The Truth Behind Hillbilly History

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History

Aimee Heidelberg - June 5, 2023

“Let me tell you a little story about a man named Jed. A poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed…” The bouncy, banjo-heavy tune brought Jed Clampett and his family of upwardly mobile hillbillies into American living rooms in the 1960s. The show was a classic comedy about backwoods, simple hillbillies trying to navigate high-culture urban life. Thanks to these popular culture tropes, ‘Hillbilly’ is an offensive slang term for people of the rural Appalachian regions. It is full of colorful characters, great food, progressive union movements, and unique popular culture (for better or worse). “Hillbillies” themselves are diverse in their political, religious, and social beliefs. While the modern “hillbilly” label has taken on political undertones and identity, it hasn’t always been that way. Delve into the background of hillbilly culture, including the roots of its stereotype, some of its famous moments and people, and cultural contributions.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
A stereotypical Ozark hillbilly mascot (1979). John Margolies, Library of Congress.

The Stereotype

The hillbilly stereotype is a caricature of a Caucasian impoverished underclass in the rural mountain and hill areas of the southeastern United States. Stereotypical hillbillies have little interest in modern technology. They are happily, even willfully, undereducated. Due to a lack of education, they are simple-minded, with a slow drawl that sounds like a separate language. They are poor and uninterested in changing that situation. They are often drunk, unkempt; their clothes old and tattered. Hillbillies run around barefoot, except on special occasions. Their hair is untidy, dirty, and often lice-infested. Inbreeding is rampant, with large families of cousin-siblings who might be their own grandfather (which contributes to the simple-mindedness). The stereotypical hillbilly is the antithesis of the modern, tech-savvy urbanite, with their well-groomed hair and clothes, elevated level of education, and money to burn. But as with most stereotypes, reality doesn’t match the caricature.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Southern Appalachian and White Mountain region. U.S. Department of Agriculture (1908).

Hillbilly Country

The hillbilly image, mainly perpetuated by movies and television, is most closely associated with the Appalachian mountains, reaching portions of Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia and the Ozarks, including parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Kansas. There are some references to “Hill-Billies” in other parts of the United States south, including Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi. The hillbilly stereotype runs so broad, it could include almost any rural area of the upper southern region of the United States. Or, as Harkins says, “anywhere on the rough edges of the landscape and economy.” (p. 5). Since the ‘hillbilly’ term has come to mean anyone in rural areas experiencing extreme poverty and disregard for more urbanized social norms, it is impossible to pinpoint the hillbilly to one region, although the Appalachian region tends to be the epicenter of “Hillbilly.”

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
The Irish and Scottish Highland potato famine in the 1840s compelled immigration to the United States. Public domain.

Nobody Knows Where the Name “Hillbilly” Came From

The term “Hillbilly” has its roots in the early 1800s, as Scots-Irish settlement expanded in the mountainous areas around the Appalachian and Ozark regions. While the “hill” part of the label is obviously the connection to the Appalachian Mountains or rolling Ozark highlands, scholars debate where the “billy” part comes from. It may be a derivative of “billy boy,” after supporters of King William III of Scotland. Other linguists believe it came from a blend of other Scottish terms, “hill-folk” and “billie,” which is an informal way to say man, similar to saying “dude” or “guy.” The term “hillbilly” is often used interchangeably with other derogatory terms like redneck, hick, white trash, cracker, and bumpkin. Each one is a slur indicating a backwards, backwoods way of life different in every way from civilized city life.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History

Hillbilly Culture Was First Identified in the 1800s

The idea of a backwoods, rustic culture traces back to authors in the 1800s, with “local color” writers giving readers a peek into the people living in rural areas. Stories like “The Yares of Black Mountain,” an 1875 tale by Rebecca Harding Davis a view of how different rural people were from the modern city dwellers. Lippencott’s Magazine published Davis’s story in 1875. Hers was a gentle view of the people of these regions. But this was a rarity. Writers outdid each other to pen the most dramatic, exaggerated conditions of rural characters. In 1900, the New York Journal wrote, “In short, a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires of his revolver as the fancy takes him.”

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Hatfield and McCoy dinner show. Billy Hathorn (2012, CC 3.0)

The Hatfields and McCoys: The Feud That Made Hillbillies Famous

The Hatfield and McCoy feud is one of the most famous incidents in popular culture, and brought hillbilly culture to mainstream attention. It moved beyond an inter-family dispute to popular culture phenomenon. It has been retold, often to comic effect, in movies and television, music, and even features in a dinner show in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. But the reality of the Hatfield and McCoy conflict was much more bleak. The families lived in the poverty-stricken Tug Valley region. The river served as border between West Virginia and Kentucky. The Hatfields, headed by William “Devil Anse” Hatfield lived on the West Virginia side of the river. The McCoys, under patriarch Randolph “Ol’ Ran’l” McCoy, lived on the Kentucky side. While tensions between the families had been brewing for a while, it blew up in the 1860s.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
The Hatfield clan, 1897. Public domain.

A pre-feud murder

The first known conflict between the families started in the aftermath of the Civil War. Members of the Logan Wildcats, a group of Confederate soldiers in West Virginia led by Devil Anse, murdered Ole Ran’l McCoy’s brother Asa Harmon. During the Civil War, Harmon had served in the Union Army, with the Kentucky home guard. The Home Guard were suspected of spying and stealing horses that belonged to the Logan Wildcats. Harmon mustered out of the army in December 1864. The Wilcats quickly targeted Harmon for his Union sympathies, tracked him, and shot him in January of 1865. This type of murder, “bushwhacking,” wasn’t uncommon, with Confederate sympathizers harassing, stealing from, or injuring their Union-leaning neighbors. Nobody was prosecuted for the murder. Harmon’s murder was more related to his Union sympathies than his McCoy connections, and many historians consider the incident unrelated to the feud.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Pigs graze while people feud. Pearson Scott Foresman, public domain (2020).

A Pig Sparked the Hatfield and McCoy Feud

Tensions came to a head thirteen years later when patriarch Ole Ran’l McCoy accused Devil Anse’s cousin Floyd of stealing a pig after claiming to see one with his mark near the Hatfield’s pig pen. Pigs back in the 1870s were expensive and an important source of sustenance, so farmers marked them to ensure their inventory was secure. The case went to court. Six Hatfields and six McCoys sat on the jury, and the Justice of the Peace was a Hatfield. The key testimony was given by Bill Stanton, who was related to the McCoys but had two Hatfield brother-in laws. He claimed that the mark on the pig was Hatfields. The Justice decided for the Hatfields. Shortly after the trial, Sam and Paris McCoy murdered Bill Stanton during a hunting trip. Sam was put on trial for the murder, but aquitted, finding that Sam acted in self defense.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
A memorial to the Hatfield and McCoy feud along the Tug Fork river. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, public domain.

The Covert Hillbilly Romance

As tensions exploded between the families, Roseanna McCoy and Devil Anse’s son Johnse Hatfield struck up a romance. Roseanna left her McCoy family home to live with the Hatfields. But the whirlwind romance didn’t have a happy ending. When Roseanna became pregnant, Johnse would not marry her, even after being kidnapped and held by the McCoys. The McCoys wouldn’t take her back because not only did she have a baby out of wedlock, but the baby was also a Hatfield, so Roseanna lived with a sympathetic aunt. The baby died of the measles. As if that weren’t enough of a blow, Johnse married Roseanna’s cousin Nancy McCoy in 1881. An inter-family romance wasn’t unusual; Hatfields and McCoys intermarried each other with regularity. But Roseanna leaving her family to take up with the Hatfields without being married was a step too far for the McCoys.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Devil Anse Hatfield (1915). Library of Congress, public domain.

Hillbilly Hell: The Hatfield and McCoy Feud Gets Worse

On Election Day in 1882, Devil Anse’s brother Ellison drank too much and got into a fight over a small debt for a fiddle. Three of Ole Ran’l’s sons stabbed Ellison 26 times. Hatfields pursued the McCoy boys and captured them. Ellison died, and so did the McCoy boys, tied to a bush and shot to death. Perry Cline, a lawyer who married a McCoy, contacted the Kentucky governor about extraditing the Hatfields from West Virginia. Cline has his own problems with the Hatfields, having lost 5,000 acres of land to them in a lawsuit. Kentucky governor Simon Bolivar Buckner made the request, but West Virginia governor E.W. Wilson refused. The Hatfield and McCoy feud almost caused an armed battle between the states. The Hatfields wanted to end things – and the McCoys – finally. In 1888, they planned an ambush of the McCoy family.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Devil Anse Hatfield and wife at home. Public domain.

New Year’s Massacre of 1888

In the cover of night, the Hatfields surrounded the McCoy home. They attacked the family, crushing Ole Ran’l’s wife Sarah’s skull and killing McCoy’s adult children, son Calvin and daughter Alifair in the crossfire. The Hatfields set the cabin on fire. Patriarch Ole Ran’l managed to escape the fire. Nine Hatfields were convicted for the New Years Night Massacre. McCoy bounty hunter Frank Phillips killed Devil Anse’s uncle and massacre leader Jim Vance and brought nine Hatfields to jail. Four Hatfields were indicted for the massacre. One would hang for it. After that final burst of violence, the families gave up actively feuding. Ole Ran’l became a ferry operator. Devil Anse found religion and was baptized, living out the rest of his days believing himself absolved of all his wrongdoing. The twenty-year feud ended, but it lives on as a symbol of hillbilly hotbed tempers and grievances solved with violence.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
This painting of the Blue Fugates is all we have left to represent the family. Credit: Owlcation

A Blue Family: The Blue Fugates of Troublesome Creek

The Hatfields and McCoys had a rival in hillbilly fame, although these rivals were much more quiet and self-isolated. French immigrant Martin Fugate settled near Troublesome Creek in Kentucky in 1820. He fell in love with Elizabeth Smith, married and had seven children who grew up in the rolling Kentucky hills. Sounds like “happily ever after,” but there was something different about the Fugates. Fugate had an unusual blue tint to his skin, purple lips, and dark, chocolate-brown blood. As did four of his children. This was a medical issue, but not a deadly one; the Fugates lived well into their 80s and 90s. Despite their physical health, living with blue skin was difficult. They were subjected to taunting and discrimination. The Fugates isolated themselves. Their geographic and self-isolation meant that the Fugates tended to marry within the Troublesome Creek community, resulting in more people with blue-tinged skin tones.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
The darkened blood of methemoglobinemia. Thomas M. Nappe, Anthony M. Pacelli, Kenneth Katz (CC 4.0)

Why Were the Fugates Blue?

The isolation kept the Fugates and their descendants away from the public eye, until the medical community became curious about their unusual coloration. The blue tone was a hereditary methemoglobinemia, which gives blood a deep brownish color that looks gray-blue through the skin. Martin Fugate had the condition, but Elizabeth Smith had the recessive gene. When they had children, some of them also showed the condition. The Fugates isolation led to inbreeding, which makes it more likely to pass on the condition and have children with blue skin. The gene that causes the blue coloration seemed to have died out over time, but Benjamin Stacy, a Fugate descendent born in the 1970s, carried on the “blue” tradition, although his coloration became more traditional as he grew. The Fugate’s natural lighter skin tone made that blue stand out and made them Troublesome Creek’s most famous family.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Coal mining, Pennsylvania. Strohmeyer and Wyman (1895), public domain.

Hillbillies as Union Leaders

While the stereotype of a hillbilly is someone living off the land, shiftless and underemployed, coal mining was a big industry in “hillbilly” country and employed many of the people in the Appalachian region. Although there was big money in coal mining, little of it trickled to the people actually working in the mines, digging it out of the earth. Conditions were deadly. Mine explosions were a constant threat. Workers started unionizing in the early 1900s. Employers fought that effort with all their might. In the 1920s, coals miners in West Virginia built unions active to this day. Professor (and descendant of labor leader Frank Keeney) Chuck Keeney, who wrote about the 1921 Blair Mountain miner’s strike, told the New York Times, “You can embrace the term ‘redneck’ as what it meant to the miners. Reach back into our radical roots, our resistance roots. That’s who we really are.”

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Federal troops arrive to put down the Blair Mountain protests. Kinograms, public domain.

‘Hillbillies’ Fought for Unionization: The Battle of Blair Mountain (1921)

In 1921, the Battle of Blair Mountain, the “largest armed labor uprising since the Civil War.” In 1921, 10,000 coals miners in West Virginia marched in protest of deadly working conditions and receiving their pay in scrip rather than actual money. Scrip is an artificial currency produced by the company. It only had worth in company stores and to pay rent on company-owned housing. The miners built a coalition, for all workers, regardless of race or immigrant status, to march on the company and demand unionization, better working conditions, and real pay. The coal company officials thwarted the miner’s demands, however, near Blair Mountain. For two days, gunfire and fighting raged in the mountain pass, An estimated sixteen people died in a clash between the workers and those opposed to their union efforts. The battle ended when President Harding sent federal troops to the area to squash the fight.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Eleanor Roosevelt meeting the Ridge Runners in 1933. Tullio Saba via Flickr, public domain.

Eleanor Roosevelt Hung Out With “Hillbillies”

As the Blair Mountaion battle was quelled by a President and fading from memory, another president’s family connected to their hillbilly roots. Eleanor Roosevelt’s father Elliot Roosevelt grew up in White Top Mountain, Virginia. He wanted his daughter to connect to her mountain roots, and to meet the community that shaped his life. She had visited there as a child but hadn’t been back. She didn’t have much of a memory of White Top. After becoming First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt made good on that wish, visiting White Top Mountain in 1933. The “Ridge Runners,” performed for Mrs. Roosevelt, with a repetoire including “Happy Days are Here Again.” The group featured six-year-old Muriel Douglas Dockery, pictured in the foreground, on mandolin. First Lady Roosevelt sampled local cuisine such as ham and biscuits. After lunch, she visited the mountains and expressed hope to return to the area due to its beauty.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Possible frame from Old Home Town series (1908). Public domain.

Hillbillies Were Popular Characters

By the early 1900s, the “hillbilly” became a comedy archetype in American culture, featuring in joke books and movies. The hillbilly image spread further through comics. Comics such as The Old Home Town series, The Mountain Boys, Lil’ Abner and the character Snuffy Smith in Barney Google was a play on the stereotypical hillbilly archetype. These works are a reflection of fears about the economic and social conditions; as bad as it was in cities it could be hillbilly-level worse. In the 1940s and 1950s, the popular ‘Ma and Pa Kettle’ films show Ma and Pa Kettle and their brood of fifteen children as they bumble through encounters with modern amenities and technologies. Ma is loud and brash. Pa is slow in speech and thought, and embodies the stereotype of the hillbilly for a national, even international audience. But the hillbilly would achieve stratospheric popularity in the early 1960s.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Buddy Ebsen as Jed Clampett and Irene Ryan as Granny (1970). Public domain.

Popular Culture Loved the Clampetts: Beverly Hillbillies

In the early 1960s, the nation met the Clampett family through their television sets. When wise, stoic patriarch and Tennessee hillbilly Jed shot at some local game, he accidentally struck oil (a lucky find; State of Tennessee says Tennessee’s crude oil reserves are only about “.02% of the United States’ crude oil output”). Despite living his whole life in the hills, Jed moved his family to a modern mansion in Beverly Hills. Jed was joined by feisty mother-in-law Granny, his simple-minded nephew Jethro, and his animal-loving daughter Elly May. In 1962, the Beverly Hillbillies debut, centering on Clampett’s efforts to adapt to the modern world while staying true to who they were. Despite harsh reviews from critics, within three weeks of its premier, it was the #1 show in the United States. It would hold that title for two years and be on the air for nine seasons.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Mountain Dew history exhibit with Willy the Hillbilly mascot. Bellczar via Wikimedia Commons

Hillbillies Were Beloved Mascots

Companies were quick to capitalize on the popularity of hillbilly culture with mainstream audiences. In the early 1960s, Kellogg’s introduced Sugar Stars cereal. While the cereal had little do with hillbillies or the unique rural delicacies of the southern region, Kellogg’s created characters that would link the cereal with the culture, mascots Hillbilly Goat and Huckleberry Hound. Huckleberry Hound, with his slow drawl and relaxed attitude, cross-promoted an Emmy-winning Hanna-Barbera cartoon already embraced by audiences. Soda brand Mountain Dew’s mascot was the gangly Willy the Hillbilly. He was the face of the soda between the 1940s and the late 1960s. In 1969, the brand tried to capture a younger generation and retired Willy. He was brought back in the 2010s in “throwback’ can and bottle designs, but was retired again when the campaign ran its course. Willy temporarily tied Mountain Dew back to its mountain roots.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Cast members of Petticoat Junction, CBS (1968). Public domain.

Hillbillies Faced Backlash

The raging success of the Beverly Hillbillies sparked derivative shows. Green Acres focused on an urban couple moving to the country. Petticoat Junction centered on hijinks at a rural train stop hotel. Shows themed around hillbilly life saturated television in the 1960s and early 70s. Eventually, audiences grew tired of back country tales and tuned out. CBS, home of the hillbilly revolution, cancelled 15 of the shows in the early 1970s in a move called the “Rural Purge.” One of the few shows to survive the purge was Hee-Haw, which ran from 1969 to 1993, but it was a musical variety show rather than a sitcom. Green Acres actor Pat Buttram (Mr. Haney) said “It was the year CBS killed everything with a tree in it.” The hillbilly craze was over. But the popular culture zeitgeist would get even worse for hillbilly culture.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Deliverance made banjo music frightening. monstersforsale via Flickr (2015).

Deliverance Featured Sinister Hillbillies (1976)

While the hillbillies of television are generally shown to be wise, simple people, backwoodsy but pure of heart, the hillbilly stereotype turned scary with the movie Deliverance in 1972. Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight starred as urban campers hunted by a roughneck group of hillbillies. Disgruntled locals were upset with urbanites were about to destroy their land and river to build an electric dam. But the campers added fuel to the fire with their insults and condescension. Ned Beatty’s Bobby summed it up when, after his friends warned him not to insult the local people, he scoffs, “People? What people?” Dueling Banjos and the phrase, “Squeal like a pig!” has had a lasting cultural trauma. The film hit on internal fears and wariness of rural, remote places and the people who live there. The inbred, morally bankrupt hillbilly caricatures who brutalize the campers turned the hillbilly label into something scary.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Honey was a popular sweetener in Appalachia. Tony Webster (2018, CC 2.0).

Hillbilly Food Was Different Than Southern Cuisine

Depictions of hillbilly culture have been loved (Beverly Hillbillies) and reviled (Deliverance). But the food of the region is definitely beloved, as it has made its way into the high-culture, inner city restaurants around the nation. The theme of Appalachian hillbilly cooking is to use what you have, and find a way to make it last. The food uses traditions passed down from their Celtic heritage. It had to sustain people all year long. The cuisine has a high fat and protein content, but historically this was necessary to keep them full and energized through the hard work day. While Appalachian food is considered a subset of southern cuisine, one key difference is the sweetener. Appalachian food uses locally available sweeteners, as shipping refined sugar into the region was expensive. Appalachian cooks used honey, sorghum, or syrup instead.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Fried chicken, collard greens, black eyed peas, and gravy. Rice would have been rare. Gerry Dincher (2019, CC 2.0)

Hillbilly Food is Familiar

Appalachian foods are favorites on tables across the United States (and beyond). These include grains and breads such as a fried cornbread called hoe cake and grits. Wheat didn’t grow in the region and had to be shipped in, so corn and cornbread were popular on Appalachian tables. The region is also known for embracing the traditions of both African slaves and Scottish immigrants of deep frying a chicken in fat, more commonly known as fried chicken. Bacon and other cuts of pork were popular, especially from a barbecue. Beef from livestock was a regular dinner feature, as was local game such as rabbit, venison, squirrel, and fish. Appalachian cooks would use any vegetables and fruits they could grow in their gardens. The meat and grains would be accompanied by potatoes, parsnips, onions, collard greens, pawpaw (a fruit that has a mango-banana flavor) and beans.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Confiscated moonshine distillery. Public domain (c. 1921-1932)

Moonshine Has Become Synonymous With Hillbilly

One of the most pervasive tropes used in movies and television is the hillbilly making – and often drinking – moonshine in jugs marked with three Xs. Moonshine is a home-brewed whiskey brewed from local crops (usually corn mash). While home brew had been around since the Scots-Irish immigration to the southern region, it really took off during Prohibition, when demand exploded. Moonshiners often covertly brewed their moonshine at night to hide it from the authorities. As iconic as it is, moonshine has a shaky relationship with the law. Brewers crafted it without a permit or oversight, letting the brewer control the process and product. Despite this, it has become such a cultural icon that June 5 is National Moonshine Day in the United States. And those infamous three Xs on the jugs? That is how many times the brew ran through the still. Three Xs was a high-quality brew.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Stills confiscated in moonshine raids. Texas Alcoholic Beverages Commission (CC4.0)

Moonshine Done Wrong Can Injure And Kill

Moonshine brewers had to be incredibly careful about their product, especially since there is no oversight in their brewing process. They were distilling 170 proof (85%) alcohol, but there was a huge risk. Less ethical or careless distillers let wood alcohol, containing methanol, remain in the brew instead of distilling it for the ethanol. Ethanol is the alcohol found in safely produced beverages. Methanol is stronger and less expensive, but has a significant drawback. Methanol acidifies the blood. Victims of methanol poisoning don’t feel anything unusual at first, perhaps their drink seems stronger than normal, but everything seems fine. But after a few hours go by an the methanol is metabolized, victims start to notice things going wrong. They can go blind, have seizures, or get Jake Leg Syndrome, a partial paralysis of the feet and legs. And in the worst case, they die from poorly distilled liquor.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Mountain Dew in a tall glass. Pannet (2022,CC4.0).

Mountain Dew Has Hillbilly Roots

Moonshine isn’t the only beverage with hillbilly roots. It’s no coincidence that Mountain Dew’s mascot was a hillbilly. Brothers Barney and Ally Hartman, inventors of Mountain Dew, originally meant it to be a whiskey chaser when they introduced it in 1932. When the brothers moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, they found out they couldn’t get their favorite whiskey mixer locally. They created a replica. When it started selling locally, the lemon-lime concoction was named ‘Mountain Dew,’ a slang for the moonshine produced in the nearby Tennessee mountains. Stores weren’t interested in mixers, but the soda, after the addition of lemonade to the Hartman’s formula, attracted PespiCo in 1964. In 1966, at the height of the hillbilly revolution in popular culture, mascot Willy the Hillbilly graced the scene, linking the brand to hillbilly culture. He enticed people to drink the soda, with a tagline promise, “It’ll tickle your innards.”

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Stage at the modern Grand Ole Opry. Cdv (2014 CC4.0)

Grand Ole Opry Rebranded Itself to Hillbilly Chic

The Grand Ole Opry was a respected radio program that featured country music from prominent musicians. Its roots trace back to 1925, when WSM, Nashville’s new radio station debut. In November of that year, WSM broadcast the Barn Dance, which would evolve into the Grand Ole Opry. Musicians of the Grand Ole Opry, respected acts with a sophisticated stage presence were reintroduced to fit the hillbilly stereotype. Dr. Bate and his Augmented Orchestra and the Binkley Brothers were renamed The Possum Hunters and the Dixie Clodhoppers, taken out of their fine dress clothes, and put in tattered overalls. Skilled musicians were deliberately playing the hillbilly stereotype to sell tickets for the Grand Ole Opry. But as the hillbilly stereotype became more widespread, musicians abandoned the “hillbilly” label for the more heroic “cowboy” and “country” identity.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
No Mean Feet Appalachian Step Dancers at Bridgepart Folk Festival. Stephen and Helen Jones via Flickr (2022, CC 2.0)

Hillbillies Have A Unique Dance Art: Appalachian Step Dance (Clogging)

Music and dance are a vital part of hillbilly culture, and the region developed its own, unique form. Clogging, and the related “buck dancing,” are an expression of the mountain/ rural heritage. Clogging, where the legs and feet complete complex, rapid, but very contained movement while the upper body remains still or with minimal movement, is a descendant of the Irish step dances and Scottish dances of immigrant settlers. But clogging and buck dancing evolved differently than the reels, jigs, and hornpipe dances of Irish step dancing. Some steps have African roots, a cross-cultural connection with the dances done by the slaves in the pre-Civil War era. Some moves have traces of Native American traditions, shared between the Scots-Irish Appalachian settlers and the tribes already inhabiting the area. The music includes fiddles and banjos going with a singer, and the feet of the clog dancer supplying part of the percussion.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
The Faust family of Anderson County, TN. Public Domain.

The Duality Of The Hillbilly

Harkins (2005) suggests the lower income people of the rural southern Appalachian region find the “hillbilly” label an offensive slur, yet at the same time it embodies the spirit of their defiant individualism. Those who use the term offensively see it describing a rough, backwards, almost feral existence based in violence, feuds, ignorance, and an intolerable use of gender roles to oppress women into a submissive role. People labeled as “hillbillies” have celebrated the label to show the world they won’t conform to someone else’s idea of “progress.” Some are reclaiming the label. For them, it means being able to live with the resources they have, independence, and having the ability to take care of themselves. There is a keen sense of lineage and family, understanding of gender roles, and a close bond with the land. It’s a lifestyle of “rugged landscape and unwavering authenticity.”

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Rural house in the Appalachians. anoldent via Flickr, (2008, CC 2.0)

The Hillbilly Today

Today’s Appalachian population is as diverse politically, religiously, and economically as any community. Those who left “hillbilly country” offer unique perspectives. Jessie Wall, a member of New York University’s nonpartisan Political Society, grew up in Appalachia. Wall says, “Sure, I have forty cousins, but their immense ideological and economic diversity taught me to be open minded. Yes, I spent Thanksgiving break splitting and stacking firewood for the winter, but I did so alongside a loving family who taught me how to work hard.” There are substantial troubles and controversial issues. Drug use is a significant problem. Wall recalls a neighbor drank himself to death. At 14, a relative told her a university education would waste her “motherly potential.” Even with these problems, J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, affirms Wall’s sense of community, saying, “Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Hillbilly culture weathers the reality television fad. Runner1616 (2013), public domain.

A Hillbilly Resurgence Is Squashed… For A While

In 2003, CBS announced the latest idea for their reality television line; “The Real Beverly Hillbillies.” The premise was to take a family out of the rural Appalachian area and set them up in a mansion in Beverly Hills. Appalachian area advocates protested the show, upset about their culture being mocked for laughs. Another network wanted to do a similar reality show based on Green Acres, where wealthy city dwellers stayed in a rural community. Despite studio executives saying they didn’t mean to offend; the shows follow the tradition of displaying a way of life that doesn’t paint the subject in a good light. Audiences would get their hillbilly fix in the 2010s, with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Buckwild, a highly edited version of modern hillbilly life position in the United States.

The Truth Behind Hillbilly History
Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel from The Simpsons action figure. Francis Bijl via Flickr (2007, CC 2.0)

The Hillbilly Isn’t What You Think

Despite the blatantly stereotypical depiction of hillbilly culture in the Beverly Hillbillies, it was always noticeably clear that the family loved each other. The Clampetts were a tightly bound family unit that outsiders could never break. Jed Clampett, for all his “backwoods backward” was ultimately depicted as the wise patriarch (often wiser than his urbanized counterpart) with a loving heart and a gentle spirit. The “hillbilly” stereotype doesn’t show the diversity of the people. They are more than the “slack-jawed yokels” Cletus and Nadine Buckler on The Simpsons. It is more of a popular culture façade, a way to contextualize the economic, social, and poverty struggles in a region and create the baseline for a spectrum from “low culture” to “high culture.” In the end, “hillbilly” is a stereotype, one that doesn’t present the depth and history of the people who live in rural areas.


Where did we find this stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Appalachian foods: Defining generations. Mary Casey-Sturk, Smoky Mountain Living, (n.d.)

Hillbillies. Gordon B. McKinney, Encyclopedia of North Carolina, 2006.

Hillbilly: A cultural history of an American icon. Anthony Harkins, History Faculty Book Gallery, Western Kentucky University, 2005.

Hillbilly economics: The brief facts about a family and culture that is trying. Jessie Wall, 9 February 2021.

Hootin’ and Hollerin’: The Portrayal of Appalachians in Popular Media. Savanah Alberts, West Virginia University, Pearl S. Buck Writing Contest, (n.d.).

Mountain Dew once had ties to moonshine. Fessenden, Maris, Smithsonian Magazine, 4 February 2016.

My Inner Hillbilly. Michael McFee, Southern Cultures, (n.d.).

The Battle of Blair Mountain. Evan Andrews, 25 August 2016.

The causes of the Hatfield and McCoy feud ran deeper than you may think. Nadia Suleman,, 10 September 2019.

The Fugates of Troublesome Creek. Gregory Phillips, Dr. Marjon Vatanchi, Dr. Sharon Glick, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Dermatology, 153(6), June 2017.

The rural purge: The year CBS killed everything with a tree in it. Robert Folsom, Socionomics, October 2013.

The real meaning of hillbilly. Abby Lee Hood, New York Times, 31 January 2021.

The word “Hillbilly;” Linguistic mystery and popular culture fixture. Dave Tabler, 5 March 2012.

Yesterday’s People. Jack E. Weller (1965). University Press of Kentucky.