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OPINION | REX NELSON: Inner hillbilly

by Rex Nelson | May 8, 2022 at 1:46 a.m.

When the word "hillbilly" was used, many folks across the country once thought of Arkansas.

I invoked the hillbilly image in this column last Sunday when writing about the bad name our politicians give the state. It's a complex subject, however, one that has provided Arkansans reasons for both embarrassment and pride through the decades. No one has studied the hillbilly image more than historian Brooks Blevins of Izard County in the Arkansas Ozarks.

"The hillbilly has been an enduring staple of American iconography, and Arkansas has been identified with the hillbilly as much as, if not more than, any state," Blevins writes. "Despite the lack of scholarly consensus on the origin of the term -- historian Anthony Harkins gives as the most likely explanation that Scottish highlanders melded 'hill folk' with 'billie,' a word meaning friend or companion -- there's no shortage of hillbilly images in American popular culture.

"Whether a barefoot, rifle-toting, moonshine-swigging, bearded man staring out from beneath a floppy felt hat or a toothless granny in homespun sitting at a spinning wheel and peering suspiciously at strangers from the front porch of a dilapidated mountain cabin, the hillbilly, in all his manifestations, is instantly recognizable. Wrapped up with the condescension in people's common view of the hillbilly is a trace of admiration for what they perceive as his independent spirit and his disregard for the trappings of modern society."

Both condescension and admiration. Like I said, it's a complex topic.

"In modern American popular culture, the term hillbilly is often used interchangeably with other epithets for poor white people such as redneck, cracker or white trash," Blevins writes. "But throughout much of the 20th century, hillbilly conjured a character whose geographic origins were more narrowly defined. Referring to poor, uneducated whites, generally in the Appalachians or Ozarks but not always confined to these two Southern highland regions, the hillbilly made his literary debut only in 1900 in the pages of the New York Journal.

"The term was likely in common use, however, in the rural South by the late 19th century. Although the subjects of the Journal piece were residents of the Alabama hills, the first scholarly use of the term appeared four years later in a study of Arkansas Ozarks dialect. One can argue that hillbilly and Arkansas have been synonymous ever since."

Sensitivity to the term carried into the 21st century. An example is the designation of parts of U.S. Highway 67 in Arkansas as Rock 'n' Roll Highway 67 when it would be more appropriate to call it Rockabilly Highway 67. In 2009, the Legislature named the highway in an attempt to honor musicians who once performed at clubs along the road, particularly in Jackson, Lawrence, Randolph and Clay counties.

Arkansas music historian Keith Merckx notes that Pocahontas musician Gary Gazaway came up with the idea of naming the road in 2005.

"The original idea was for the highway to run from Bald Knob to the Missouri state line north of Corning," Merckx writes. "A committee was formed that included representatives from the counties through which the highway would pass, as well as others. . . . The committee was soon divided over the name.

"Gazaway and historians on the committee favored the Rockabilly Highway designation, while politicians and civic boosters didn't want any association with the perceived perjorative term of hillbilly. The committee ultimately voted 8-5 in favor of naming it Rock 'n' Roll Highway 67. Gazaway disagreed with the decision, saying that the name dishonors the historical aspect of the road."

"Rockabilly was the kind of music they played there," Gazaway said at the time. "The hillbilly culture is what made the music. To call it anything else is to go against the historical aspect of it."

The 2009 legislation read in part: "While academics and historians have indicated that a change in the name of this music to rockabilly should be made, everyone who lived, breathed and rocked during this time called the music rock 'n' roll."

So how did Arkansas become so closely associated with hillbillies in the minds of Americans?

Blevins writes: "This development had two primary causes: the proliferation of Arkansas stories written by Southwestern humorists in the 25 years before President Abraham Lincoln's election and the Arkansas Traveler legend, which spawned songs, dialogues, a musical and two popular paintings. Among the Southwestern humorists, none was more effective in crafting the image of the hillbilly's ancestor than C.F.M. Noland and Thomas Banges Thorpe, both of whom contributed stories and letters to the New York sporting periodical The Spirit of the Times beginning in the latter half of the 1830s.

"Noland's rough-and-tumble frontier character Pete Whetstone provides one of the best examples of an early hillbilly type whose comic, ill-mannered backwardness is tempered by resourcefulness and wile. In 20th century popular culture, some of the nation's most recognizable hillbilly characters were from Arkansas or had Arkansas connections."

There was comedian and actor Bob Burns, actors Chet Lauck and Norris Goff on the radio show "Lum and Abner," movie characters Ma and Pa Kettle and television's "The Beverly Hillbillies."

"In the late 1970s, Newton County became the site of one of the most ambitious attempts to market and profit from Arkansas' and the Ozarks' hillbilly image when a group of Harrison investors partnered with cartoonist Al Capp to build Dogpatch USA theme park, based on Capp's long-running 'Lil' Abner' comic strip," Blevins writes. "Arkansas' continuing efforts to shed its backward image led some in Little Rock and elsewhere to criticize the project as pandering to the nation's negative perceptions of the state and its citizens and to cringe when former Gov. Orval Faubus, himself the subject of hillbilly stereotyping, once served as the park's general manager.

"Although the crass stereotyping of Capp and Dogpatch USA rankled many Arkansans, others co-opted the term hillbilly and wore it as a badge of honor. In the 1970s, members of Arkansas band Black Oak Arkansas, along with other groups of the era such as Missouri's Ozark Mountain Daredevils, proudly proclaimed their music 'hillbilly rock.' Many people in Arkansas and around rural America had even earlier embraced the cornpone antics of 'The Beverly Hillbillies.'"

The television program's creator was Paul Henning, who grew up in Independence, Mo.

"As a youngster, Henning had accompanied his Boy Scout troop on a camping trip to the Elk River in far southwestern Missouri, the same area that instilled in young Vance Randolph a lifelong fascination with the Ozarks," Blevins writes in his book "The Ozarkers," the third part in a trilogy on the region's history. "Drawing on a similar appreciation for the rustic dignity of rural Ozarkers, Henning became one of Hollywood's best interpreters of the comic interplay between uppity city folk and country bumpkins.

"The success of 'The Beverly Hillbillies' left CBS executives hankering for more of Henning's brand of homestyle hilarity, resulting in the premiere of 'Petticoat Junction' in September 1963. Based on his wife Ruth's childhood visits to her grandmother's small hotel in Eldon, Mo., 'Petticoat Junction' was set in the fictional Missouri hamlet of Hooterville. Two years later, 'Green Acres,' a CBS sitcom on which Henning served as producer, turned the tables on 'The Beverly Hillbillies' formula by having a cultured couple from New York City settle amid Hooterville's rustics."

All three shows did well in the ratings during the 1960s. CBS executives eventually canceled the programs in what was known as the "rural purge."

Though the infamous Arkansas inferiority complex still exists, it seems as if more Arkansans these days embrace their inner hillbilly. After all, we can point to the fact that the top attraction in the Arkansas Ozarks has gone from being Dogpatch USA to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, one of the world's premier art museums. That's quite a transformation.

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

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