariana, from Canada to Argentina - and congrats on the recent World Cup success of the men's national team! The Twitter poll was really quite surprising. I expected a more even distribution of answers, but most of you went for either Australia or UK having the highest chart position for Southern Accents, a couple of people said New Zealand and no-one at all went with Sweden. In ascending order, here are the final chart positions that the album achieved. In Australia, it hit #53, in New Zealand, #25, in UK, two places higher, at #23 but in Sweden, Southern Accents reached #10 in the charts.


There's a southern accent
Where I come from
The young 'uns call it country
The yankees call it dumb
I got my own way of talking
But everything gets done
With a southern accent
Where I come from

Now that drunk tank in Atlanta
Is just a motel room to me
Think I might go work Orlando
If them orange groves don't freeze
Got my own way of working
But everything is run
With a southern accent
Where I come from

For just a minute there I was dreaming
For just a minute it was all so real
For just a minute
She was standing there with me

There's a dream I keep having
Where my mama comes to me
And kneels down over by the window
And says a prayer for me
Got my own way of praying
But everything one's begun
With a southern accent
Where I come from

Got my own way of living
But everything is done
With a southern accent
Where I come from