And the Band Plays On: Southern Accents Keep The Heartbreakers' Music Alive

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On Oct. 2, 2017, the music world was shaken by the news that rock icon Tom Petty had passed away, just 18 days shy of his 67th birthday. As the tributes and testimonies to the late star began to pour in, there was no question that Petty’s life-and death-had a significant impact on music.

Petty’s sudden death did, however, raise some questions about the longevity of rock’n’roll. With the giants of the genre aging, how many more years of new music and live shows could rock fans expect? When musicians pass away, how can their music live on?

That’s where Southern Accents comes into play. The Nashville-based Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers tribute band, fronted by Ronnie Gregg, has been recreating the Heartbreaker experience onstage since 2016.

Southern Accents logo (from

“When we formed this group, it was just out of pure love of  his music, and friends who wanted to get together and jam,” Gregg said. “And we figured we’ll play a few shows around town, and that would be it.”

Around the time Southern Accents began frequently playing shows, Petty passed away. At the shows following Petty’s death, Gregg noticed a shift in audience interaction.

“We had done a few shows right before he passed, and they went well, and people embraced the band. But once he passed, there was a lot of tears, a lot of people coming up to me and telling me their Tom Petty stories,” Gregg said. “I’ve  had grown men who look like bikers--someone you wouldn’t want to see in a dark alley,--coming up with tears in their eyes and telling me ‘thanks for the closure.’ That touches my heart. I don’t know what to say when people say that sort of stuff.

But I’m honored to spread the Petty Gospel.”

For Gregg, along with many other children of the 1970s and 1980s, MTV brought Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to their attention.

“I believe I got MTV for the first time in 1985 or 1986, and ‘Refugee’ was probably the first thing I saw and heard from him and was automatically blown away. At the time, the big thing was Bon Jovi and Def Leppard, so I was captivated by that kind of thing when I was younger.”

A decade later, Gregg saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live, setting in motion what would become a lifelong appreciation for Petty’s music.

“I saw Tom Petty in concert for the first time in 1994 for the ‘Wildflowers’ tour and totally became a huge, huge Tom Petty fan. I believe he did like four or five encores, totally sold out, loudest show I’ve ever heard,” Gregg said. “I was like  ‘this dude really has it going on.’ I went back and bought all the early stuff and have been a die-hard fan ever since.”

While Southern Accents got started in 2016, forming the right tribute band took a few tries.

“I tried it a couple of times with some guys about 10 years ago, and it just didn’t work out for whatever reason,” Gregg said. Then I tried again with a couple other guys, once again, it didn’t work. And then a couple of years ago, out of the blue, a friend of mine hit me up and told me he was forming a Tom Petty tribute band. I went to check it out, and it wasn’t what I was thinking. I jammed for about an hour and came up with an excuse to leave,” Gregg said.

“After I left, the drummer of the group called and apologized and asked me to give it one more shot. I met the guitar player, Bob [Ocker], and within the first two minutes of hearing him play, I was texting my girlfriend saying ‘I’ve found the guy.’ And fortunately enough, he had already brought in a bass player that same day, and he’s still with the band.”

Ocker also brought Jace Aaron and keyboard player Jeff Hollandsworth to the band.

“Bob is a Nashville veteran and has all these musicians on standby, apparently,” Gregg said with a laugh. “Everyone he brings in seems to work well with the band. He kind of hand picked the right guys that he thought would fit, and he was right.”

Much like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Southern Accents has found great success in Indiana.

“Southern Accents loves Indiana,” Gregg said. “Everytime we come up there, everyone’s been really good to us. It’s probably become our number one state to play in.”

The tribute band has played in several cities around the state, including stops at Connor Prairie and an upcoming gig at The Vogue in December.

“For some reason, they really relate to Tom Petty [in Indiana.]. It’s the same with John Cougar, the American-roots rock thing runs deep there.”

And, of course, you can’t discuss Tom Petty and Indiana without mentioning “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

“It should be the Indiana state anthem,” Gregg said with a laugh.

On Oct. 20 this year, to celebrate what would have been Petty’s 68th birthday, shows and parties are taking place across the nation, including in Petty’s hometown of Gainesville, FL.

These musical celebrations are a testament to the countless hit songs and albums that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released throughout their 40-year career. But as Southern Accents tours the nation, they make a point to include B-side songs as well as their big hits to the setlist.

“I like all of his stuff,” Gregg said. “There are so many songs--and music videos--that stand out. He had a real way of relating to every kind of person, whether you smoke pot or don’t smoke pot, whether you’ve been in love before or you haven’t. His quality of lyrics about life is more soulful that anyone else that I’ve heard.”

As Tom Petty fans continue to dig through the recently released box set, including several unreleased songs, that question of longevity lingers. When there are no more unreleased songs in the vault, when there ceases to be anything new from a man who served as a voice of his generation, will his work live on?

If Southern Accents has their way, there’s no question that audiences can continue to hear and appreciate all of the music that Petty created.

“We’re blessed to do what we do,” Gregg said. “We’re just blessed to travel around and keep spreading the Petty Word and the wonderful music. We feel that we’re a part of keeping his music alive.”

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