A few seemingly irrelevant songs aside, "Southern Accents" succeeds as one of the best pieces of music to aptly describe life and points of view in the modern American South. Though Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are often identified as heartland rockers, and a great American institution like apple pie and Eisenhower, it's sometimes forgotten that Petty is in fact from Florida, farther down from Dixie than the narrator in the brilliantly written and arranged opening track 'Rebels.'
Fans then and now tend to set "Southern Accents" apart as an experiment of sorts, as its technological advances being far removed from the straight-ahead rocking riffs and hooks that buoyed their previous albums, benchmarks of American rock n' roll such as "Damn the Torpedoes" and the broader "Hard Promises." Producer David A. Stewart's influence is apparent, as the record is in most places distinctly 80s, but that was the point - to express life in the modern South, not the eras of Jefferson Davis or George Wallace. And despite the stereotype, we Southerners don't live under a rock that shields us from modern advances; bayous, deserts, dense hills - yes, but not under any rocks.
And in the 1980s, Southerners, like the rest of America, were taken by the walkman, aerobics, and lots of hairspray. Southern musicians were no different. Though the Heartbreakers avoided the hairspray for the most part, they were still prone to the new strides being made in the studio.
If "Southern Accents" didn't contain its share of synthesizers, reverbs, and overdubs, its concept - though loose - would be ineffective.
This makes the stubborn narrative of 'It Ain't Nothin' To Me' a bit ironic. The song finds Petty in his best affected drawl, resentful and unimpressed with the men on the moon, long distance phones, and every other thing mankind has called its latest triumph. Yet still, 'It Ain't Nothin' To Me' is adorned with horns, abundant backup vocals, and a distinctly modern production.
Of course, there's not much Southern about the iconic hit 'Don't Come Around Here No More,' aside from the double negative. But, as the South was not immune to technological forward cries, we're no more immune to the emotions and traumas of a breakup. The success of 'Don't Come Around Here No More' as a single probably saved the album from becoming a fading curio in Tom Petty's cannon, not to mention the groundbreaking video that still stands as one of the greatest MTV pieces of all time; Petty as the Mad Hatter leading a cast of Through the Looking Glass characters supplied the network with one of its most memorable videos, in a time when they were still interested in the format.
Aside from this, it's one of the greatest songs of the 80s, the reverb and synth utilized as even more powerful weapons by the Heartbreakers, as well as containing one of Tom Petty's most effective vocals.
The title track contains every sentiment the album was meant to express, as title tracks are supposed to do; dressed in a basic acoustic piano, slight percussion, strings that sound suspiciously more real and less synthesized than most strings from this decade, and the occasional banjo flourish, 'Southern Accents' finds Petty's voice drenched in a pain but also a satisfied contentment as he sings of work, jail, family, love, and how the rest of the world views these things differently.
It's a Springsteen-like portrait, but only in feeling; Petty says every bit as much as the Boss did with his deep New Jersey poetry, but uses only simple verses and a one-sentence chorus to make his point here. Johnny Cash even saw fit to cover this song. There's nothing in the rock n' roll rulebook that states if Johnny Cash covered your song, it's a bona fide piece of masterwork - but rock n' roll has no rulebook, you make up the rules as you go along, and that's not too bad of a rule to make official.
Though it certainly rocks as well as previous Petty/Heartbreakers classics, 'Make It Better (Forget About Me)' uses mostly horns and watery organs to supply the smoke that comes from the song's pipes. The lyrics are just as realistic and easy with which to identify as other rocking observations on relationships like 'Even the Losers' or 'Don't Do Me Like That,' and the Heartbreakers stay in a fine rocking uniform, even if they take more of a backing role to the horns and female choir. All that romantic fury gives way to middle-aged scorn with 'Spike,' sang with the same stubborn point of view as 'It Ain't Nothin' To Me.' 'Spike' features Petty as an older, wiser, more cynical version of himself, addressing the title character, a young, unruly, bitter punk with whom maybe Petty can identify, but to whom he gives no leeway.
But the following track provides a compromise between those two points of view, as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers sound most like themselves on the driving 'Dogs on the Run.' The song likely made die-hard fans the most comfortable, as it resembled the band's hard rocking nature most genuinely. Horns are still here, but this time they're riding in the backseat, as the guitars, signature vocals, Benmont Tench's organ, and drums that sound like drums provide the song's front rank.
'Dogs on the Run' may contain thoughts expressed by countless rock n' roll bands in the past and future - that weary lament of fast living and seedy choices that must be expressed in heavy chugging instead of woeful requiem - but there's something more restrained here, despite the rocking delivery. There's something here that may echo what Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes: "a living dog is better than a dead lion."
Believe it or not, rock n' roll can be a very Ecclesiastical thing.
The following year's live "Pack Up the Plantation!" release seemed like a compromise; it attempted to capture the energy of a Heartbreakers concert while keeping the advances of "Southern Accents" in tact. For the most part it succeeded. But if the Heartbreakers were second-guessing themselves they needn't have done so. With "Southern Accents," they'd made one of the most unique thematic albums of the decade. The skyline of Tallahassee is now drenched in neon, the sky over Atlanta looms with skyscrapers, and Nashville might see a smoggy day every now and then; it's the same for the hearts of those who live in the South, whether in below-Dixie metropolises or rural small towns.
"Southern Accents" expressed it all perfectly, with music that said an abundance about what was going on in the modern age, and lyrics that new what not to say, as well as what to detail with understated poignancy.