The Story Behind The Song, “Southern Accents,” by Tom Petty

It’s one of his most beloved songs, called his “Let It Be,” for its holy, piano-based vibe, and for the dream vision of his mother kneeling down, praying for him.

From his 1985 album of the same name, it was this song which gave the album its core, and title. “Yeah,” Tom said, “we couldn’t have done the album without it.”

Many times when we worked on our book Conversations with Tom Petty, Tom referred to this as a song which he felt was one of his best ever, with a depth and dimension that went beyond anything he’d written previously. Never did he express more excitement after writing a song than for this one.

With language that is conversational, just joking with a friend, he explains the way our history here forever colors our thinking.

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There’s a Southern accent where I come from
The younguns call it country
The Yankees call it dumb…”

In such simple lines, he does so much. Even saying he knows people will hear this song in different ways, depending on where they’re from. It’s essential Tom – heartfelt, funny, sad and true. From that through the “drunk tank in Atlanta” passage, and onto the holy dream, the song pours out with one of his most poignant melodies.

Recorded in 1985 at Sound City in L.A., because of its slow tempo, it wasn’t deemed hit-worthy, and was released as the B-side to “Rebels.” It’s exactly 4:44 in length, a time with repeated numerals considered by many to be a spiritual affirmation that one is on the right path. Considering the way in which he connected with the spirit of this song so fully, that seems pretty right.

Here is Tom in his own words on the origins of “Southern Accents.”

TOM PETTY: I remember writing it well. It was around 4 am. Really, really late in the morning. Or early in the morning. 

I was all alone in the studio, everybody had gone, and I was playing the piano. And boom, here’s this song. In  F. On the piano. One of the best songs I ever wrote. It just appeared. I did it all real fast on the piano. And I had a cassette deck, and I remember I taped it on the cassette deck. And I couldn’t go to sleep, I was so excited about it. That was a lot of fun.

I got Jack Nitzche,who  is one of my heroes. I got him to do the strings. That was the first time we ever used an orchestra.

And that was a track I was really, really happy about. I thought it came out pretty well.

I loved   the bridge. the bridge was what made it for me when I found that I hit those chords. Sometimes you have a lot of tries for a bridge.  I actually just hit those cords on my first pass through I just went, “Oh boy, I got it! it was such a great feeling.” 

That’s what makes you want to keep doing this. You get something like that. That was really a great, great moment for me, when I wrote that song. I remember it really well. I don’t remember a lot of them but I remember just playing that cassette over and over, and I stayed up all night. I couldn’t possibly go to sleep. I was so excited. I want to play it for somebody! That was in the home studio. I couldn’t wait for the guys to come over. It was like, “Wow, I’ve really got this thing down.”

That was exciting, man. Everything was taped on cassette those days and I had a little cassette player that was on the piano. and luckily I just turned that on and got it all on the cassette. So we made the record the following day.

We made it right there in my studio. I think it’s Ben and me on the piano. He liked the way I played it.Because I have this kind  primitive way of playing the piano. So I have my own way of doing it. I think on the bridge, that’s me on the piano,  because he just liked the way I played the bridge and he wanted me to do the piano. But I wanted him to do it. So the compromise was we did a pass with Ben and a pass with me, and then they used my pass just for the bridge. There’s not much else on it, just a bass and side-stick on the drums, and that’s about it.

You couldn’t have done the album without it, you had to have that.

When I started working on it I had the title. Because that’s what got me off on that trip, that title. I thought that this is a great idea, because the south is so rich. It’s just this mythic kind of place.

It’s one of my better songs. I’d be lucky to write just one more on that level. That song really came to life when I heard Johnny Cash’s version. The drunk tank line.  I really believed it when I heard him sing it! [Laughs] “Think I might go work Orlando, if those orange groves don’t freeze…”Cause that used to put people out of work, when the frost came in.

It was just one of those magic moments, writing that song. It’s really gratifying,if you’re a songwriter, to get one of those.Iit really does make it all worthwhile. To me it did. This is a pay-off for me.

Southern Accent
By Tom Petty

There’s a southern accent, where I come from
The young ‘uns call it country, the yankees call it dumb
I got my own way of talking, but everything gets done
With a southern accent, where I come from

Now that drunk tank in Atlanta, is just a motel room to me
Think I might go work Orlando, if them orange groves don’t freeze
Got my own way of working, but everything is run
With a southern accent, where I come from

For just a minute there I was dreaming
For just a minute it was all so real
For just a minute she was standing there, with me

There’s a dream I keep having, where my momma comes to me
And kneels down over by the window, and says a prayer for me
Got my own way of praying, but everyone’s begun
With a southern accent, where I come from

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