The word hillbilly conjures up images of gentle people and simpler times. However, the story of the American hillbilly is nothing but. There is a revival of the hillbilly lifestyle, culture, and heritage which can trace its roots back hundreds of years.
Curiosity from all corners of the globe are opening their eyes about the warm-hearted, hard-working, honest-speaking, nature-loving hill-folk from Appalachia. And there’s a lot to learn! So, unless you’re a penny waitin’ for change, let’s get started…
Before the Hillbilly
Hillbillies were not always American, although the term as we use it today originated in the United States following the Civil War. The term "hillbilly" is a combination of the Scottish "hill-folk," meaning mountaineer, and "billie," meaning companion. Hillbillies did not become a part of mainstream American culture the Reconstruction Era when millions of men and women from the Appalachian Region migrated inland in search of work and opportunity. Many of them were of Scots-Irish descent.
Scots-Irish Americans hail from the Ulster Protestants who immigrated to the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. Some are also called "Scotch-Irish," a term originated from the affectionate adjective "scotch." Scotch was often used to refer to people, places, and things from Scotland.
Over 200,000 Ulster Irish immigrants came to America during the period between 1710 to 1775. They settled primarily in the Appalachian Region, particularly Virginia and the Carolinas. Others settled in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other regions of the Midwest. They settled alongside English, Scottish from mainland Scotland, Germans, French and Native Americans. Their descendants would eventually become part of the Appalachians who migrated inland toward the Midwest in search of work. It was their integration (or lack thereof) into the local culture that would cause the word "hillbilly" to take on new meaning.
History of the Term "Hillbilly"
The word "hillbilly" emerged in the United States as a derogatory term for a Southern Appalachian person. Despite their hard work ethic and resilient personalities, the men and women who migrated inland from the Appalachian Region during the Hillbilly Highway movement (more on this in a minute) were not often well received by other Americans.
The earliest known use of the term in the United States is from the ninth volume of The Railroad Trainmen's Journal printed in July 1892. A quote from the journal reads, "I would hate to see some old railroad man come here and take my job, and then, I don't think it is right to hire some Hill Billy and give him the same right as I just because he was hired the same time I was."
Scholars believe the word "hill" in hillbilly is from the Scottish descriptive term "hill-folk." The same researchers also assume "billy" is from the Scottish "billie", or companion. However, a simpler explanation is the latter term is likely derived from the common nickname for William. A name that was extremely popular among the Scots-Irish and is still commonly used in Ireland today.
In the year 1900, the New York Journal published a piece on the Appalachians describing their vastly different demeanor from the common folk of the era. Most people were off-put and confused by their openness and straightforward attitude, and some believed them to be unintelligent or lacking manners. The piece in question defined a hillbilly as a "free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama" who drank Whiskey whenever he had the chance, recklessly fired a revolver for fun, and dressed freely with little regard for social convention or modern trends.
Although negative in nature, the original hillbilly stereotype still embraced many of the qualities the Appalachian people were proud of. Regardless of how others saw them, they were hard-working, fun-loving people who enjoyed spending time with their families, being in nature, and marching to the beat of their own drum. As the hillbilly culture expands and is embraced across the globe, a new term is rising in popularity to describe their cultural impact – "hillbillyism."
Hillbilly and Related
What is another word for hillbilly? The word is often used interchangeably with redneck and even hick. However, the term "hillbilly" has its own history and cultural significance. Other terms have emerged throughout the years to describe America's most rural, rugged, and country-loving people. Many embody the characteristics many find strange but for which their owners are proud to possess.
The oldest term for hillbilly is hill-folk, dating back over 300 years to the Scots-Irish Americans. You cannot think about any hillbilly without looking at the immigrants who brought the word to America. In old Scottish dialect, a hill-folk was someone who lived in the rural mountains and preferred to steer clear of society. Combined with the word "billie," which meant companion, the common phrase "hillbilly" started to spread throughout American following the Civil War.
The common hillbilly descriptor today evolved from the image of the Appalachians who were described as hillbillies when they migrated into cities from their home in the mountains.
Mountain people are more rural and considered less civilized than hillbillies. This word may describe remote clans who live so far removed from society they lack any formal education or knowledge of modernized life. Many horror movies and novels depict mountain people as inbred and violent. However, Mountain (or hill) people are really just any individual living in remote locations of high altitudes.
A "hick" is a derogatory word used to describe people who live in the country, lack proper education, and behave in an uncivilized manner. Many stereotypes associated with them are based on the old 19th-century word yokel. Similar to a hick, the yokel was someone who lived simply to the point of being ignorant and naive. The term is thought to originate originates from the nickname of Andrew Jackson, "Old Hickory" who himself came from a rough, rural corner of the country.
While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there are many differences between a hillbilly and redneck. For starters, the hillbilly is, as we covered earlier, typically someone of Appalachian descent who lives in a rural area. Their ancestry dates to the 17th and 18th centuries.
The word "redneck," on the other hand, has political origins. In 1921, 10,000 men in the West Virginia Mine Wars donned red bandanas and took up arms in protest. They became known as the "Red Neck Army". Colloquially, redneck is also used to refer to working-class people who live in the South. There are many negative stereotypes associated with the word, but the people who are often called rednecks are just as proud as those who wore bandanas a century ago.
The term "cracker" dates all the way back to Shakespeare as a descriptor of Celtic immigrants to the Americas. Over the past four centuries, where and what the term meant has evolved, or devolved depending who and when the term was used. Contrary to popular belief, the term does not have any association of the cracking of a whip.
Debate continues to this day about both the historical significance of the term "cracker" and its potential racial overtones. But, as the new century brings about a deeper understanding of our country’s heritage, conversations fortunately today focus more on the differences between Florida and Georgia crackers; or who can make the best swamp cabbage.
A country bumpkin is similar to that of a hillbilly, though it often has less hostility associated with it. Bumpkins were popularized in the media, especially during the 1950s and 70s when series like "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Hee-Haw" were on the air.
The word "bumpkin" came into the English lexicon in the 16th century. The term likely derives from the Dutch words "boomken" or "bommekijn." Both words mean little tree and little barrel, respectively.
Just like the word hick and hillbilly, bumpkin has European roots that gradually spread through American culture through various immigrants and settlers. However, unlike other regional names, bumpkin was used more to describe the physical characteristics of someone short and round.
Hillbillies are often thought of as people living in dingy small towns or remote countryside in decades-old houses or mobile homes. But the reality of American hillbilly geography is far more interesting and varied; in fact, many of the states are home to millions of people today that have connections to the original hillbilly migrants from the Appalachian region.
Appalachia is the heart of American hillbilly culture. The word itself first appeared in the American lexicon in the Reconstruction Era to refer to the men and women who set out in search of work and greater opportunity beyond the mountainous range they called home.
Today, the Appalachian Region covers 25,000 square miles of land and blankets 12 states, including the entirety of West Virginia. Among the people who lived there during the 17th and 18th centuries alongside Native Americans were descendants of Scots-Irish, English, Scottish, German and French settlers and their descendants, and they bore a unique accent and customs because of their heritage that blended into the Appalachian dialects and traditions.
The Appalachian region is home to 25 million people, stretching from the southern portion of New York State all the way to Georgia and Alabama. The Appalachian Trail is one of America's most beloved trails. Each year, thousands of people attempt to hike the 2,190-mile path, but only one in four make the entire trek.
Closest to the original Appalachian settlements is West Virginia, where thousands still live today. After the Hillbilly Highway migration, many Appalachians earned good money working in or near the cities like Detroit, Cincinnati, and Chicago. When they had earned enough, they returned home and bought land.
Today, West Virginia is home to small Appalachian towns with residents who can date their ancestry back to The Great Migration and earlier. Bramwell, WV, is one of the most noteworthy small towns worth visiting for a taste of modern Appalachian culture. Once a coal mining hotspot, the town is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is home to 400 residents.
Traditional Appalachian folk music, craft beer, and breathtaking scenery of the nearby Pinnacle Rock State Forest make Bramwell one of the most enticing spots for visitors who want to immerse themselves in modern-day Appalachian culture.
In geographical terms, the Ozarks are defined by the region bordered by the Missouri, Arkansas, and Mississippi rivers. However, the midwestern hillbilly culture associated with this area shifts as much as the banks of the surrounding rivers.
It was not until the war of 1812 when the Ozarks began seeing significant settlement. This was more than a hundred years before electricity and roads became common. Foot horse and wagons was the mode of transportation at the time. Settlers maintained close relationships with on another while tending to their farms and trapping for fur.
The Ozarks became home to the Mid-west’s largest settling of "country hillbillies" outside of Appalachia. Unfortunately, much of the gentle culture has faded over time since the construction of the Bagnell Dam in 1931. The dam created the largest man-made lake in the United States and with it, one of the most popular summer tourist destinations for those looking to escape the nearby cities of Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago.
Many states make up the southern part of America, and most of these states lay at the end of the Hillbilly Highway. Appalachian mountaineers settled in Alabama, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, North and South Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia, and Georgia. After they moved to urban areas, they began to branch out further and establish their own neighborhoods from the 1940s through the 70s.
Now, the South is devised of multiple states with residents who are famous for their heritage pride and unique way of life. Many people who reside in the southern states today bear qualities that are reminiscent of the early hillbillies like a strong work ethic, love of the outdoors, and a preference for the simple pleasures in life as opposed to grand expeditions and materialism.
Colorado is still one of the most rugged regions in the United States. Approximately 800 miles of the Appalachian’s Continental Divide Trail passes through the state, but today, there are still many people who live tucked away in some of the most remote areas of the state.
The Rocky Mountains, often referred to as just the Rockies, is one of the most historical mountain ranges in the United States and features breathtaking national parts, indigenous communities, and a rich history with the Old West. Many of the towns have roots in mining, but today, they are popular spots for nature lovers and sports enthusiasts.
People in the Rockies enjoy a simpler way of life with fresh air and sweeping landscapes. Although the original hillbillies of the Appalachian trail no longer migrate the way they once did, it is possible to glimpse the world through their eyes. From the rolling plains of the South to endless forests and steep mountain peaks, American hillbilly geography is as varied as its people.
As a sub-culture within a sub-culture, "Mexican hillbillies" often live in ethnic communities located on the outskirts of large, southern cities. Understandably, most often Mexican hillbillies are found in states with the highest Mexican populations with Texas leading the way.
Combining elements of their own south of the border and Spanish culture with classic American hillbilly characteristics, Mexican hillbillies personify the traditional hillbilly culture with western flair. Mexican hillbillies are proud of their heritage, and rightfully so. They enjoy showing off their unique culture by donning traditional pointed boots, playing regional music, and displaying both the Mexican and American flags outside of their homes and places of business.
Many Mexican hillbillies are bilingual. Among their friends and family, Spanish is often their primary choice of language. This does not mean they avoid speaking English. Nor is it any indication of any lack of education. In fact, contrary to what many mistakenly believe, Mexican hillbillies are often third- and fourth-generation Mexicans who consider America home just as much as Mexico; often even more so. They grew up in America, loving their communities just as much as their Mexican background and traditions.
In addition to their own cultural practices, many Mexican hillbillies also reflect some of the more quintessential American hillbilly personifications such as driving a pick-up truck, enjoy spending time outdoors, and drinking regional beers like Dixie, Busch, and Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR). More importantly, they share the same love for the lifestyle as their Appalachian (and global) brethren.
Hillbillies Across the Globe
Hillbillies can be found in many different regions of the planet. Although they may not formally identify with the specific term, their rural mountain lifestyle, strong connection to nature, and uniquely regional cultures certainly fall within the broader meaning of word "hillbilly".
Sherpas – High above in the most mountainous regions of Nepal are nearly half a million Sherpas. Known for their mountaineering skills, they have assisted hundreds of explorers traverse the Himalayan mountains and Mt. Everest.
Miao – There are over 50 specific, minor ethnic groups living in the southern Chinese mountains. Although they all may not share the same language, their rural lifestyle and close communities resemble those of American hillbillies.
Kurds – A Kurdish state existed for only three short years after World War I. Since then, this native western Asia mountain group finds themselves living among the mountains and hills of various countries whose boundaries continue to change even today.
Amharas – In the highlands of Ethiopia, a significant portion of the country’s population (nearly 26%) continues to practice their agricultural way of life producing regional grains such as Teff and Nug.
The Hillbilly Highway
Hillbilly history runs deep throughout American culture. Unfortunately, it is often rarely taught or discussed. The Hillbilly Highway is one of the most significant examples of culture formation in the United States. The Hillbilly Highway describes the immigration routes of Appalachian Mountain residents after World War I. In a literal sense, the term can refer to long stretches of some of the nation's most long-standing roadways including Route 23 and US 41.
Why the Name Hillbilly Highway?
In the past, the name "hillbilly" was considered a derogatory term stereotyping people who lived in the rural Appalachians. Appalachia itself is a large territory covering all of West Virginia, part of Virginia state and spans through Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
Appalachian migrants began leaving their rural communities to find work in industrial cities. People wandered far from home and often wound up in states that were north/northeastern or south/southeastern to their homeland. The most popular cities that people from the Hillbilly Highway settled in include Cincinnati and Dayton, OH, Detroit and Chicago. Many went on to settle as far west as California and far east as Baltimore.
There were many paths taken to reach their destinations, and "Hillbilly Highway" is really a metaphorical term describing the process of migration rather than a specific geographic location.
Coal Mining and the Appalachians
After the first world war, coal mining became even more popular. Because there was so much more opportunity for steady work in the coal mining industry, people began to leave the communities they had spent their entire lives in search of something greater and stable.
The Appalachians were hard-working and committed to providing better lives for themselves and their families. They had no trouble finding work in the rapidly expanding industry, but locals began to dislike the influx of new residents who seemed vastly different and uncultured compared to the other people around them.
From the time they began to settle in new areas, the Appalachians were dubbed "hill-billy" and looked down upon for a variety of reasons. People most frequently mocked their accents and clothing and considered them low-class and uncultured.
The Hillbilly Highway Continues
Like most groups of people who emigrate to a new area, the Appalachians formed small communities. This was not perceived well by other residents as it only created a greater social and cultural barrier between the supposed hillbillies and the rest of the population.
Despite the judgement and criticisms, they faced, the Appalachian hillbillies were proud of their home. During the holidays, thousands of people would travel by car back to Appalachia to visit their loved ones. "The Great Appalachian Migration" and "Hillbilly Highway" stand as a monumental part of Appalachian history, many still prize as part of their unique cultural identity today.
Country music as we know it today is rooted in the songs sung by the likes of Bob Wills and the performances of bands such as The Skillet Lickers. Culminating in an explosion of popularity in the early 20th century, hillbilly music was born from decades of regional musicians, each inscribing their own cultural influences into every note and tune. Hillbilly music, as it was described until the 1950s, would become the foundational inspiration of country-western, blues, gospel, and bluegrass music.
A carry over from the old world, the fiddle was often the only instrument played in British, Scottish, and Irish settlements. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were fond of the fiddle and the tunes of their time. The fiddle was the easiest instrument for early settlers to carry across the rough trails and into the remote settlements. Often the fiddle was the only instrument on hand to lead the dance as families or communities gathered making the Appalachian fiddlers often some of the most popular in their communities. The music sounds of the fiddle became the foundation for traditional hillbilly music as the center of the string band sound.
It wasn’t until the 1800’s when a significant event occurred that would define what we today consider hillbilly music. Thought to have its origins in Africa, the banjo became an integral part of Appalachian culture. Thomas Jefferson opined in books, Notes on the State of Virginia, "The instrument propoer (sic) to them is the banjar which they brought hither from Africa" when speaking about the black residents of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The predecessor to the banjo was the banjar, or "talking drum." A banjar was a simple instrument consisting of an animal skin stretched over half a gourd with waxed horsehair strings attached to a pole neck. The banjar was brought to North America on slave ships arriving from West Africa in the mid-17th century. Over time the instrument evolved to include tuning pegs and a fret board, eventually becoming the modern-day banjo.
From the earliest days of Appalachian settlements, the traditional pitchmen would load his wagon and travel from fort to fort, town to town to sell his wares. Among those wares were cures for whatever ailed you. To gather the crowds in the center of the village or to a crossroads near area farms, the "Doc" would set up and with his troupe present an entertainment program which could include music, comedy, readings, scenes from plays followed by his pitch to sell his herbal remedies, alcohol laden concoctions to cure your diseases.
Many early hillbilly stars began their careers on Medicine Shows that entertained America’s hillbillies across the country. Second only to Barnum and Bailey’s Ringling Brothers Circus in America in length of run, "Doc" Tommy Scott’s Last Real Old Time Medicine Show, as recognized by the Smithsonian, brought its 123-year-run traveling from the Appalachians across the U.S. and Canada to a close in 2013 after the passing of Ramblin’ "Doc" Tommy Scott of Toccoa, Georgia as his family housed the show its final time ending the Medicine Show era.
Phonographs were becoming ever more popular during the early 1900’s and more rural Americans were purchasing them for use in their own homes. With a recording industry on the verge of bringing music of all kinds to the masses, a talent scout name Ralph Peer saw an opportunity. He traveled to Atlanta, Georgia to record the first country-hillbilly record on June 19, 1923 featuring Fiddlin’ John Carson for Okeh Records. Working for Victor Talking Machine Company in 1927, Ralph set up a portable recording studio in Bristol, Tennessee. After a little convincing, Ralph recorded two songs of an individual who many consider the father of hillbilly music – Jimmie Rodgers. Ralph Peer went on to discover and record many of the most influential hillbilly, bluegrass, and early country singers of his time.
As country music’s first superstar, Jimmie Rodgers’ first recording of his "blue yodel" sold over 1 million copies. Rodgers range of music allowed the unique country style to attract a wide range of listeners. Tracks ranged from mild and religious to risqué and fiery. Jimmie Rodgers’ held a close place in his heart for the American west, leading him to record "The Yodeling Ranger," a song many historians believed created the connection between "country" and "western" music.
Impressions of "the King" are rarely associated with hillbillies. However, Elvis’ musical childhood is deeply rooted in hillbilly music as he routinely was seen playing the unique style of song during his middle school lunch breaks. Growing up in a primarily black neighborhood, his style blended both rhythm and blues with country. The result became known as "rockabilly," granting him such early titles of "The Hillbilly Cat" and "The Memphis Flash" long before simply becoming "The King."
Debate surrounds who recorded hillbilly music first. Together with his friend Henry Gilliland, Eck recorded several duets at RCA Victor in New Jersey in 1922. Eck then recorded a couple of solo tracks for Victor afterward. One such track, "Sallie Gooden," has stood the test of time as one of country music’s first and most pristine representations of all that is country music. RCA Victors mishandling of the release of the song, however, allowed Jimmie Rodgers popularity to explode even though his recordings occurred years later.
Nearly a year after Eck Robertson, Henry Whitter traveled the northeast to record songs with the General Phonograph Corporation. Henry was not necessarily great at any one instrument or musical skill. However, he is credited with introducing the harmonica to country music as well as recording more than half a dozen songs which would become American country music standards.
Upbeat with a touch of flair, Bob Wills and his band the Light Crust Doughboys were commissioned to record music for radio advertisements for Light Crust Flour. After his band’s breakup and the assembly of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, a library of nearly 3,600 songs was created. Bob’s ensembles would sometimes grow to over more than 20 pieces, including horns and large drums. But it was he and his band’s toe-tapping tunes that would bring western swing music into dance halls across the south and west.
No discussion about the roots of hillbilly music would be complete without mention of Fiddlin’ John Carson. In the fall of 1922, the 500-watt radio station WSB in Atlanta debuted John Carson as part of a novelty program. Carson had already been known as a successful musician. Carson had already been known as a successful musician from winning Fiddle Conventions and traveling with his band with his daughter Rosa Lee, who became country music’s first female recording star as Moonshine Kate. However, the radio station’s reach introduced John, his fiddle, and hillbilly music to a vast audience. The phone lines lit up after his performance, forever changing the impact mountain music would have on country-western music.
The Skillet Lickers
Gid Tanner and his band The Skillet Lickers began their rise to popularity just a year after John Carson and Henry Whitter recorded their earliest songs in the early 1920’s. The band’s success lasted for nearly a decade until waning in the late 1930’s. The three artists who made up The Skillet Lickers, Gid Tanner, Riley Puckett, Clayton McMichen, Fate Norris, Lowe Stokes, Bert Layne, Hoke Rice, Arthur Tanner, Gordon Tanner and Hoyt "Slim" Bryant, who all hailed from northern Georgia. However, their musical background was carved from all the various styles and influences throughout Appalachia. The group recorded 88 sides and served as the foundation for the dozens of hillbilly bands to come.
The boogie-woogie remains today as one of the most recognizable piano styles. Yet, its history harkens back beyond the days of Elvis who gave the boogie global notoriety. Arthur Smith, of the Arthur Smith Hot Quartet, had some time on his hands between recordings in mid-1940’s. Performing "Guitar Boogie," Arthur inadvertently created a smash-hit. The hillbilly boogie trend was short lived, however, reaching its peak with Ernie Ford’s "Shot Gun Boogie" in 1950.
If there is one thing people notice about hillbillies, it is their unique way of speaking. Beyond their accents, hillbillies are known for their wide range of colorful sayings. Their use of analogies can sometimes leave you scratching your head, but many of them are so relatable you are likely to find yourself nodding in agreement.
Such colorful phrases are known as colloquial Hillbillyisms. Generally speaking, a hillbillyism is a manner of speaking or writing that is characteristic of familiar conversation, of common parlance, and informal. Hillbillyisms share many colloquial expressions with other cultural groups globally, including Southern folks, ranchers, farmers, hunters, nature enthusiasts, environmentalists, hermits, naturally eccentric, and tribal in nature types.
Read on to learn more about some of the popular Southern sayings. You may just find yourself implementing some of them into your own vocabulary.
"Nervous as a cat in a room full of rockin’ chairs." - Cats are known for being skittish, and in a room full of chairs that could hurt its tail, any cat would be on edge. Likewise, this saying refers to someone who is feeling particularly cautious or worried about something.
"Butter my butt and call me a biscuit." - There are many phrases people in the South use to express surprise. This colloquial saying has several variations, some more crass than others. It is used as an exclamation when something happens that takes the listener by surprise or is truly unbelievable.
"Bless your heart!" - This phrase is one of the most common Southern sayings and can be used as a compliment or as an insult. In its most common use, it is an affectionate way to express sympathy toward someone, e.g. "She stayed up all night knitting that sweater for you. Bless her heart."
When used as a pejorative, it is used to imply disapproval when the speaker does not want to outright express their real feelings. For example, someone might say, "Well, bless his heart," when someone does something they find particularly stupid or ill-mannered.
"He's getting a bit too big for his britches." - Britches are a Southern slang word for pants. Literally, it refers to a specific type of pants that are tight-fitting and falls just below the knee. In this saying, it implies someone has become arrogant and thinks more highly of themselves than they should.
"I'm gonna fetch me a _____." - This is a common phrase that means you are going to do something. For example, "I'm gonna fetch me a drink from the fridge. You want one?".
In hillbilly linguistics, it is common for speakers to use "me" in place of "I" or "myself." This causes the phrase to be grammatically incorrect in general American English, but it is not uncommon in parts of Britain to use "me" instead of "my."
"That don't make a lick of sense." - In the South, a lick of something means a little bit. When something does not make a lick of sense, it means that the listener doesn't know what you're talking about.
"Looks like they've been rode hard and put away wet." - This saying derives from horseback riding. In the past, horses were seen more as tools than companions. As a result, they were often worked tirelessly and poorly treated. Today, this saying means someone looks ragged, mistreated, or not well cared for/groomed.
"Grinnin' like a possum eatin' a sweet potato." - For a possum who is used to eating trash and scavenging for food, a sweet potato is a delicacy. Someone grinnin' like a possum appears ecstatic, usually because of something good happening to them.
"Like a cat on a hot, tin roof." - A hot tin roof would scorch any cat's paws, so someone acting like one is extremely jumpy or nervous.
"Fixin' to." - Similar to "fetch me", this is a common phrase that describes an action or intention. Someone who's fixin' to do something may be about to do it now, or they could be planning on taking their time and getting to it later.
"It's over yonder." - Over yonder is a distant direction that can be translated to "over there."
"Don't let the door hit ya where the good Lord split ya." - This is a way of telling someone to get lost fast. "Where the good Lord split ya" refers to someone's rear end, and it's one of many Southernisms that reference Christianity.
"Till' the cows come home." - Cows are not the most expedient creatures in the world. They take their time going where they want. If someone wants to imply they won't ever care about something, they might say you can "cry till' the cows come home."
"I reckon." - The word "reckon" is still popular throughout the UK and Australia, but in the U.S., you are only likely to hear it spoken in a southern state. It can be used to replace common sayings that reference someone's thoughts such as "I think", "I guess", and "I suppose".
"I'm full as a tick." - When a tick bug has filled up enough, it looks like it is about to pop. The comparison is akin to how people feel after eating a big meal.
"Hush your mouth." - A popular, more polite way to tell someone to shut up. It may also be used to correct someone who has cursed or said something rude, taboo, or insensitive.
"Madder than a wet hen." - When hens would not let anyone collect their eggs, farmers would dunk them in cold water. Unsurprisingly, this did not go over well. Now, this saying refers to someone extremely angry.
"They could eat corn through a picket fence." - This Old West saying refers to someone with extremely crooked or buck teeth.
"Look as happy as a dead pig in sunshine." - Pigs do not have sweat glands, which is why they roll around in the mud to keep cool. When a pig dies outside, the sun dries their skin and makes them appear to be smiling. Someone with this look appears ignorant of reality.
"It's all catawampus." - No one is sure where the word came from, but "catawampus" is likely a derivative of "cater-corner" that has been impacted by hillbilly accents over the decades. When something looks catawampus, it means it appears askew. It may also be pronounced as catty-wonkus or cattywompus.
Hillbillies in Hollywood
Hollywood has always loved glamorizing different lifestyles, and hillbilly culture is no exception. Once an exaggerated caricature for comic relief, the hillbillies evolved into a protagonist that charmed millions. Unfortunately, the hillbilly stereotype in pop culture does not accurately reflect the genuine qualities of the people it emerged from the Appalachians and continue the traditions to this day.
As with any cultural group, it is impossible to reduce every individual into a set of singular traits and behaviors. Although there may still be some negative representations of hillbillies in the media, there are notable television shows that are beloved classics that portray hillbillies in a better light by promoting some of their strongest qualities including self-sufficiency, authenticity, and a fun-loving nature.
The most iconic depiction of hillbillies in Hollywood is the "Beverly Hillbillies," which aired between 1962 and 1971 on CBS. Throughout eight of the show's nine seasons, it was one of the top 20 most-watched shows in the nation, garnering seven Emmy nominations. The show kicks off with Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen), a widowed mountaineer, who sells his oil-rich property and relocates with his family - Granny, Elly Mae and Jethro (Irene Ryan, Donna Douglas, and Max Baer) to the heart of Beverly Hills.
While the Clampett's anti-hillbilly neighbors' attempts to drive them out of the neighborhood are comical, they reflect a harsh reality many Appalachians and other migrants faced when they relocated from their rural homes into metropolitan areas.
The Andy Griffith Show
Another CBS classic is "The Andy Griffith Show," which TV Guide rates as one of the best television series of all time. From 1960 to 1968, viewers watched 249 episodes of Andy Griffith playing the role of Andy Taylor, the single father sheriff raising his son in Mayberry, North Carolina. Throughout its nine seasons, Sheriff Taylor's quiet life is explored with no shortage of antics, romances, and heart-warming moments.
While the stories centered on the townsfolk of Mayberry, it was not unusual to see visiting characters from the nearby mountains descend on the town creating a bit of mountain-themed hillbilly music and mayhem usually driven by The Darling clan led by Briscoe Darling (Denver Pyle) and his music pickin’ boys (The Dillards).
The Dukes of Hazzard
Between 1979 to 1985, the "Duke boys" of the fictitious Hazzard county, Georgia, entertained viewers with their adventures. Bo and Luke Duke are on five years' probation for illegally transporting moonshine, which results in them being unable to carry guns or leave Hazzard County. Much of the show's plots and escapades are formulated by the boys' crooked probation officer, Boss Hogg, who frequently hires out-of-towners to do his dirty work and ropes the boys into one of his get-rich-quick schemes.
More stereotypical in nature, "Hee-Haw" was a CBS series that ran from 1969 to 1971. Country music and skits were performed in front of a fictional rural town called Kornfield Kounty, a deliberate misspelling that echoed the belief hillbillies are poorly educated and illiterate.
Several sketches were hosted by country stars Buck Owens and Roy Clark while others featured series regulars, who were stars such as Archie Campbell, Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones and others. Although it may seem outdated by some, "Hee-Haw" was a well-intentioned series filmed in Nashville that sought to depict many of the common experiences of people who grew up in rural areas through comedy, like the overprotective father meddling in his daughter's dating life and a grandfather who gets lost telling increasingly strange wartime stories. Though cancelled by CBS, the series producers took it into first-run syndication and the show became the most popular show of its kind running for a quarter century.
The Real McCoys
The six seasons of "The Real McCoys" that aired between 1957 and 1962 depict one of the only representations of West Virginia Appalachians on television. The McCoy family, originally from the fictional town of Smokey Corners, moves to San Fernando Valley, CA, after they inherit a farm from a distant relative. Over the course of 224 black-and-white episodes, viewers watch the family, led by patriarch Grandpa Amos (Walter Brennan), encounter struggles as they attempt to adapt to their new state and lifestyle.
True Appalachians rarely see television time, and while most depictions found humor in their struggles to acclimate after migrating during the Hillbilly Highway, "The Waltons" was a heart-warming show about how peaceful life was in the heart of Virginia's mountains.
Nine seasons aired from 1972 and 1981. The series follows the lives of the Waltons as their children grow up. One of the most central figures is the eldest, John-boy (Richard Thomas), who longs to become a writer. The much-loved series yielded several reunion films and to this day cultivates tourism to the Virginia home of its creator Earl Hamner, whose characters reflect his own family.
While television has tended to embrace hillbillies more openly, there are also feature-length films that explored the rural lifestyle. The exact nature of the hillbilly culture a movie focuses on varies; some emphasize the rugged, survivalist nature of mountaineers while others are more rooted in the contemporary image of hillbillies settling into more centralized communities.
These films are some of the most note-worthy, not only for their hillbilly historical representation but compelling storylines.
This 1972 American thriller stars some of the most acclaimed actors of their time such as Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox. The screenplay is based on a 1970 novel by James Dickey that bears the same title. The United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation.
The film focuses on four friends in the Georgian wilderness and their harrowing experience after the group is confronted by a harsh mountain and one of them is sexually assaulted.
Harlan County U.S.A.
In June 1973, coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky went on strike against the Brookside Mine of the Eastover Mining Company. For more than a year, the members of the strike suffer violence and pain as they fight for safety and fair compensation in the workplace. The footage captures miners being shot at during protests and interviews real people affected by the harsh working conditions of the mines, including some who were diagnosed with black lung disease.
The documentary, directed and produced by Barbara Kopple, won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1977.
Coal Miner's Daughter
Sissy Spacek took home the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her depiction of Loretta Lynn in this 1980 biographical musical. The movie covers the life of the star from her humble origins in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, to her rise to fame as one of the most iconic female country musicians.
The film has won multiple awards, including several Oscars, and in 2012, it was adapted to a Broadway play where Loretta Lynn was played by actress Zoey Deschanel.
O Brother Where Art Thou
This 2000 crime-drama centers around the life of a Depression-era man named Ulysses Everett McGil (George Clooney) after he is sentenced to hard labor in Mississippi. After he escapes with two other men in a chain gang, they embark on a journey to freedom still in shackles.
Despite its somber storyline, the film is filled with plenty of humor. Also noteworthy is the film's unique soundtrack. Filled with period-era folk music, it won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2002.
The Future of Hillbillies in Hollywood
The era of the hillbilly has fallen out of style in recent years as the media focuses on more pressing social issues and cultural phenomena. While it's unlikely we'll see another show like the "Beverly Hillbillies" again, these period pieces are time capsules that we can reflect on as we fondly remember the struggles of the Appalachian migrants who carved their own piece of American history.
For outsiders, the term hillbilly still conjures up images of a person who might be lesser than themselves, even though this could not be further from the truth. But of course, hillbillies already know this and look to celebrate their culture and heritage as often as they can. Fortunately, anyone can participate in one of the many events dedicated to the hillbilly lifestyle.
Hillbilly Days (Pikeville, Kentucky) – Every year, more than 100,000 descend on the southeastern town of Pikeville for Hillbilly Days. Founded in 1977 by the Shriners, the festival’s goal is to raise money for the local children’s hospital while giving visitors an opportunity to have a little fun and embrace the hillbilly lifestyle.
Hillbilly Jam (Maggie Valley, North Carolina) – Held in the fall, the annual Hillbilly Jam is a festival for all ages. Food, music, car shows, crafts, and even moonshine make this festival one of the South’s most extravagant festivals.
Okeechobee MudFest (Okeechobee, Florida) – A few hours south of the Mouse near Lake Okeechobee is the annual MudFest. The Okeechobee festival is a celebration of all things motorized by hillbillies including swamp buggies, airboats, and lifted pickup trucks.
Hillbilly Huckfest (Votndalen, Norway) – Hillbillies have gone global. Although the Norwegians haven’t quite grasped the hillbilly way, they do hold an all-terrain cycling event in beautiful eastern Norway.
Mullet Toss (Perdido Key, Florida / Orange Beach, Alabama) – When not debating the term cracker of who makes the best swamp cabbage, scores are being settled through an annual fish (mullet to be exact) toss.
Hodag Country Music Festival (Rhinelander, Wisconsin) – Coined "A slice of Dixie in Dairyland," the Hodag Country Music Festival attracts some of the biggest Southern country music stars.
Party Cove (Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri) – While not dubbed an official hillbilly event, any weekend when the weather is warm and the skies are clear, thousands of boaters gather for perhaps the country’s largest floating hillbilly party.
Laurie Hillbilly Fair (Laurie, Missouri) – After the tourists from further north have returned to their city lives, locals embrace their hillbilly heritage at the Laurie Hillbilly Fair. A tradition more than 50 years in the making.
Mayberry Days (Mount Airy, North Carolina) – Fans who long for a simpler time of enjoying a bottle pop while playing checkers flock to Mt. Airy each year for a celebration of the beloved Andy Griffith Show.
Hillbillies are closely intertwined with everyday products, both regionally and across the country. The history of certain products is a rich as the individuals who first brought them to market.
One of the most popular, and interesting "hillbilly" products known today is bourbon, the classic American whiskey made from fresh grains, primarily corn. Hillbillies are well-known already for making their own alcohol, known simply as moonshine, as it remains one of the most historical drinks in the country's history. With origins dating back to the 13 original colonies, fermenting and distilling alcohol can be said to have its roots in hillbilly innovation.
But not all hillbilly beverages are for those who are of age.
You may be wondering what soda (or pop) could possibly have to do with bourbon, but you would be surprised. Two Knoxville brothers, Barney and Ally Hartman, created the original Mountain Dew in 1922 as a mixer for their bourbon. They previously favored a drink called Natural Setup that was discontinued after the manufacturer went bankrupt.
Determined to find their own solution, the brothers asked William Henry "Billy" Jones of the Tip Corporation to mix a drink like their beloved Natural Setup. Advertised as "pure orange juice" and "Smokey Mountain honey," the drink was nothing like the sugary citrus soda it is today. It was a clear, sparkling white meant to reflect the morning crisp dew rather than the vibrant, energizing green of the modern recipe.
Mountain Dew was first presented to the public at the 1946 Gatlinburg bottling convention. A caricature of an Appalachian hillbilly was widely used in marketing campaigns to promote the product. Slogans like "Yahoo!" and "It’ll tickle your innards" came from the those who had migrated through the Hillbilly Highway decades earlier.
The original marketing never saw much success, but the hillbilly imagery was retained when Tri-City Beverage revamped it to the drink that is America's third favorite soft drink after Coca Cola and Pepsi.
Hillbilly culture plays such a significant role in this liquor that there is even one named after it - HillBilly Bourbon. Standing as a dedication to American heritage and honoring the 18th-century concoction that rose to fame in the South, Hillbilly Bourbon is a tribute to the spirit’s roots.
Scot-Irish immigrants are likely responsible for introducing the process of distilling whiskey from grains to America. Many sources cite a Baptist minister named Elijah Craig as the first man to make the drink with charred oak casks. Craig is also rumored to have introduced Kentucky to the paper mill and ropewalk, among other things.
The name "Bourbon" is based on the French royal family and became the name of a county established by American pioneers in 1785. A portion of the region called Old Bourbon was on the shipping port of Maysville, Kentucky, where barrels of the alcohol were labeled with their location of origin. The name caught on and today, corn-based whiskey is still known by the name.
These two drinks are just two examples of products that have their roots in hillbilly culture. The good-natured personality of the hillbilly that was originally used to market Mountain Dew influenced the way America presented and promoted its drinks to the public. Although the face and images have changed, people still love relaxing and savoring some of the old-fashioned drinks their ancestors popularized.
It does not matter if you call it ‘white lightning’ or ‘mash liquor,’ moonshine is illegal throughout the United States and in most other countries. Moonshine rose in popularity during the prohibition era when alcohol became illegal between 1920 and 1933.
Then, as done now, moonshine is distilled in secret to avoid detection. In the hills of Appalachia, distillery equipment, including the stills used to separate ethanol and water, are construed outside under the cover of foliage. The actual process of distilling the high-proof alcohol is done under the cover of darkness with only the moon’s "shine" providing any light.
The phrase "hillbilly armor" may conjure up images of lifted pickup-trucks with brush guards and gunracks, but the real meaning of the phrase is much more interesting.
The phrase describes a practice of improvised vehicle protection dating back to World War I. Although the specific words "hillbilly armor" was not used back in 1914, it would have certainly applied. This is when the British Royal Naval Air Service first mounted machine guns and applied steel plating to a field vehicle. It was an improvised approach to the very real problem of inadequate protection of government issued equipment.
Decades later, the same ingenuity was deployed. But this time the soldiers had a name for it. The phrase "hillbilly armor" because the unofficial description of the practice for U.S. soldiers salvaging scrap metal in Iraq and Iran to protect their trucks from enemy fire and explosive attacks. In 2004, Col. John Zimmerman of the Tennessee National guard said the military had more than 300 trucks without adequate protection. He stated soldiers needed to rely on metal from landfills to shield their vehicles.
During a visit from former U.S. Congressman and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Col. Zimmerman was quoted saying, "What we basically have is what we call hillbilly steel, hillbilly armor. It's real frustrating for our soldiers."
From that moment, the phrase stuck. The hillbilly armor American military personnel rely on today helps protect them against enemy attacks in the most vulnerable places. From their exposed windows to thin, metal protection, the hillbilly armor, or "hillbilly steel", keeps them safe from explosives and enemy fire while out in the field.
There is a strong and on-going global awareness, interest, and appreciation for the southern way of life, arts, and history. This cultural evolution is driving a new generational awareness of and demand for freshly inspired forms of fashion, art and entertainment that are influenced in some way by Hill-Folk and Mountain People from around the world.
The goal of Hillbilly Love is to share the message of the hillbilly culture, while creating positive opportunities to serve our communities, and to support our children's future. What is important to the Hillbilly Love lifestyle…
- Having a good time with family & friends.
- Enjoying the finer things in life that money can't buy.
- Great music, culture and values that tell the true stories of life.
- Spending time in the outdoors; either on the water, in the woods or on the playing field.
Hillbilly Love challenges all of us to look for the very best in each other. Hillbilly Love's positive, real-world message of family, community and faith touches and elevates all who share in it.
- Jefferson, Thomas. "Notes on the State of Virginia." London: John Stockdale. Retrieved 15 April 2016 – via Google Books.