Petty, who died Monday at 66, said the imagery shouldn’t be applauded. “You know, it’s a bit ironic: It’s the only time that I know of where we defeated a country in a war and then flew their flag.”
Besides, he said with a laugh, “isn’t Kid Rock from the Midwest? I think they were on the other side of the Civil War.”
“Southern Accents” initially was intended as a concept album, but the consensus was that it was an not fully realized concept. Still, several of the songs clearly were inspired by the South. While Los Angeles had been the band’s home for nearly a decade at that point, they hailed from Gainesville, Fla., and spent a significant amount of time in the South during a previous tour.
Petty said in 1985 that when writing the opening track, “Rebel,” he was “just thinking about the average young guy down there who is brought up in this tradition that tells you, ‘this is the way it has always been and the way it should be.’ I’m not just talking about jobs, but a whole way of living.”
“I was born a rebel, down in Dixie/On a Sunday morning,” goes the chorus. “Yeah with one foot in the grave/And one foot on the pedal, I was born a rebel.”
In 2015, Petty said he wrote the song from the point of view of a character “who talks about the traditions that have been handed down from family to family for so long that he almost feels guilty about the war. He still blames the North for the discomfort of his life, so my thought was the best way to illustrate this character was to use the Confederate flag” during the song while on tour.
But he soon regretted using it. Then he’d go on to see people wearing Confederate flag paraphernalia in his audiences. One night, someone in the crowd threw a flag on stage.
“I stopped everything and gave a speech about it,” Petty recalled. “I said, ‘Look, this was to illustrate a character. This is not who we are. Having gone through this, I would prefer it if no one would ever bring a Confederate flag to our shows again because this isn’t who we are.’”
The reaction included both boos and cheers, according to Petty’s telling. “But honestly, it’s a little amazing to me because I never saw one again after that speech in that one town. Fortunately, that went away, but it left me feeling stupid. That’s the word I can use. I felt stupid. If I had just been a little more observant about things going on around me, it wouldn’t have happened.”
But Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ subsequent live album, “Pack Up the Plantation: Live!,” also included Confederate imagery. A photo inside of the album cover showed the band playing in front of the Confederate flag, Petty said. “I went back and had it removed from the record. It took a little time to get done, but it did get done. I still feel bad about it. I’ve just always regretted it. I would never do anything to hurt someone.”
Growing up in Florida, Petty saw the Confederate flag as “the wallpaper of the South.” Although he knew it had to do with the Civil War, he didn’t give much thought to the connotations it carried. Later, he’d come to see the Confederate flag on statehouse grounds as comparable to “how a swastika looks to a Jewish person. It just shouldn’t be on flagpoles.”
“To this day, I have good feelings for the South in many ways. There’s some wonderful people down there. There are people still affected by what their relatives taught them,” he wrote in 2015. “It isn’t necessarily racism. They just don’t like Yankees. They don’t like the North. But when they wave that flag, they aren’t stopping to think how it looks to a black person. I blame myself for not doing that. I should have gone around the fence and taken a good look at it.”