Hillbilly Aunt

Hillbilly Aunt
Little Rock, Arkansas, USA
November 18
Chief Dog Food Giver Person
Sure! Ya'll just call first, okay?
I'm your Hillbilly Aunt. I was Born, raised, and I'm now residing in Arkansas. I have a MFA in Creative Writing, for what that's worth. I'm child-free, dog-mothering, liberal, over-read and over educated, sometimes snarky, sometimes sweet, sometimes pathetic. I use this space for all sorts of random things, but eventually it all comes back to Arkansas.


Editor’s Pick
OCTOBER 24, 2008 8:55PM

How to Spot a Genuine Ozark Hillbilly

Rate: 19 Flag

Dorinda Fox contacted Amy Fuji and I with the idea to write a series of posts about our shared native state, Arkansas.  It was prompted by something she said in a reply, “Arkansas is such a lovely place as far as physcial beauty but also in its people. I consider it a blessing that most of the country knows little about Arkansas and ignores it. That way people in Arkansas manage to maintain a separate identity.” This is my contribution to Dorinda's call. If I get another insomnia attack, maybe there will be more.  Dorinda's essay is here. Amy's is forthcoming.

By DCP from Flicker 


I’ve always believed that the physical landscape people inhabit has a direct impact on who they are – emotionally, culturally, socially, spiritually. Mostly, I believe it because of what happened when I moved to Kansas.  I grew up in a very small town in northern Pope County, Arkansas.  My people are a mixture of farmers of various social classes that converged together with my GranDaddy who switched the family business to groceries. In my hometown, I woke up every morning surrounded by a blue undulating line of hills on the horizon.  I got to Kansas and my ratio of horizon line to sky went completely out of whack. 

I’ve said this before in an essay published in Divide (U of Colorado), so I’m just going to paraphrase myself. Every moment I lived in Kansas I felt like I lived in a glass box.  I could see too far in any direction.  There was nothing to break the sky.  On rainy days, I sometimes couldn’t tell what was sky and what was land.

I always thought it was like a sailor would feel in small boat in the middle of the ocean.  I felt exposed, vulnerable, raw. My whole sense of direction disappeared. I got lost in Kansas, a lot. This makes no sense in a state where all the roads are laid on grids. In Arkansas, I drove the Ozark back roads all the time.  I knew every route through north Pope County. I could navigate 30 miles of steep, curvy, red dirt roads and know exactly where I was at all times.

I did not have grids engrained in my physical memory.   I just could not mesh with the flat landscape. I needed organic shapes against the horizon. It slowly became a craving so fierce that I moved straight back home when I left grad school, even though I would definitely have more job prospects in a larger city.  

Kansas Landscape by drstout from Flicker 

Now that all the personal context is out there, I claim that Arkansas has its reputation and eccentric culture because of the state’s landscape. The history of early settlements in Arkansas is a pretty good example of why I think that’s true.

Arkansas has been a backwater for 400 years.  Parts of it, like the Ozark Mountains, were probably backwaters for a lot longer than that.  The Ozarks have always been good for hunting, but they’ve never been a productive place to settle down.  A lot of pre-colonial Native Americans used it as hunting grounds, but very few people lived there permanently.   

When the Spanish got a hold of the state, they pretty much ignored its existence.  The French were the first whites to settle here, way out east on the Mississippi river at a place called Arkansas Post.  These folks were mostly trappers. They lived out in the woods for months at a time and came to the post to trade. The people who lived in town were notoriously rowdy and uncouth. They really loved to party.  The Catholic Church kept trying to send priests there, but all of them left out of sheer frustration.  Finally, they just quit sending priests. The French government pretty much ignored the place too. 

When the Americans bought the state in the Louisiana Purchase, nobody really wanted it either. It was too far away from St. Louis and New Orleans to be a real draw. Plus, it had so much working against it.  In the east there was a gigantic swamp that was nearly impassible.

Heading west from the Swamps there was a huge river, the Arkansas, folks had to cross to head north. Up north in the Ozarks there’s pretty much just deep hollows, steep hillsides, and rocky, unfertile land covered in huge trees.  The only place in the state that appeared to have any viable economic prospects was the southern Delta region.  But it was so far away from everywhere else that it wasn’t on the top of the list for aspiring Plantation owners.

Geographically there’s a weird kind of North/South divide in the state. South of Little Rock is Delta country. This is where those plantation owners settled down. Jump forward 300 years and the majority of the state in the Delta is still populated by African-American descendents of slaves.

Up in the hills, there were other kinds of cross-cultural encounters going on. Anyone who lived in the Ozarks lived on hunting and farming. Some were white settlers who wanted to get into the booming trapping business and set up farms.  Some of these settlers were members of the “Western Cherokee,” who came and settled in the Ozarks after signing a treaty with that no good Andrew Jackson. The Western Cherokee marched from Tennessee and settled down in a spot just outside my hometown.  

After the Trail of Tears, the Ozarks did not change much except for the influx of the Appalachians, who are famous for their Celtic roots. Several scholars say that the Ozarks were settled by people with the same lineages and cultural background. They settled the Ozarks because it was a little bit like home. The Scottish Highlands, the Appalachians, and the Ozarks all have steep hills, an abundance of wild forest, hollows, and soil not suited for large scale farming.   


Arkansas is not really on the way to anywhere, so once people got here, they didn’t much leave. The whites who finally took over the Ozarks in the Pre-Civil War period began to develop what I call Hillbilly Culture. They formed into a distinctive culture because they were isolated. 

(My Personal Definition: A Hillbilly is just nice, normal folk who happen to be native to the Arkansas Ozarks.  A redneck is some word that Jeff Foxworthy and all those “Redneck Wedding” shows make a lot of money from. Fun Fact: Folks in Appalachia don’t embrace the word “Hillbilly.”  Folks out here do. Kentucky may be it's own special case -- see Jim Smith's comment below -- but I've not personally read anything about the word's usage in Kentucky proper).

Hillbilly culture developed certain traits. One was a distrust of outsiders. Vance Randolph, the king of all things Ozark Folklore, has collected hundreds of jokes and stories about fooling an outsider.  The outsider is often seen as buffoonish, someone to deliberately confuse or even punish, but not always.

The state’s official poem, “The Arkansas Traveler” is about a Hillman who insisted on confusing and baffling a traveler while trying to “turn a tune” on a fiddle.  Finally, the outsider got so frustrated he took the violin and finished the tune for the Hillbilly. At that moment, the Hillbilly ceased confusing the Traveler because he’d found a way that the visitor might be useful, and maybe become trustworthy. I’ve always considered it a perfect example of the hillbilly temperament.  

 Arkansas Traveler

Another trait is a penchant for storytelling that infuses every sentence. The entire populatiojn of the state of Arkansas can’t just tell you something that happened at work in three to five sentences.  They have to tell you the whole context, the major players, how the plot worked out, and their predictions for further possible installments. I don’t have any real facts on this one, but I bet anybody who is from here can confirm it.   

Then, there’s the tribalism that mixes church, family, and politics. The Hillbillies have long memories.  Every kid knows by the age of five exactly how many people he’s “kin to,” including great uncles, second cousins, and “in-law kin,” or people related to his blood aunt’s husband. 

When I moved back to my hometown, I couldn’t walk down the street without running into people who said to me, “Well it’s Auntie, My Word! I haven’t seen you since you were this high!”  

I stared blankly back at them and they’d realize I had no idea who they were.

Then the people said, “Oh, I’m your momma’s daddy’s sister’s daughter” or “Oh I’m actually your cousin through your Wilson side, but I knew your momma growing up. I was around you a lot when you were little.”  

This wasn’t necessarily limited to a family connection either.  I think I had that same conversation with everyone still in town my parents went to high school with. I had that conversation on a bi-weekly basis the entire time I lived there before I ran off again to get a job.  You can bet all that genealogy knowledge impacts local politics.  

All that energy put to mental family trees is one way that I think Arkansas managed to become the beautiful, but eccentric place it is now. If you live in an isolated place, it’s kind of handy to know who your fourth cousins once removed are, in case you accidently develop a crush on someone “kin.” 

On the other hand, “kin” can be a good thing.  There’s always someone in your extended family that can help you out with a problem or open up an opportunity. I’m auditioning for the role of a writer for a monthly home decorating insert that’s part of the paper I sometimes write for. I went straight to the first source: my Momma.  My Momma knows a lot of people. She hooked me up with perfect information and contacts in under an hour.  

The whole state is kind of like that, in a way.  I went to a film festival Gala earlier this year. The Governor, Mike Beebe, showed up to talk about film and economic development in Arkansas.  He waited to go speak by standing right next to us, in range so close it would have been rude not to say hello. We chatted with him for five minutes before he walked up to speak. He was just as nice as any other folk. 

I think there has to be something about the isolation, the hardness of the land, and the infertility of the soil that make most people default with cheery hellos and feel they have to speak to their fourth cousin once removed who doesn’t remember they exist. Paradoxically, there's also this impluse to distrust and to test outsiders.

Let’s take my own piece of the Ozarks. I'll inherit 50 acres of land surrounded by The Ozark National Forest. I don't live there full time, but fully intend to retire there. The  two houses and the land are 100 miles from a liquor store in any direction, at least 20 miles from a general store that is open on weekends and sells gas.  The nearest restaurant is about 45 miles away. The nearest grocery store is in Jasper, about 50 miles away.  People drive up and down the road outside the cabin semi-regularly, but it’s pretty darn rare for someone to just drop in. 

The chance of a stranger popping by is even slimmer. When it does happen, we assume he’s a meth head or a an escaped convict, put the gun nearby, and go out and greet the guy like he’s that long lost fourth cousin once removed.  Once we figure out he’s just a neighbor we haven’t met yet (neighbors are separated by miles up here), we go back to sitting in the rocking chair, smelling the smoke from the cast iron stove, and looking at the most beautiful view of green rolling hills, close enough to touch.

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This is awesome.

You note

can’t just tell you something that happened at work in three to five sentences. They have to tell you the whole context, the major players, how the plot worked out, and their predictions for further possible installments.

I think I resemble that behavior ;0)
Dorinda, I actually laughed out loud when I saw your reply. I absolutely resemble it and I relish it too. When someone is on a good roll telling a story it truly is one of the best moments in life, in my opinion.

Cannot wait to see your post and Amy's post. Glad you found my description accurate to your recollection too :).
Beautiful post! I have to get to work on mine. You perfectly explained what makes Arkansas so great. It will always be home for me. And anyone who manages to make it through one of my loooonnnnggg posts will see the truth in your post about how much we Arkansawyers talk. It drives my Yankee husband crazy.

I have a Yankee husband too! Although, he says he's not Yankee, he's Mid Western cause he's from North Dakota. We argue about the exact definition of Yankee all the time.

And my never shutting up drives him absolutely crazy sometimes too :).
Awesome, as always. I really miss Arkansas at this time of year. The first year I was in Conway, it snowed on my birthday. (The end of October) I had lived in Florida for the last 12 years and this was like some sort of gift from nature.

The drive between Conway (where I went to school) and my husband's family in Green Forest was the best. I miss the leaves changing. I miss swimming at Greer's Ferry Dam. I miss the little gaudy gingerbread houses in Eureka Springs. I miss the perpetual yard sale in St. Joe.

Enjoy it for me!

(thumbified for Ozarkitecture)
Jodi -- I will -- I completely forgot you had ties here too. I'm distracted these days.

One of the things I truly love about Arkansas is exactly something you mention when you say that "miss the perpetual yard sale at St. Joe." There's like three or four of those right outside my hometown. One sells flags, others sell random stuff. I truly believe a larger than proportionate number of people make their living with perpetual garage sales here than in any other state :).
Very enjoyable and well thought out post! Back in 1978, I spent a fair amount of time in Ft. Smith, and drove into the mountains south of town on the OK border quite a lot. It was very pretty, and seemed to combine the Hillbilly culture with the Southwestern cowboy culture of Oklahoma and Texas.

I've often thought about going back there, but as you say, it's really not on the way to anywhere, and I just haven't been able to make the time to get there. But I will one day!
"Fun Fact: Folks in Appalachia don’t embrace the word “Hillbilly.” Folks out here do."

That'll be news to all the folks in Pikeville, Kentucky who celebrate Hillbilly Days every April.
Lived in Arkansas for better than 25 years and came to think of it as home. Began when I got (like you) an MFA in Creative Writing (mine from the U of A). This just to mention the single best chronicler of Ozark ways, and a great American novelist, Donald Harington. No literate Arkansawyer can do without him.
Jim -- I think that Kentucky is sort of on the edges of Appalachia, and thus has a similar situation to Arkansas. I'm just spouting back scholarly stuff I've read about Hillbillies over the years and my own personal observations. Obviously, it's not a perfect science :). No offense to the Kentucky hillbillies ;).

I love Donald Harington. I have every book he's ever published, including the non-fiction stuff. I kind of want to _be_ a female Donald Harington, but I think saying that might be showing too much of my soft underbelly.
Procopius -- I get what you are saying about eastern Oklahoma being a mixture of two types of subcultures. And please come visit, we need the tourism dollars. Just don't stick around and get into the business of developing the Ozarks into a Disneyfied Dog Patch USA:).
Umbrella -- oh, likely it's more like we got some Virginia in our Arkansas. Some of my ancestors came out here from Virginia. They tended to stop in Tennessee or Mississippi for a little bit before they settled down here. There was a whole diaspora of hillfolk toward the west over a number of years. Roughly following the push of the Southeastern tribes into Oklahoma.

The land is truly an amazing site. Halloween party coming up very soon. I'll be posting pictures :).
No, Eastern Kentucky (Harlan County, Pike C0unty, Jackson County, and so on) is, like SW Virginia, NW North Carolina, and all of West Virginia, DEEP Appalachia. (I'm looking out the window at it right now.)

Around here, "hillbilly" is a word that can be (and often is) used by locals, who have earned the right to do so through their very existence. But woe unto him who speaks the word if he is From Outside.
Jim -- fair enough. I think the difference I'm trying to point out is in the willingness to play it up to outsiders. Obviously, that's kind of the Arkansas Traveler is about. The hillbilly in that story is perfectly willing to play dumb in front of an outsider. In fact, he was willing to completely overdo the dumb hillbilly act. Not that the willingness to do that is just limited to the Ozarks, of course. But I think it says something about our character anyway, since it's the official state song and all.

Thank you for clarifying for me, too. I've only been to Kentucky once, though I did live in extreme western Virginia on the West Virginia border for a little while. I know the Nanathala river in western North Carolina pretty well (my dad used to drag me out there to canoe). I can only claim mostly ignorance except for what I've picked up in books when it comes to the culture of the eastern hillfolk.
Wow! I loved this. What's the climate like in the Ozarks for retiring Texans?
You want to know what's really scary? I was watching a program hosted by Billy Ray Cyrus back in January on the History Channel on this very same topic. I got about half way through it and had to be rushed to the hospital with chest pains. I was having my first heart attack this year!
What a delightful read. Reminds me of Twain, a bit, and de Tocqueville. Grew up in St. Joe, MO, and still remember the Ozarks, most especially the Western look and feel and the clear water streams with trout[!]. Have lived my adult life in Arizona and there are parts that remind me of back there, except our trees and mountains are way bigger.
Y'all simply have to read a couple of books: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and River Horse by William Least Heat Moon. Both are simply wonderful celebrations of the American land and lifestyles. Enjoy.
And anything by Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry for the feel and sound and look of people who have lived on the land for generations.
My mother's father's people came from Arkansas to Texas well over a hundred years ago. I don't know much about them, but thanks to that www.geni.com site my mom is spending so much time on their history is being saved.

I found the trickery toward not useful strangers very interesting.

What you describe isn't Arkansas as much as it the Ozarks as a whole.

I'm from the Missouri side of the Ozarks, north of Branson, south of Springfield. My family came there out of Tennessee and Kentucky in the mid-1800's. As with many in the area we have Cherokee ancestry in the family as well as the mix of Irish, English, Scot.

My mother was born in the 1940's in a cabin with no electricity or running water near Mountain Grove MO. Her grandfather rode out on horseback to fetch the doctor (her father was off fighting WWII). My other grandfather helped organize a rural electricity co-op right after when they heard they might have power by 1950.

I well know the "you're Joe's grandkid. You don't know me but I knew your father when he was so high." And my grandmother going - "Betty saw you in town today." Who the hell is Betty?

While I love the Ozarks and have great memories of time spent in the woods, wandering the hills and hollers, on the rivers, and all the things kids on a farm in the Ozarks do, there is no way I would ever ever move back there.

There is not a family trip home where I don't thank my parents for getting the hell out when I was a kid. The nose in your business snoopiness, the constant family infighting(not mine as much as families related to by marriage), the ticks, the chiggers, the ice storms. Not to mention the religion, assertion that only Fox News can be believed, you are either for America or "agin'" it, and general suspicion regarding anyone who's spent a lot of time abroad (abroad includes places like NYC) .

While I will always have hillbilly in my soul and the value the no nonsense approach of the hills the reality of the rest keeps me from ever seriously considering retiring there.
Dear Aunt: As far as Harington goes, go for it. I think he would be pleased (am proud to call him a friend). To Richard Banks--Arkansawyers treat Texans kindly if they avoid talking about Texas. It's been better since Abe Lemon quit coaching them, anyhow.
Rich -- what Hon said. But, even if you talk about it, you can eventually be accepted if you prove yourself trustworthy. Up at the cabin, our nearest year-round neighbors are from Boston and have the thickest Boston accents I've ever heard. But folks around there like them and don't much mind the funny talk, cause they proved themselves to be good folk.
J a Fi,

You're right on both counts. I'm a flaming liberal in a sea of conservative ideals. Most of my good friends from here have the same issue -- their parents are either Evangelical or just plain closed minded, and they have to do battle with ideologies everyday.

I often have to as well, though my parents are much more liberal. I mean, no one thinks one single thing about just saying "I'll pray for you, God will intervene," down here. As if I'm asking for prayer and ought to be.

As for the conservative chatter around me in my daily life, I have learned to be a very good anthropologist. I simply remind myself that I truly believe all people are entitled to their perspective and its not up to me to ask them to change and be more like me. I detach myself, smile, and then walk away and roll my eyes :D. Though, my dad had cancer, I did more than one meddling preacher right out of his hospital room.

I have actually met with Mr. Harington a couple of times. Once, back when the internet was shiny and new, he found a book review I wrote on my very first and very bad website. He e-mailed me and we chatted for a while. I went to a reading and introduced myself. Since then, he's also been extremely kind on giving me some background information when I was thinking about going to U of A for a PhD. I trusted him completely when he answered this question: "Are the guys in the English Department going to be stuffy suits?" I won't tell you what he said. But I'm sure you can guess.

Do you, sir, by any chance ever go to the Mississippi Philological Association conference? (I assume you're not an academic by your bio). There's always a bunch of Mississippi writers hanging out at that conference, and I go every year. This, Clinton. Weee!
Sorry hon, I mean "this year" stupid no editing comments feature.
I am completely unfamiliar but the way you tell a story makes me feel right at home. And Arkansas...even familiar. Rated.
I recommend the novels of Donald Harington set in the fictional town Stay More in the Ozarks. The community and novels are populated with wonderful individuals and families, whose stories are told gently and with the humor that arises naturally from the human condition. I am currently reading The Architecture of the Ozarks (1975) which opens in the earliest days of Stay More's "history" after having read others centering on lives and events of the 20th C.
Enjoy your experiences in Stay More!
cahomsyjr -- You're right. That's terrifying. First -- let me say I'm sorry about your heart attack and I sincerely hope you are getting better. Second, I want to say -- man I bet that poor person has "hillbilly" permanently ingrained on their memory in a really bad way. I saw that special.