By Jessica Wheeler, AliveTampaBay Columnist
If you’re Tom Petty, all you need to write a hit song are three chords and a bridge. Petty has been writing hits for 40 years, keeping it simple and never straying from his core sound and beliefs. This summer, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have embarked on their 40th anniversary tour, hitting Tampa’s Amalie Arena on May 6. The Florida stops will be especially poignant for Petty, a Florida native who grew up in Gainesville.
Petty was a quiet, artistic kid who had trouble fitting in with sports-minded peers in Gainesville. In 1961 when Petty was 10 years old, his uncle was working on the Ocala set of Elvis Presley’s film Follow That Dream. He invited his nephew to visit the set, where Petty met Elvis. He instantly became an avid fan, collecting Elvis 45’s and finding a new purpose in life. When he saw the Beatles on television a few years later, he was inspired to play music and form a band of his own. That band was Mudcrutch, who attracted a following in Gainesville but couldn’t stick together long enough to make it big.
Petty formed the Heartbreakers in late 1975. They eventually broke through with singles like “Refugee,” “I Need to Know,” and “Listen to Her Heart.” The band gained momentum in the early 1980s with hits like “The Waiting” and “Here Comes My Girl.” In 1985, though, Petty decided to look back at his Florida roots for inspiration.
The 1985 album Southern Accents pays homage to Petty’s Gainesville childhood, with songs like the wistful title track: “I got my own way of living, but everything gets done with a Southern accent where I come from.” Nostalgic without being corny, and full of Southern pride without being “Confederate proud,” the album walks a fine line for Petty, who both loved his hometown and knew that he didn’t really belong there.
“Rebels” is a rowdy ode to carousing, while “Make it Better” mimics the Memphis soul sound in an homage to another sound of the south. Petty’s original vision for the record as a concept album was ultimately scrapped, especially after he grew frustrated while mixing one of the tracks and punched a wall. The injury to his hand turned out to be serious, requiring surgery and temporarily impeding his ability to play guitar. When the album was released it reached the top 10 and received positive reviews, with the song “Don’t Come Around Here No More” becoming its biggest hit. Ironically, the song was the least-Southern of the entire record, further muddling the idea of the album.
The band would go on to have much bigger hits, and Petty would score solo success as well, with songs like “Into the Great Wide Open” and “Free Fallin’”. But Southern Accents remains an interesting artifact in Petty’s long career, marking the moment he deliberately evoked Gainesville in song.