Matt Stell Presents American Songwriter’s January/February Issue as Guest Editor

Written by Matt Stell

Videos by American Songwriter

Tom Petty was a little before my time, but I knew the hits like everyone else. There was no way you couldn’t. They were everywhere and felt really American in a way. A lot of people seemed to like it, so you were kind of supposed to like it—like baseball. So, I liked Tom Petty.

Then I heard “Southern Accents” from the album with the same name and things changed.

Very few songs had the kind of impact this song had on me. I could wax on about why and how I think this song is so special but that would be pointless and boring. If you’ve heard it you know it’s an objectively great song. The headline here for me is that it was one of the first times I started to think about music in terms of the power of songs. That changed my world.

Before I heard “Southern Accents” I thought a great song just meant something long and slow with an impenetrable lyric and an unadorned melody. Some of what were considered great songs were at best inaccessible and at worst intimidating to me. “Southern Accents” taught me that great songs can be about people I’ve met, doing things I know about, from places I’ve at least seen, all the while sacrificing nothing with respect to craft, message, or meaning. This was a revelation. Once this song hit me the way it did, I could more readily understand other material, even songs I used to think that I couldn’t understand. Before “Southern Accents” I didn’t even know a lyric could hit with such a force. It really made me listen to music differently. To this day I chase after that dopamine hit as a listener, and I try my best to distill it for listeners when I write.

“Southern Accents” opened the door to not only to how great Tom Petty is but also to how great a song can be as well as what a song can do. One song can change a lot. If you’re like me, you want to share that feeling so you write songs. I’m not one to offer much advice for writing because there is no steadfast right or wrong way. I will say, though, that writing what makes people feel the way your favorite songs make you feel is a good target to aim for. I try to do that as much as I can. Also, there are very few songwriting problems that can’t be fixed by writing more songs. There’s no substitute for reps and if you love it, it won’t (always) feel like a slog, so get some songs done. You never know what kind of impact one song can have on the people around you and the world. Thanks, Tom.

Matt Stell

Photo by Matthew Berinato.

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