Friday, January 18, 2008

Southern Radio

I decided to avoid the mountains and stay warm on my drive to California, so I had to drive through the Deep South. I risked the high blood pressure and listened to some local radio across Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas so I wouldn't run out of podcasts on my 1GB iPod Shuffle when I got to the big empty places where there aren't any radio stations at all.

The first thing that disturbed me was Christian political talk radio. In California, people know that religious conservatives exist, but the media maintains some sort separation of Church and State. You just don't talk about God while you're talking politics. Even in the Midwest, people seem to have their beliefs and have their politics, but at least pretend publicly that law is some sort of civil contract not determined by religion. But driving through the South, I heard talk show hosts openly explain that their pro-gun, pro-war, pro-death penalty, anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-immigrant politics were right because that's what the Bible says. One caller to a Christian political program suggested that we should deal with "illegals" by deporting them and forcing them to sign a "contract" that says that if they are ever caught in America again, they'd be executed. The explicitly Christian host didn't think that was going far enough. He said we should implant them with chips like they put in pets, except explosive, so that if they ever cross the border, the chip will instantly explode and kill them. I took a deep breath, prayed my car wouldn't break down, and switched to a music station.

There apparently is a whole genre of ultra-backwoods country music that's popular way down south that I was completely unaware of, despite living in the hills of Southeastern Ohio for a decade. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The lyrics speak for themselves:
(Song titles linked to Videos on YouTube, which you have to listen to, though the videos sort of ruin the hillbillyness of the songs with their Hollywood slickness.)

A Different World by Bucky Covington
A song of nostalgia for lead-based paint, getting the belt, and prayer in school.

We were born to mothers who smoked and drank
Our cribs were covered in lead-based paint
No childproof lids
No seatbelts in cars
Rode bikes with no helmets
and still here we are
Still here we are

We got daddy's belt when we misbehaved
Had three TV channels you got up to change
No video games and no satellite
All we had were friends and they were outside
Playing outside

School always started the same everyday
the pledge of allegiance, then someone would pray
not every kid made the team when they tried
We got disappointed but that was alright
We turned out alright

No bottled water
We'd drink from a garden hose
And every Sunday,
All the stores were closed.

It was a different life
When we were boys and girls
Not just a different time
It was a different world

International Harvester by Craig Morgan
Kinda catchy, even if he's proud of the 3-mile line of cars behind his combine.

I'm the son of a third generation farmer
I've been married 10 years to the farmer's daughter
I'm a God fearing hardworking combine driver
Hogging up the road on my p-p-p-p-plower
Clug-a-lug-a-lugin 5 miles an hour
On my International Harvester.

3 miles of cars laying on their horns
Falling on deaf ears of corn
Lined up behind me like a big parade
Of late to work road rage jerks
Shouting obscene words flippin' me the bird

Well you my be on a state paved road
That black top runs through my pay load
Excuse me for trying to do my job
This year ain't been no bumper crop
If you don't like the way I'm driving
Get back on the interstate Otherwise sit tight and be nice
And quit your honking at me that way

Cause I'm the son of a 3rd generation farmer
I've been married 10 years to the farmer's daughter
I got 2 boys in the county 4-H
I'm a lifetime sponsor of the FFA
Hey that's what I make I make a lot of Hay for a little pay
But I'm proud to say
I'm a God fearing hardworking combine driver
Hogging up the road on my p-p-p-p-plower
Clug-a-lug-a-lugin 5 miles an hour
On my International Harvester.

Well I know you got your own deadline
But cussing me won't save you no time Haus
But this big wheel wide load ain't going any faster
So just smile and wave and tip your hat to the man up on the tractor

What do ya think about that by Montgomery Gentry
A true expression of the love-your-neighbor, do-unto-others Southern Christian culture.

Heard it through the grapevine
My new neighbor don’t like my big red barn
’47 Ford, bullet holes in the door
Broke-down motor in the front yard
I've got a mind
To paint a plywood sign
And nail it up on a knotty pine tree
Saying "I was here first,
This is my piece of dirt
And your ramblin’ don’t rattle me"

Some people care about
what other people think
Worry ‘bout what they say
Let a little gossip
Comin’ from a loose lip
Ruin a perfect day
Saying “blah, blah, blah”
Just a-jacking their jaws
Gotta let it roll of my back
I don’t give a durn
What other people think
What do ya think about that?

I wear what I want to
Overalls, work boots
Crank my music up loud
Like to sling a little mud
On my four-wheel drive
Trick on into town
Shoot a little eight ball
Down by the pool hall
Drink a beer with my friends
Don’t judge me and I won’t judge you
‘Cause we all get judged
In the end

You know, I don’t give a damn
What other people think
What do you think about that?


sarapennington said...


The "hillbillyness"?

sarapennington said...

I guess I should clarify my enigmatic comment.

I just don't think "hillybillyness" is a negative quality to have. And, I don't consider the rude, I-don't-give-a-damn quality of these songs a kind of hillbillyness.

I was looking for the lyrics to "The Price of Progress" by Jason Ringenberg (which I heard on the soundtrack to the documentary "The Appalachians"). It has similar lyrics to the Craig Morgan song. (The Ringerberg song has a line that goes: "I'm the fourth generation now / to put my back to the mule and plow.") But, I think "The Price of Progress" captures the hillbilly experience much better: it's about having the Appalachian family farm taken away so the TVA can create a lake. It ends with the speaker planning to "plug that dam with dynamite." More activist than raucous.

I'll still see if I can find the lyrics to the whole song.

Anyway, as a self-proclaimed hillbilly, "hillybillyness" just really jumped out at me.

Craig said...

I think that's a different hillbilly experience. Cluttering your yard with a total disregard for your neighbors seems to me a part of hillbillyness, at least in SE Ohio. I usually chalk that up to obliviousness, necessity, and differing priorities, but Montgomery Gentry make it a contemptuous act. Craig Morgan has the same attitude toward city-slickers who dare to drive on a country road, though he's more light-hearted, and farming is more plains than hills.

I do see anti-urbanism or at least urbaphobia as a negative aspect of rural life, though obviously in goes both ways. I find it interesting that the videos, no doubt produced by city-folk, mask the anti-city sentiment of the lyrics. Along with the catchy music, you can sing along without realizing that the words you're saying are more divisive than empowering.

Anonymous said...

Hey Craig, I wondered since you were a little bit writing about religion: where are you at, religiously/spiritually speaking, these days? I haven't been to church in a long long time... my thinking on these things is a lot more nuanced than it used to be. --Bliss

sarapennington said...

I see.

The word that comes to mind, then, more than "hillbillyness," is "provincialism" with its anti-urban connotations. (Though, I agree that urban folk can also suffer from provincialism--like you said, it goes both ways.)

I think the yard clutter is more an issue of poverty, than a regional issue. However, because the rural--and especially the rural Southern mountain--regions have been and are so poor, it's much more prevalent. The same goes for the stick-it-to-the-city-slickers attitudes. It's as much about class as geography.

What I'm trying to do is reappropriate the term "hillbilly" and the popular, negative image that's associated with it. I just want to try to make sure it's not used *only* to describe the negative aspects of rural--specifically mountain--culture. However, almost every time I see it, it's used to express the negative side of the region (and of the Ozarks too), or, even more generally, of rural areas (even those without hills).

Here's an example from earlier today:

Quoted in the New York Times, a voter in Nevada spoke about the campaigns of the Democratic presidential candidates and their negative tactics:

“They think that we’re backcountry and we’re just a bunch of hillbillies or whatever, but I think there are a lot of people here who are well educated and are read-up on the issues.”

Which implies that "hillbillies" are not well-educated and are not "read-up" on the issues. And, the use of "just" in "just a bunch" implies a inferior position.

This is something I've lived, and written about often: those moments when the stereotype overlaps the reality. I know folks here who are the spitting image of the speaker in the Montgomery Gentry song (they just don't have as cool a name)--in fact, I'm thinking specifically of two of Whit's students, brothers, who he has trouble motivating because they have that I-don't-care-about-nothin-and-I'll-do-whatever-I-durn-well-please attitude they've gotten from their dad. But, urban examples of these contemptuous attitudes also come to mind. The similarity (often) is class, but, there's something really different about those. It has something to do with landedness and anonymity. In the country, where everybody knows who you are and where you live, you have to be more brazen. In the city, you're allowed to exert this "disregard for your neighbor" anonymously. I'm getting really off-topic (and vague!), but this is bringing up some interesting ideas for me. Things to continue thinking about...

Craig said...

To play the devil's advocate, if you reclaim all the words with negative connotations, how do you express negative ideas?

sarapennington said...

Hmmmm...that question is a little too broad for my purposes. But, my answer would be: You can't. Because any word you would choose or invent to replace a "negative" word that has just been reclaimed, would itself soon be reclaimed. A never-ending cycle. (Isn't this some people's argument against political-correctness?)

Or another (ummm, angel's advocate?) answer would be: You *don't* come up with a new word, and then all negative characteristics would disappear.


Though, that's probably also a social constructionist answer.

So, I'd revise the question to this: if you reclaim all the words describing groups of people with negative connotations, how do you express negative ideas surrounding those groups? (And the words "nigger," "queer," "hillbilly," among others, are the ones I'm thinking of.)

My answer? You use other words that aren't associated with any one particular group, that can be used across groups. Thus, my preference for "provincialism" over "hillbillyness" (or "redneck" which came to my mind, but I rejected for it's etymology rooted in labor history).

There's also a problem that occurs when folks modify a noun that is usually used to describe people in a negative way. Such as "the sophisticated hillbilly" or the "clean and articulate black man." (How many times in the press and in person have I heard how "articulate" Barack Obama is?!) Often, such modification simply reinforces the perceived negative qualities of the noun/demographic, even if it exempts the individual.

sarapennington said...

But what about using negative adjectives to modify reclaimed nouns with previously negative connotations? (I guess that would speak more to your devil's advocate question.)

As I run the phrases through my mind ("flamboyant queer," "dirty nigger," "stupid hillbilly"), that certainly doesn't work for an adequate answer either. Those are the types of language that create the stereotypes to begin with.

(Ugggh, now I feel dirty for even just writing those phrases. Ick.)

(Also, this is starting to feel a little like Ellis 8, this thinky-ness, this back-and-forth-ness. Always a good thing.)

Country and Proud said...

As a university educator from the Northwoods who has studied the history of rural oppression in America and Europe, and whose own roots are millenia-deep in the north country, I disagree with your posting. "International Harvester" and "I Don't Give a Durn" are country-pride songs. And being proud of being country is going against the tide today.

Over 80% of the US is urban. As someone who grew up country, I ran into my city counterparts who frequently looked down on me because I was rural, because I wasn't up on all the hippest styles, because I had certain morals, etc. In college, this dismissal of rural culture intensified to the point where many even argued that rural areas had no culture and that no great historical or cultural events came from rural areas, which is blatantly wrong statement. Now, as a professional in the university system, I still run into that anti-rural bias in so many ways, whether it is a misunderstanding of rural poverty, rural families or simply of rural pride.

The Euro-American culture is based on a worship of cities. Indeed, many of the power-brokers are urban, even if they have their Texas ranches or UpNorth lodges to run to on vacation. Their is a long history in the US and Europe of laws made by these urban power-brokers that negatively impact those in rural communities: relocation programs, forced sterilizations during the Eugenics era, elimination of small farmers, etc. Part of this is b/c ruralites tend to be poor and thus not involved with the political scene.

I don't excuse the deliberate manipulations by the power-brokers of country music (as I see some country songs being a part of), but I do celebrate and am proud of those country songs that speak to us country folk as we battle our way through a culture that seems determined to stomp us out just like it is trying to stomp out other land-based cultures both here (now and historically) and around the world.

I'm a Green party member, by the way, but have a lot of conservative moral values. You can't write all of us country-folk off as "Southern Christians," however you define that term. Rural people have a legitimate's the struggle to stay on the land despite the corporate and governmental attempts to kick us off. Urban people could really help us out in this struggle if they didn't let themselves be brainwashed by their peers into believing the stereotypes.