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Arkansas' hillbilly image resonates into 21st century

LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - The image of barefoot mountain hillbillies has made many Arkansans cringe for decades.

But it’s a hard one to shake -- even though the state produced a two-term president in Bill Clinton, a famous author in John Grisham, and one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs in Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.

This weekend, in conjunction with the Old State House Museum exhibit “Arkansas Arkansaw: A State And Its Reputation,” academics addressed the ongoing inferiority complex the state has always suffered, thanks to hillbilly lore.

“Arkansans understand the slights, the insecurities, and that it has always been us versus them, and the ‘them’ are laughing at us,” said Brooks Blevins, a professor at Missouri State University who guest-curated the exhibit.

“And sometimes we use it to our advantage.”

Blevins, an Arkansas native, is also the author of “Arkansas/Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State.”

The exhibit follows how Arkansas earned its backwoods reputation, starting in the 18th century, and continuing even after Clinton became president.

After all, Clinton was dubbed “Bubba” by some, which resulted in redneck jokes and souvenirs, such as Bubba Hot Sauce.

Because of its location as a gateway to the Wild West, Arkansas didn’t luck into the romantic Southern moonlight-and-magnolia image. Rather, it became known as a rough crossroads where people -- and outlaws -- hid in the mountains, married cousins and sold moonshine.

When George W. Featherstonhaugh, the first U.S. government geologist, visited Arkansas in the 1830s, he described the territory as a place filled with criminals and gamblers.

He wrote that one woman he met “chewed tobacco, she smoked a pipe, she drank whiskey, and cursed and swore as heartily as any backwoodsman, all at the same time.”


That unflattering image continued in literature, art and song, starting with the 19th Century fiddling tune, “The Arkansas Traveler,” said Robert Cochran, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville’s chair of American Studies. The song depicts a hillbilly too stupid to fix his roof in a rainstorm.

The 1936 Cole Porter song, “The Ozarks Are Calling,” perpetuates “the stereotype of squalor,” he said.

Even as late as the 1970s, songs like “They Caught the Devil and Put Him in Jail in Eudora, Arkansas,” by Tony Joe White, referred to corn meal suppers, dirt roads, and a poor jailer who may have let Satan go in exchange for a bribe.

“Most popular songs about Arkansas are not positive,” Cochran said. “These were commercial popular artists, wanting to make record sales, and they found the way to do it was make fun of Arkansas.”

Other rural states like West Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama have similar image problems, Cochran said. And Georgia may never shake the images from “Deliverance.”

But Arkansas has gotten an especially bum rap thanks to its own perpetuation of and profit from the hillbilly image, Cohen said.

In 1968, the amusement park, Dogpatch, opened in the state, capitalizing on the hillbilly image from Al Capp’s popular “Li’l Abner” comic strip, with rides and souvenirs like corncob pipes and moonshine jugs. The park closed in 1993.

Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, continued to drive a pick-up truck and wear overalls long after he became a multimillionaire.

In 1992, a popular cartoon drawn by Arkansan George Fisher depicted the Clintons moving from Arkansas to the White House in a battered pick-up stacked with their belongings.

Even today, the Ozark School District in northwest Arkansas has a hillbilly, with overalls and a shotgun, for its mascot.

While Blevins said it’s time for the state to move beyond its image, Cochran fears it will remain.

“The stereotype is durable,” he said. “I think it is with us. It’s part of our heritage and we capitalize on it.”

Indeed, Arkansas still does.

On October 8, Clinton, Arkansas, hosts its first annual Redneck Olympics with wheelbarrow races, seed spitting and redneck horseshoes.

And what is “redneck horseshoes,” exactly?

Throwing a toilet seat at a stake.

Editing by Karen Brooks and Jerry Norton