September 25, 2021, 1:30

Tom Petty’s Permanent Things

Tom Petty’s Permanent Things

One of the first music videos I ever saw on MTV was Tom Petty’s “Refugee” in 1980. I was six years old.

The next time I thought about that song at any length was in 1990 during a heavy make-out session in my high school girlfriend’s bedroom where Petty’s third album “Damn the Torpedoes” was on a constant cassette loop. I must have heard “Refugee” four or five times that night. I was 16 years old.

Those are some formative years for any young man, and Petty was a part of them.

I’m 43 today, and songs like “Refugee” (1980) and “American Girl” (1978) come to mind first. Yet among the many social media tributes posted by those a decade younger than me, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (1985), “Free Falling” (1989), and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (1993) were among the most cited Petty classics.

Few artists can claim to make relevant music for as many decades as Petty did. He was an enduring musician, a great songwriter—and he had a conservative side, too.

Despite the fact that Petty was a political progressive who once asked George W. Bush and Michele Bachmann to stop using his music, his 1985 song “Southern Accents” from his album of the same name is arguably one of the most traditionalist tunes in rock history.

“There’s a southern accent, where I come from. The young’uns call it country. The yankees call it dumb,” Petty sang. “I got my own way of talkin’, but everything is done, with a southern accent, where I come from.”

For Petty, his southern roots were a Permanent Thing.

Growing up in South Carolina, I always appreciated that the Floridian Petty’s accent sounded more like mine compared to most on MTV during the 80s. As a politically minded adult who had not paid much attention to “Southern Accents” prior, it was satisfying to discover that Petty wrote a Bill Kauffman-esque ode to his region.

The second verse of “Southern Accents” isn’t unlike some of Russell Kirk’s critiques of the disruptive patterns of modernity, just simpler and twangier:

Now that drunk tank in Atlanta’s

Just a motel room to me

Think I might go work Orlando

If them orange groves don’t freeze

I got my own way of workin’

But everything is run

With a southern accent

Where I come from

“For just a minute there I was dreaming,” Petty continues in the bridge. “For just a minute it was all so real. For just a minute she was standing there, with me.”

Who is “she?” Petty’s mother, of course, who he addresses in last verse:

There’s a dream I keep having

Where my mama comes to me

And kneels down over by the window

And says a prayer for me

I got my own way of prayin’

But everyone’s begun

With a southern accent

Where I come from

These are traditionalist themes that any old-school conservative would embrace. Not surprisingly, Arkansan Johnny Cash would also cover “Southern Accents” in 1996.

Petty told “Performing Songwriter” in 2014, “I thought at the time I was going to do an album based on southern themes and southern music.”

“I still think it’s probably one of my best two or three things that I ever wrote,” Petty added. “I thought it was very personal, so that was one where it just took me over.”

Now that he’s passed, the sheer popularity of Petty’s music is starting to set in. His songs were the soundtrack to so many lives. His music was universal. But sometimes it was particular, too.

Jack Hunter is the editor of and the former new media director for Sen. Rand Paul.


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