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OPINION | REX NELSON: Hillbilly heaven

by Rex Nelson | May 1, 2022 at 1:41 a.m.


Robin William Burn was born Aug. 2, 1890, in west Arkansas. Some say he was born in Van Buren. Others say he was born at Greenwood and moved with his family to Van Buren when he was 3. He would become known as Bob Burns.

"As a young man, he learned to play brass instruments, and before the age of 12, was playing with the Queen City Silver Cornet Band in Van Buren," Denny Elrod writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

"By age 12, Burns had formed his own string band. During a practice session, he put together the hand-crafted instrument that gave him his nickname. His 'bazooka' was a novelty instrument that he said made the sound of a 'wounded moose.' He practiced until becoming skilled enough to play it in the Queen City Silver Cornet Band.

"The instrument had a narrow range and peculiar tone by design. Burns used his simple invention to entertain audiences between yarns. Burns' ambition led him to audition for the most popular radio station in Los Angeles, and he won a non-paying spot on the afternoon radio show 'The Gilmore Circus' as the character Soda Pop. His popularity immediately grew along the West Coast."

In 1935, Burns persuaded Paul Whiteman to give him an audition in New York on Whiteman's nationally broadcast show. Burns, who used the Arkansas hillbilly stereotype to his advantage, became a regular guest on Rudy Vallee's radio show and later played with Bing Crosby on NBC's "Kraft Music Hall." He starred in the 1936 movie "Rhythm on the Range" with Crosby and went on to appear in many films.

"He was known by a variety of titles that referenced his hillbilly origins," Elrod writes. "Burns ... wove tales of life in the Arkansas hills with his musical performances. His bazooka, which was made of spare gas fittings and a whiskey funnel, eventually lent its name to the World War II anti-tank weapon due to its similar looks and Burns' popularity among troops who employed it in combat."

Burns' notoriety led countless Americans to believe that Arkansas was little more than a state filled with hillbillies. That, in turn, exacerbated Arkansans' inferiority complex.

"Arkansas' most blatant symbol of the hillbilly stereotype, the Dogpatch USA theme park, went out of business in the early 1990s, but any hopes that the state finally had outrun its hillbilly image came crashing down during the 1992 election and early presidency of Bill Clinton," writes noted historian Brooks Blevins. "Metropolitan reporters and cartoonists joined Ross Perot in hammering Arkansas and its governor and, despite his Yale law degree and status as a Rhodes Scholar, Clinton often was depicted as the yokel leader of a hillbilly state.

"Almost 175 years after Henry Rowe Schoolcraft first expressed disdain for the backcountry denizens of Arkansas, the little state of Arkansas, and supposed hillbillies everywhere, continued to absorb the barbs of more urbane visitors and pundits."

Historian Tony Harkins writes that by the time of the Civil War, this state was "becoming instantly recognizable shorthand for the half-comic, half-savage backwoodsman."

Arkansans long have been obsessed with their image. And they actually have a chance this month to do something about it. At a time when so many good things are happening in Arkansas--a huge new steel mill, one of the fasting-growing metro areas in the country, an explosion of the arts, enhanced outdoor recreational opportunities, record low unemployment rates--the most damaging thing to our national image in recent years has been the rapidly declining quality of legislators.

The 2021 regular session of the Arkansas Legislature was an embarrassment that received national media attention. In the May 24 Republican primary, Arkansans can vote for moderate, pragmatic candidates, removing the remaining obstacle to an exciting era in our state.

Even Democrats and independents have an obligation to vote in the GOP primary. That will help ensure that the group I refer to as the Know Nothings is banished, becoming simply a sad chapter in the state's history.

When I began voting at age 18, I voted in the Democratic primary even though I considered myself a Republican. That's where the action was. Now, winning the Republican primary is tantamount to election in most parts of Arkansas. That's why those who care about the future of the state must vote in the GOP primary--some for the first time in their lives. They can knock out Know Nothing incumbents along with the Know Nothing challengers to quality GOP incumbents.

"The Legislature is going to automatically be better because the most divisive members are either running for higher office or leaving politics," a leading Republican legislator told me. "Then, if a few primary races go the right way, it will get a whole lot better. Most Republican members don't like the position the extremists have put them in. They'll actually be relieved."

Know Nothings don't make up a majority. The majority of legislators belong to the group I call the Cowards. These men and women live in fear that they'll be defeated by a candidate from the right fringe if they stand up to the Know Nothings. They're particularly afraid of a fringe group known as Conduit for Action. It's largely funded by one person and has a paid operative. There are few signs of grassroots support.

Because they're loud and because they're bullies, political extremists always leave the impression that there are more of them than is actually the case. If reasonable Arkansas voters do the right thing May 24, perhaps the Cowards will realize their fear of Conduit was foolish.

It doesn't help, of course, that the party's leading candidates continue to play to the fringe. Even poor ol' U.S. Sen. John Boozman is out there fighting culture wars and touting an endorsement from the disgraced former president.

Boozman is a good man who loves Arkansas. I have no doubt he will look back as a retired senator one day and be deeply embarrassed by the 2022 primary campaign he felt he had to run.

He has received poor advice in crafting his campaign against candidates from what fellow columnist John Brummett accurately describes as the GOP's nut-right wing.

Then there's gubernatorial candidate Sarah Sanders, whose ads continue to tout her efforts to hold off the radical left, which the last time I checked consisted of five people in Arkansas (two in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Little Rock, two in Fayetteville, and one in Eureka Springs).

Sanders' only primary opposition comes from an obscure character who's so extreme he was unable to hold a job in the loony world of far-right talk radio. Yet she continues to raise money from gullible Trump cultists nationwide.

Even though she's sitting on millions of dollars, Sanders sent out a recent fund-raising appeal expressing fear that she would no longer have enough money to fill up the campaign bus due to high gas prices. It would be funny if it weren't so sad.

What Boozman and Sanders don't consider is the fact that their ads insult the thousands of educated Arkansas voters who are still out there. They're playing us for fools, assuming we're all as delusional as the Stop the Steal crowd.

I travel Arkansas enough to realize that's not the case. This is a state filled with smart people who do their part to help Arkansas achieve its potential. Why can't our candidates appeal to the best in us rather than the worst?

It's important that Boozman win on May 24. The alternatives are too terrible to contemplate. And whether you like her or not, Sanders is going to be the next governor.

Yet Boozman and Sanders play us just as surely as Bob Burns played his bazooka in the 1930s and 1940s. We now have one of the country's great art museums, and we're the headquarters of several of America's most dynamic companies. But when it comes to our politics, it appears we're still hillbilly heaven.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


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