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OPINION | REX NELSON: The hillbilly queen

by Rex Nelson | December 14, 2022 at 3:48 a.m.


They called her the Queen of the Hillbillies. Sometimes they used the term First Lady of the Ozarks.

Her name was May Kennedy McCord, and she spent more than half a century sharing stories and songs from the Ozarks. The term "multimedia" is a modern creation, but McCord was a multimedia star long before the word was in vogue. She wrote newspaper columns. She was on the radio. She performed at music festivals. But she never published a collection of her work.

Famed folklorist Vance Randolph wrote to McCord in 1956: "If you didn't have such a mental block against writing books, I could show you how to make a book out of extracts from your columns. It would be very little work, and sell like hotcakes. ... I could write a solemn little introduction, telling the citizens what a fine gal you are."

Earlier this year, the University of Arkansas Press did what McCord never got around to doing. It released "Queen of the Hillbillies: Writings of May Kennedy McCord," edited by Patti McCord and Kristene Sutliff. Patti is May's granddaughter. Sutliff is a former director of the Ozarks Studies Institute at Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo.

Patti says her grandmother "loved life. She loved songs, and poetry, and dancing, and laughing and storytelling--especially hearing and repeating tales of her people, the Ozarks hill people. She had no patience for conventions that got in the way of such things. At family dinners when I was a child, our mothers would start to stir to help with the cleanup as the meal was ending. But Moomaw (our name for May) always said, 'Now girls, I don't get to see you often enough, and the hired girl will be here from Galena on Wednesday. So fetch me my guitar, let Junior play the piano, and let's have fun.'"

"Then, if we visited on Tuesday, those dirty dishes that so threatened time that could be better used to enjoy life would still be on the table, waiting for the hired girl to come and remove them. Her home was constantly full of visitors. I recall more than once when friends arrived unexpectedly, and she was always thrilled to see them. She would pull down her guitar, and they would laugh and sing old ballads and swap stories until late into the night."

Patti says this rotating cast of colorful characters included "the old Polish sea captain, the man with the funny beard that got caught in his fiddle, the old lady without teeth who made such mournful sounds and the undertaker who smoked a stubby cigar and cussed in every sentence. I would fall asleep in the middle of it all, and when my mother came for me the next morning, she would find that some kind soul had moved me to a bed, still dressed from the night before."

May McCord once told a reporter, "They love me in the hill country, and I love them."

"I hope this long-overdue collection of the best of May's writings--heretofore scattered hither and yon, a bit like May--will help a new generation grow to love her as her contemporaries did," Sutliff says.

Royalties go to a scholarship in her name at Missouri State. Applicants must be undergraduates minoring in Ozark studies or graduate students committed to working in the field.

"It's unfortunate that she never wrote a book, but she never felt the need," Sutliff says. "She was an entertainer who preferred to publicize the works of others than to publish her own. Her husband was a successful salesman who supported her financially, so she didn't need to write for money. Nor did she need to publish a book to stoke her ego. In fact, she was so unpretentious that when the editor of the Saturday Evening Post wrote to encourage her to let him see any future article she might write, she turned the letter over and wrote her grocery list on the back."

"Queen of the Hillbillies" is part of a series from UA Press called Chronicles of the Ozarks. Historian Brooks Blevins from Izard County is general editor of a series that includes "Ozark Country," "Yesterday Today: Life in the Ozarks," "The Ozarks: An American Survival of Primitive Society" and "Back Yonder: An Ozark Chronicle."

"When this series was launched with the publication of Wayman Hogue's 'Back Yonder' in 2016, it was a rare opportunity for 21st century readers to revisit the genesis of a regional image," Blevins says. "We could not only bring back crucial books that defined--and frequently mythologized--the Ozarks for a national audience, but also reacquaint Ozarkers with the writers and observers who crafted an enduring regional image. For the most part, it was a good strategy.

"Legendary chroniclers like Vance Randolph and Otto Ernest Rayburn produced signature books that were long out of print, and more obscure writers like Hogue and Catherine Barker broadened the region's portrait with their own takes on life in the Ozarks. But from the beginning I was disappointed that it seemed one giant of Ozarks chronicling would be left out. From the Depression days through the Eisenhower era, no Ozarks observer reached a larger audience or boasted a more loyal fan base than did May Kennedy McCord."

McCord reached thousands of people weekly through newspaper columns and radio shows.

"More than four decades after her death and well over half a century after the end of her morning radio show, comparatively few people in McCord's beloved Ozarks even recognize her name," Blevins says. "Those outside the Ozarks might have been more familiar with Randolph and Rayburn, but back in the hills and hollers in the middle of the 20th century, no one rivaled her celebrity."


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.


Print Headline: The hillbilly queen

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