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Tom Petty Tries His Hand At Southern Rock

March 31, 1985|ROBERT HILBURN

Most Southern rock just sounds like heavy metal with a Dixie accent.

The musical strains may be different, but both styles revolve around themes that celebrate the "live fast, love hard and die young" mentality. One difference is most heavy-metal fans outgrow the nonsense once they pass their teens, while many Southern rock fans remain good ol' boys forever.

That's what gives Tom Petty's new "Southern Accents" its character. The just-released LP is not a concept album ("We've already had enough 'Gone With the Winds,' " wisecracked Petty), but its key songs look with rare compassion and insight at some of the tensions and frustrations that contribute to the good ol' boy life style.

Petty? Southern rock?

Though he and the Heartbreakers band are associated with Los Angeles (their home base for nearly a decade), they are from Gainesville, Fla., where they were exposed to lots of good ol' boys.

Petty never fell for the hell-raisin' Southern rock stereotype, prefering to reflect in mainstream rock songs like "Listen to Her Heart" and "Refugee" on more universal matters of youthful aspirations and integrity.

In looking for songwriting ideas for his new album, however, Petty found himself drawn increasingly to the South and his roots. He spent a lot of time there on the last Heartbreakers tour in 1983 and spent several weeks around his home town after the tour.

The result is a sometimes affectionate, occasionally disheartened commentary on the stifling bonds of tradition that often inhibit social mobility in the South. He's especially concerned with the way that tradition discourages the youthful aspiration that has always interested him as a writer.

Petty's theme is introduced in the album's opening track, appropriately titled "Rebels." It's a well-crafted tale of a good ol' boy (he's drunk in the song's opening line and he still hates the Yankees in the closing one) who finds it hard to swallow some of the ideas passed on to him, but is unable to break away.

There's the explosive inner tension in the hard-driving track. The lyrics in part:

I was born a rebel . . .

Yeah with one foot in the grave

And one foot on the pedal.

About the song, Petty said during an interview in his home in Encino, "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.

"That causes some real conflicts. 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."

Petty can relate to that rebelliousness.

" 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."

Petty didn't even wince at the "spot" as he walked down the stairs to the state-of-the-art recording studio in his hillside home. The spot was the place in the wall that a frustrated Petty hit with the back of his left hand late one night last October.

Despite severe pain at the time, Petty figured he had just bruised the hand. It wasn't until he noticed the severe swelling an hour later that he rushed to the hospital and learned that he had broken several bones.

"It wasn't like I was furious and smashed my hand against the wall," he said now, standing in the middle of the state-of-the-art studio, where he recorded most of the new album. "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."

Petty still wasn't taking the hand all that seriously when he went to see a specialist the day after the accident. He recalled: "My manager and I were just sitting in his office, laughing, thinking I might have to be in a cast for a couple of weeks or something, and all of a sudden the doctor looks at me real seriously. He finally says, 'You're a guitar player, huh. . . . Well, I think you can have some trouble here.'

"He told me about needing an operation and having to go through months of therapy to even have a chance of playing the guitar again. But 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."

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