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Michael Washburn: Tom Petty's Southern Accents (33 1/3)

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In Conversation with John Lingan

By 1985 Tom Petty had already obtained legendary status. He had fame. He had money. But he was restless, hoping to stretch his artistry beyond the confining format of songs like “The Waiting” and “Refugee.” Petty’s response to his restlessness was Southern Accents. Initially conceived as a concept album about the American South, Southern Accents’s marathon recording sessions were marred by aesthetic and narcotic excess. The result is a hodgepodge of classic rock songs mixed with nearly unlistenable 80s music. Then, while touring for the album, Petty made extensive use of the iconography of the American Confederacy, something he soon came to regret. Despite its artistic failure and public controversy, Southern Accents was a pivot point for Petty. Reeling from the defeat, Petty reimagined himself as deeply, almost mythically, Californian, obtaining his biggest success with Full Moon Fever.

Michael Washburn explores the history of Southern Accents and how it sparked Petty’s reinvention. Washburn also examines how the record both grew out of and reinforced enduring but flawed assumptions about Southern culture and the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.

Michael Washburn is the director of programs at The New York Council for the Humanities, and former director of the Office of Public Programs at the CUNY Graduate Center. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times Book Review, The Washington PostThe New Republic, The Boston Globe, Bookforum,The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Guardian.

John Lingan is the author of Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk (2018), which tells the story of Joltin' Jim McCoy, a country music impresario from West Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, and the relationship between his work and his community, which included a pre-fame Patsy Cline. He has written for The New York Times MagazineThe Oxford AmericanPacific StandardHazlitt, among others.

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