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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 [1] who once asked George W. Bush [2] and Michele Bachmann [3] to stop using his music, his 1985 song “Southern Accents [4]” 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 [5].


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 [6] 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” [7] 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 [8] 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 Rare.us [9] and the former new media director for Sen. Rand Paul.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Tom Petty’s Permanent Things"

#1 Comment By AtomicZeppelinMan On October 4, 2017 @ 12:00 am

Good conservatives try to ruin everything! Tom Petty was a long haired, ppt smoking country boy who made great music.
…And Johnny Cash was the last true Outlaw Country musician. All since are “urban cowboys” playing dress up.

#2 Comment By J. Lee On October 4, 2017 @ 12:01 am

Tom Petty was one of America’s truly original minstrels. His wonderful songs of lost love, lost dreams, and hard-edged wistful memories of youth are hard to come by in much of today’s vapid musical landscape.

Not many of the lyrical greats left, whether it’s of the Traveling Wilburys, The Highwaymen, etc. They are passing away from the earth, at least we have the music that remains of voices now stilled.

Rest in peace Tom Petty.

#3 Comment By John On October 4, 2017 @ 2:26 am

Great article! As young boy growing up in Gainesville and later teen year’s relocating to Colorado. Tom Petty always brought me home. I was never touched by singer/ songwriter as much as Tom. Maybe it’s the roots we share but I know it’s more. God rest his amazing southern soul.

#4 Comment By Pollo de muerte On October 4, 2017 @ 6:34 am

I’m a few years older, but like the author I’m from South Carolina and life long TP fan.

My cooler friends were all about R.E.M. in high school and college, but Petty was never replaced as the bedrock of my pop culture identity. I remember rankling at Peter Buck’s criticism of Petty’s use of the Confederate Flag in the Southern Accents tour, only to come around to the same position later in life … much like Petty* and (eventually) my home state.

There’s another song from the Southern Accents album that captures the contradictions of being a son of the South … the duality of pride and shame … the anger of what was done to our home (more from reconstruction than the war) with the acknowledgment that we brought it on ourselves in support of something evil … the lament that we’ve done a poor job of preserving what was good in antebellum South. In Rebels, Petty sings:

Well, maybe a little rough around the edges
Or inside a little hollow,
I get faced with some things, sometimes
That are so hard to swallow, hey!


Even before my father’s father
They called us all rebels
While they burned our cornfields
And left our cities leveled
I can still feel the eyes of those blue-bellied devils
Yeah, when I’m walking round at night
Through the concrete and metal, hey, hey, hey

We’ve lost a number of pop culture icons over the couple of years. My wife was especially hit by Prince’s death, but this one hurts. Part of it is undeniably the poor state of our country and the world at the moment, but even in the best of times I’d feel this loss. This one leaves a mark.

* [10]

#5 Comment By Post Tenebras Lux On October 4, 2017 @ 10:33 am

My first exposure to Tom was in highschool, thanks to MTV. “Last Dance with Mary Jane”. Hated it. Then came “Free Fallin” thanks to the movie Jerry McGuire. Loathed it as the trendy marker it was.

Eventually after those trends wore off, I bought one of his albums. It changed my life. I met a voice and a poet and technician of instrument that stood out among the few giants of worthwhile American culture. He made sense, and he understood me.

Thanks in big part to him, I have the courage to stand my ground and I am still learnin to fly.

Tom Petty, thank you.

#6 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On October 4, 2017 @ 10:37 am

not sure Petty “kept a traditionalist streak” or “had a conservative side”. he was a shaman of sorts; practicing transcendentalism with a twelve-string and a Telecaster. the cultural imagery and iconography imbedded in his music – the “traditions” of HIS experience – were the colors on his palate; the chords and notes in the “key” in which he practiced. confederate flags, drunk tanks in Atlanta, and Louisiana Rain did not define his identity. they are the dialect of his identity. Tom Waits is a shaman who speaks in tongues. Tom Petty was a shaman who spoke with a Southern Accent.

#7 Comment By Richard Wagner On October 4, 2017 @ 10:40 am

Really an echo of the South’s forgotten progressive past. There was a time when the solid south was solidly Democratic. Then the Democrats became the party of greed, interventionism, and PC police. They became the “yankees” who call our accent “dumb”. And they took that “progressive” label with them, and so the South embraced the conservative label, which deep down, is pining for our progressive past.

Fare the well, Tom Petty!

#8 Comment By DWSWesVirginny On October 4, 2017 @ 2:22 pm

To be more accurate the author should have said, “Despite the fact that Petty was a leftist who was so lacking in tact and grace that he 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–but that just shows how silly it is to juxtapose tradition and rock.”

#9 Comment By Jeff K On October 4, 2017 @ 3:52 pm

To DWSWesVirginny. Tom Petty wrote the songs, and it’s his right to ask those that he strongly disagrees with not to use them in their self-serving political campaigns.

The fact that he called out Michele Bachmann personally shouldn’t surprise anybody. She was a right wing hack and is probably the least intellectually gifted politician of the last 20 years.

As or George Bush 2, he was a decent man that was in way over his head after 9/11. I voted for him the first time because he was a decent man, and because I thought Dick Cheney would a mature leader that could help steer the ship. Boy was I wrong on that one. Cheney gave us the 2nd Iraq war, and should burn in hell because of it.

May Tom RIP. The country would be so much better off if more people thought like him, and stood up for what is right, not what their tribe (party) says is right.

#10 Comment By blackhorse On October 8, 2017 @ 7:30 pm

“Petty was a leftist who was so lacking in tact and grace that he once asked George W. Bush and Michele Bachmann to stop using his music” I believe Mr Petty owns the copyrights to said songs, so B&B were lacking respect for property rights (there’s a conservative value) by using them without permissions. To the larger point, Petty was not a leftist, he was a rock and roll singer, which is to say bit of a misfit and no respecter of suits (“don’t dig those suits and ties, just don’t seem to harmonize”. Blind Willie McTell).

#11 Comment By tony petres On February 20, 2018 @ 1:57 am

Like most people, Tom seemed to be a mixture of culture, idealism, and the times. I loved his music from the first time I heard “Breakdown” on my college radio station and will never forget how “DTT” eclipsed everything in the fall of 1979 (I was working in the oil patch in Wyoming in those days and everyone had the tape which played ceaselessly in the “ghetto blasters” of the day). But although incredibly gifted, he was after all just a man, and I recall thinking his decision to erase all images of the rebel flag – even from previous record packaging photos – to be pretty revisionist. Still his passing blew a great big hole in my heart. Maybe because he unwittingly became such an important component of my youthful memories was the news of his death so bitter. He has finally joined his once old musical rival Ronny Van Zandt (gone since fall of ’77), and fellow Floridians Duane and Greg Allman in that big jam in the sky. I for one will never forget the skinny kid from gator country and his own powerful version of southern rock.