I bought this album in a Musicland “cutout” bin around the same time every girl in my sixth grade class was swooning to Petty’s first solo album, Full Moon Fever. It’s been a favorite ever since, but I’ve found few people share my enthusiasm.
First of all, what is a “cutout”? People in the shop often ask about albums with cuts or holes in the jacket or clipped corners. They’re the albums which record shops had returned to wholesalers. The wholesaler, in turn, marks them as returned by cutting the corners or drilling the holes (I once met a guy who had the job of doing this to boxes of cassettes and CDs with a circular saw). The albums are then offered to stores at a discounted rate. There used to be whole sections in records shops for cutouts – they were often filled with aging 60s icons (I bought my favorite David Crosby album, Oh Yes I Can, from the same Musicland cutout bin) and pop bands past their prime. Enter the Heartbreakers.
Whether Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers (not to be confused with the 70s pre-punk Heartbreakers led by Johnny Thunders) had overstayed their welcome is itself a subject of debate. Undeniably the band hit a rough patch after Long After Dark (an unmemorable album once you get past the singles) but Southern Accents isn’t their low point. Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), which came out in 1987, found itself in the cutout bins even more quickly, and for good reason.
The cassette of Southern Accents I bought at Musicland for maybe $2.99 found its way into my first car and into every one I drove for the next ten years. The only reason it’s not in our family car today is that I forgot to grab my case of cassettes when I gave an ’87 Nova to a friend of a friend. Southern Accents is one of the all time best ever driving music tapes. I can’t really explain why – it’s just an album that makes you want to take a road trip.
It’s a great album. Here are five reasons why it’s my favorite Tom Petty record:
#1 It’s got the best first line of any Tom Petty album. Years ago, the Onion’s AV Club ran a great article that listed Petty’s best opening lines – it was such a fun celebration of Petty’s goofy lyrics that I hadn’t ever forgotten it (and I was pleased to find it on the internet – you can read it here). Petty’s raw delivery of the first verse encapsulates the entire album. Nothing on the first five Heartbreakers albums had the same intensity of the first thirty seconds of “Rebels.” We don’t really buy Tom Petty records for the lyrics, anyways. We buy them for the way he sings them.
Honey don’t go, I’m too drunk to follow
You know you won’t feel this way tomorrow
Maybe a little rough around the edges or inside a little hollow
I get faced with somethings sometimes that are so hard to swallow
Petty became so frustrated while mixing “Rebels” that he punched a wall in the studio, damaging his hand so seriously that it’s now held together with pins and wires.
#2 “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is about Stevie Nicks dumping Joe Walsh. Petty co-wrote it with David Stewart of the Eurythmics, who overheard her say “Don’t come around here no more” to Walsh after a cocaine fueled all-nighter. Nick’s description of the night inspired the Alice in Wonderland-themed video.
3 – “Make it Better (Forget About Me)” was a great single. Although it was not included in their Greatest Hits album, “Make it Better” actually fared better on the Billboard chart than several songs that were included.
“Make it Better (Forget About Me)”
4 – Southern Accents is at heart a failed concept album. Joyce Millman recognized this when she reviewed the album for Rolling Stone in 1985 (you can read what she wrote here). She compares it to Exile on Main Street and Sandinista! – epic albums that work a variety of disparate sounds around a central theme. Southern Accents does feel incohesive, especially on the second side, but it’s also the first Tom Petty record to feel like an “album” rather than a collection of songs he thought we’d like to hear.
Several outtakes from Southern Accents appeared on the 1995 box set, Playback. They might have fit better on the album and helped it develop the theme set forth in “Rebels” and the title track, especially “Trailer” (which you can hear here if you’re interested).
5 – “Southern Accents” is one of the best songs Tom Petty has written.
Dismissing an Atlanta drunk tank, it seems “Southern Accents” picks up where “Rebels” trailed off. Maybe the morning after “Louisiana Rain.” Half the Heartbreakers records seem to be about the same poor bastard who just can’t get it together, but “Southern Accents” is the only track that catches him Sunday sober and reflective. After years of snotty tenacity (“It’s all right if you love me, it’s all right if you don’t”), he’s reluctantly revealed a side of himself that implies the roots of his self destructive behavior. Petty is achingly sincere in the song’s bridge.
For just a minute, Petty’s rebel is vulnerable. He’s not the object of pity or derision, he’s just trying to get it together.