Tom Petty Says He Regrets Displaying Confederate Flag in ’80s

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Southern born/bred rocker, who previously employed the flag in marketing materials and as a stage prop, tells the media it was “downright stupid.” Above: Petty in a still from a documentary about the Southern Accents album.

By Fred Mills

Anyone who knows Tom Petty’s track record for standing up for what he firmly believes is right wasn’t surprised yesterday when word got out that, in the wake of the Charleston massacre and the ensuing debate over the Confederate flag, he’s now deeply regretful for having displayed the flag prominently during his Southern Accents album release and subsequent tour behind the album, which was released in 1985. Speaking to Rolling Stone in an article published on the magazine’s site yesterday (July 14), Petty admitted that it was a “downright stupid” move, one born out of a mixture of ignorance and naivete, and that he “should have gone around the fence and taken a good look” at the issues surrounding the battle flag, even though the debate back in ’85 was nowhere near as loud and sustained as it is in 2015.

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Petty is quoted extensively and at length in the piece, in which he says he remains proud of his Southern heritage but isn’t proud of having expressed that pride, in part, by displaying the flag. “To this day, I have good feelings for the South in many ways,” he explains. “There’s some wonderful people down there. There are people still affected by what their relatives taught them. 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. But honestly, it all stemmed from my trying to illustrate a character. I then just let it get out of control as a marketing device for the record. It was dumb and it shouldn’t have happened.

“It happened because I had one song on the album called “Rebels.” It’s spoken from the point of view of the 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.”

What really caught my eye was how Petty describes an incident some time after Southern Accent was released. By that point the band had stopped using the flag onstage:

“When we toured two years later, I noticed people in the audience wearing Confederate flag bandanas and things like that. One night, someone threw one onstage. I stopped everything and gave a speech about it. 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.’ It got a mixed reaction. There were some boos and some cheers. But honestly, it’s a little amazing to me because I never saw one again after that speech in that one town.”

I was at the show Petty is referencing. It actually was in January of 1990, at the Charlotte Coliseum, and I have written about that Petty/flag incident here at BLURT in the past. It’s possible that he’s misremembering the general date, since two years after Southern Accents would have been 1987; or it’s possible that there were similar incidents, which wouldn’t surprise me at all. But that’s not the point. Watching Petty take a stand in public once again, this time in 1990 in front of a Southern audience and knowing that by taking such a stand he would surely anger some in the audience, definitely didn’t surprise me. A lesser artist wouldn’t have risked alienating his core fanbase, of course.

As I noted in my earlier piece on Petty, on the drive home from the Charlotte concert the local classic rock radio was deejay talking about the incident in disparaging terms and inviting listeners to call in and “let Tom Petty know just what we think about him.”

Well, I know what I thought about Petty back then and I still feel that way about him now: he’s a stand-up guy who knows the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong, and when he catches himself having done the latter, he’s not afraid or ashamed to admit it. That, beyond all the great records and great concerts, is what makes him a true artist.

Below: the Heartbreakers live in 1985

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