MAY 5, 2019
IN HIS 1985 ALBUM, Southern Accents, Tom Petty attempted to make a concept album about the South. But what was intended as a masterpiece ultimately failed. Michael Washburn, in his first book, also titled Southern Accents, argues that we can glean significant cultural understanding from Petty’s failure. Flawed from the beginning, Petty’s narrow vision of the South was all white and deeply embedded in nostalgia for the Lost Cause. I spoke to Washburn, a native of Kentucky, shortly after his own failure to complete a 74-mile ultramarathon through the mountains of North Georgia. We discussed Tom Petty’s ambitions for Southern Accents, the enduring visual language and ideology of the Confederacy, and Washburn’s own Southern heritage.
CONNOR GOODWIN: Which track from Southern Accents should readers listen to before we get into the interview?
MICHAEL WASHBURN: If I’m being honest, I might say none. [Laughs.] If you were going to approach Southern Accents and see the best of what the record had to offer, I would say one of two songs. The most popular song on the record and one of Petty’s most popular songs in his entire career is “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” But if you wanted to see what he was going for, when it came down to his aspiration for a Southern concept record, listen to the title record, “Southern Accents.”
As you mentioned, Petty wanted Southern Accents to be a concept album and you argue that the significance of this album lies in its failure. What did Petty want to accomplish with Southern Accents, and how exactly did the album fail?
I think there’re a couple of different ways to answer this. If you want to look at Petty as rock star, [he was] tired of what he’d been doing up until that point. He’d been on this decade-long record, tour, record, tour cycle. The record before Southern Accents, Long After Dark, had not been as large a commercial hit as people had anticipated or expected from him. And [Petty] thought he was starting to sound the same. So partially Petty was trying to vie for artistic legitimacy and make this big bold move to be considered a Springsteen-like force. Someone who could paint on a broad canvas with more vibrant colors.
From Petty’s perspective, for reasons aesthetic and narcotic, the conceptual frame of an album about the South didn’t end up making sense when he released it. There are a core of songs that fit the Confederate, sorry, Southern theme. But then he hooked up with this guy Dave Stewart and they cooked up “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and some other stinkers that fractured what little coherence there was to an album about the South.
Why that record’s failure is important today is the cultural assumptions embedded in what Petty’s South was. Petty’s vision of the South was flawed from the beginning for two reasons. His vision of the South was the white South. And his South, however unconsciously it might have been, was deeply indebted to the sociologically sophisticated theory of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. I’m not saying at any point that Tom Petty is a racist, [but] I am saying that he effectively made a neo-Confederate record. And, even if you don’t want to go that far with me, he did make a record about the South that effectively denies the existence of African-American people in the South, which is not a record about the South.
I’m not so naïve to say that there is one South. He made a record about one guy’s South and that one guy’s South was indebted to the Lost Cause. I think a lot of people who want to read about Petty don’t think about this stuff all that often. Unlike Springsteen [who] has all this love for the working class, and is therefore read as some sort of chronicler or bard of the working class, Petty is often overlooked as someone who wasn’t influenced by cultural currents and the archaeology of American frailty and failure. But that’s just not true. The reason he made these mistakes and is so indebted to the Confederacy is because he was a kid from the South.
When Petty goes on tour, he “doubles down” on the “Southern mystique” and uses Confederate imagery on stage. What are some examples of that coming into play, and why do you think he had that response if he was frustrated while recording the album and dissatisfied with the album?
I think he probably wasn’t — and I know from the guys in the band that I spoke to — [they] were not immediately dissatisfied with the final product. They became quickly dissatisfied with it, but it was a matter of months, not minutes. I know that Petty had deep frustration with certain tracks. This is famously the record where he shattered his hand because he was so frustrated. When Petty was done with the project, he was somewhat satisfied with it as some kind of coherent document.
In the press after the fact, sometimes he would play up the fact that it was a concept record or sometimes he would play this down and jettison the concept. The further he got away from the record, the more he talked about having this random idea that he never intended to fully stick with.
There are several reasons why I don’t believe that. A lot of that is just the convenience of the way his story changes as he moves away from [the record] and it gets more and more critical disregard. But if you look at the way he then totally adopted the trappings of the Confederacy and the plantation South in his stage set-up, it shows this was a doubling down. Petty was not a guy who let other people call the shots. When I spoke to the art director of the record, he told me that the Confederate flag used on the tour book and on interior of the original LP was Petty’s personal flag. [Petty] stressed that he wanted this to be the design element of the record, and that blended over into the tour.
The stage had these marble columns, like a plantation house. Specifically, in a song called “Rebels,” the first on the record, a big electric Confederate Battle Flag lit up behind them. It’s a creepy Ra-Ra moment. You can see that if you get your hands on a copy of the live concert film they made during the tour called Pack Up the Plantation: Live!. It’s been excised from YouTube, but you can see on YouTube this moment where he takes off his topcoat and the lining of his coat is a Confederate flag.
He doubled down on the worst aspects of it. Picking up a Battle Flag — that really seems to be motivated and is deeply problematic.
Was there any critical reception of the Southern Accents at the time of its release? Not in terms of the music, but of Petty dredging up Confederate imagery.
I’ve read every magazine and newspaper clipping that I could find about Petty and the decade surrounding this record and there was very little mention of it. Places like the Houston Chronicle would say something like, Keeping true to Petty’s rebel roots, there’s a battle flag and faux plantation trappings. More often it was just glossed over. The most notable person who brought it up was Peter Buck of R.E.M., who is also from the South and basically said, You have to be an idiot to think this was an acceptable thing to do in modern America, to drive around the country touring with the Battle Flag. And then there was a coalition of African-American artists who made public statements denouncing both the title of the live recording, Pack Up the Plantation, and the tour itself.
This book is not just music criticism, it’s also cultural commentary and personal reflection. In the course of writing this book, what did you learn about yourself and your Southern heritage as a white man from Kentucky?
I think it’s fair to say that, to some extent, I am the data for a lot of the argument. Part of this book is rock ’n’ roll stories of the record, part of it is the Confederacy and the way the Lost Cause lingers in American memory. I had known that a lot of that ran in my veins being a kid from Kentucky. In dumb ways, like Dukes of Hazzard or when playing war I always pretended I was in a gray uniform.
There’s a moment where I’m in Virginia, off the Chesapeake Bay, and I’m sitting in this cemetery that has little Confederate parade flags on the graves of soldiers who died during the war. As I’m thinking about it, I had this moment of deep reverence for all the loss and, if you’re from the South, living under this yoke of defeat, that you would want to find some way to redeem all this stupid lost life. And that revelry was really just because I’m a Southern white dude. It’s all part of this big historical nostalgic complex that was deeply embedded within me. And I knew that it was in me, because I’m not a dummy, but I had never really felt it viscerally. If the book is going to matter to anyone, there’s a lot of people, even in the book, who say, [regarding] the Confederate Flag, that it was a different time or we didn’t know any better at the time. Except, no, white people didn’t know better.
Reading about your visit to the graveyard in Virginia reminded me of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s Pulitzer-winning portrait of the white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof, who you also write about. She details how Roof, in the weeks leading up to the killing of nine Black people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, visited “historical sites related to slavery and Confederate history, and practice runs to Mother Emanuel.”
You write that Tom Petty, in trying to work back some of the nostalgia he had for the South, would later perform “Rebels” as a “muted, solo acoustic number thereby stripping the song of its mood of glory.” Do you think there’s a way to also strip historical sites associated with Confederate history of their sense of glory?
I don’t think you can look at Tom Petty’s defanging of “Rebels” and use that as a model for the rectification of Confederate monuments because they are a different medium. The performance of the song carries the meaning. The difference in medium isn’t that tricky, but the question you’re asking is. I’m thinking of Richmond, Virginia, and Monument Avenue and there’s such martial ferocity in these statues and there’s not really another way to interpret it. So I want to say they should be taken down.
After an event I did with the philosopher Christopher Lebron, I was in a conversation with him where Calhoun College at Yale was brought up. And he said these things could stand if they could be converted into monuments of our shame. I found that really striking, but I also find that impossible. I don’t see how all these things can be effectively converted into monuments of shame. That’s just going to create more reaction. So my position would be, and it’s not a very nuanced position, but it’s that most of this stuff needs to come down.
You point out that the conversation around the visual language of the Confederacy has shifted from the Battle Flag to public monuments. What accounts for that shift?
I feel like the reason the conversation has moved from flag to monument is because there is more plasticity around the flag. It’s easier to get away with saying, “This flag means this to me,” as opposed to a statue of Robert E. Lee. I also think the people rallying for this stuff, I don’t want to say they have a more sophisticated understanding, but it seems like there’s a bigger emphasis on mechanisms of power. Statues are almost always endorsed by governments and municipal sites, right? That is more of an affront to democratic flourishing than some yahoo who wants to put a Battle Flag in the window of his truck. I think that accounts for some of that transition. I don’t know if that’s right, but that feels right to me.