Defending Hillbilly Culture

When my grandmother was in the orphanage, her mother came to visit. Her mom noticed that both she and her sister were crawling with lice. Her mother was furious and, although she had simply come to visit, she stormed out with her two daughters. This was one of the many homes that my grandmother left during her turbulent childhood. Her coal mining father was a wild drunk in the coal-mining town near the border between Virginia and West Virginia. He left when my grandmother and her sister were still little. Great grandma decided she could not care for the girls alone. So, for most of their childhood my grandma and her sister bounced around from relative to relative and spent a short period of time in that orphanage. She tells stories of cruel relatives and kind relatives. The only somewhat steady force in her life was her sister.

When she reached adulthood, her sister married a coal miner. Grandma moved up to the Detroit area. She found a job as a teller in a bank and a young college educated newspaper man came in, flirted with her, and asked her to dinner. In this way, the coal miner's daughter became the wife of a newspaper editor from Michigan.

It is here that my story departs from the story found in Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, the excellent book that I have just finished reading about a hillbilly family. Vance's grandma (he called her Memaw) also left a coal mining town in Appalachia after a turbulent childhood. Like mine, she built a life in an industrial city up north. But unlike my grandmother, his memaw married another hillbilly and starting having babies very young.

My family had little if any hillbilly culture to it. My grandma had a slight Appalachian accent but other than that we were Yankees. She and my grandpa had three kids. All three of their kids went to college. Two of them got master's degrees. And my childhood, unlike that of JD Vance, was in a stable home with two college educated parents.

In contrast, Vance's hillbilly culture surrounded him. His mother, the child of two hillbillies, became a drug addict and had a serial rotation of husbands and boyfriends coming in and out of the house. His grandparents, although loving, were wild and violent and glorified all things hillbilly. He lacked any connection to wealth or middle class culture. Although raised in Ohio, Vance is a hillbilly raised in a hillbilly culture.

Not me. My parents were not hillbillies and the culture in my house is very different from Vance's.

But I am not ignorant of hillbilly culture. In addition to knowing and for a time living with the hillbilly grandmother that I loved, my parents, although highly educated, chose a life of jobs that were not high paying. They worked as artists and musicians along with charitable and non-profit roles. As a result, although we listened to NPR, discussed philosophy and politics, and were vegetarians, we lived among the poor and moved every few years. We lived among both the urban poor (mostly black) and the rural poor (mostly white) but whether black or white, the values of my friends and community were in many ways closer to my grandmother's hillbilly upbringing than my own. Shortly after graduation, I remember talking to a white rural man and, detecting a strong accent I thought was southern, I asked him where he was from. "Ypsilanti Michigan," he responded. This was a man that had grown up a 15 minute drive from me.

Ypsilanti was nicknamed, Ypsi-tucky, because so many Kentuckians had moved there after World War II.

I had a friend who lived next to a gravel pit and had four pitbulls. His mother left when he was little and he lived with his father who was an abusive drunk. He and his father had more of a hillbilly accent than my grandmother despite growing up in the same area I grew up. I  had another friend whose father had left when he was young, mother was the meanest lady I have ever met, and had a sweet grandmother who tried to protect him. They too shared the strange accent. The teenagers I knew in highschool all did drugs. All glorified violence. A surprising small number of them went to college.

As someone who lived among both the black and the white poor, it might surprise everyone to know that, at least in my personal experience, the cultures are amazingly similar. Others have noticed the same thing. For example, Thomas Sowell, Stanford Economist, wrote an excellent book called, "Black Rednecks and White Liberals" that makes the case that what we call black culture is actually just the same redneck culture that was prevalent in the south when slavery ended.

And Sowell, a black man who does not consider "black culture" as original to black people but white people of Scottish decent, views the culture to be almost without redeeming qualities. It is what he calls the Redneck culture (that I am calling the hillbilly culture) that holds blacks back, breaks up families, causes violence, and increases substance abuse problems. Sowell's argument is that the faster that black people abandon this culture, the sooner the achievement gap will be closed.  While Vance does not explicitly make this argument in Hillbilly Elegy, he certainly ties together the culture and the problems systemic to poor white communities. He notes that the people he knows that 'got out' did so at least in part by marrying non-hillbilly spouses.

In both of these books, hillbilly culture is the problem. And they are hardly alone. Hillbilly culture is almost universally detested among the elite in the US. It is perhaps the only culture that is fair game for outside comedians to mock. It is a culture that kids are taught to be embarrassed about.

But as much as I enjoyed Vance's book and as much as I appreciate Sowell's argument, I am going to speak a bit about why I like hillbilly culture and hope it never fades from the planet. I will make this case contrasting hillbilly culture with white northeastern culture (shortened to 'northern').

As someone that has lived in both cultures, here are the things I like about hillbilly culture:

First, men act like men. In the south, men are quicker to fight. Quicker to defend honor. Quicker to take offense. Now, I am a laid back guy who has not been in a fight since 9th grade but I also think that much of male culture in the north has become ridiculously unable to stand up for themselves. I am not violent but by wife says I intimidate other men because I am fairly aggressive in temperament (maybe the lone-hillbilly trait I inherited). And when I grow angry with other men at work or elsewhere, I am surprised by how quickly men defer or even cower. The guys I respect best are the guys that bark back at me as loudly as I bark at them. Guys that are confident and care about not looking weak. Men were built to fight - literally. And while most of the time, descending into violent confrontations is a bad thing, that does not mean that men should be passive and weak.

Hillbilly culture encourages men to be men. Northern culture has no idea what this means.

Second, the music. When we look at popular music, R&B/Hip-Hop is the top selling genre and Country is the third (behind Rock at #2). If Sowell is right and black culture equals redneck culture, that means that Hillbilly music is the #1 and #3 selling genre music. And Rock (#2) can be said to have been based on a blend of blues (black music) and country (hillbilly music). And much of the rock music today continues to imitate either black music or country music. Where is the northern music? It is there. I think of Ed Sheeran, the Jonas Brothers, and Sam Smith. Some of it, I enjoy quite a bit. But nothing beats a sad country song or lifts the adrenaline like hip-hop. What is going on here?  My opinion is that hillbilly culture is less nihilistic, more able to speak to emotions, and more open with faith. I think these things make us better able to relate to the themes, stories and songs of the music.

Third, I love that hillbilly culture tends to take faith for granted. I had a pastor friend who once said that if you start a ministry in the south, you have to unsave people before you save them. In other words, if you ask a crowd of people who considers themselves to be Christian, almost every hand will go up. Some people might say this is a bad thing. A lot of hypocrites saying they are Christians while not living the life. A man could be married five times, be in and out of jail his whole life, and a raging alchoholic but he will still raise his hand if you ask who is Christian. But I do not think this is a bad thing. A verbal faith might not be a saving faith but it is the sort of thing that holds a society together. A society where everyone acknowledges Jesus is King is in a better place than a society that does not even if not everyone is genuine or consistent about this proclamation.  I love being able to go into a room full of people and talk about being in church or praying and know for a fact that everyone in the room understands, respects, and has experienced what I am saying.

Fourth, hillbilly culture is not obsessed with 'achievement.' What is success? What is happiness? Is success achieving upper middle class status? Elite college. Big house. Nice cars. Nice restaurants. But hillbillies do not have this focus. There is a certain pride to being a farmer. Being a mechanic. Being a line worker at Ford.  Success means being a man who lives an honest life, puts food on the table, and provides for his family. Seneca said that happiness is living according to your nature. I think that hillbilly culture understands this better than northern culture. The happy man lives according to his nature.

Finally, hillbilly culture is not enthralled by education. In northern culture, you prove you are smart by pointing to your education level. When you want to hear an expert opinion, you ask an academic. I have noticed in my very educated and intellectual circle of northerners, if someone wants to win an argument they say something along the lines of, "actually recent studies have shown..." But this is all BS. First off, "recent studies have shown" that the peer review process is flawed. And "recent studies have shown that" the specialization that modern academia emphasizes so heavily is flawed too. And it is increasingly recognized within academia that repeating academic studies is extremely hard to do. NYU professor, Nassim Taleb has written several texts over the past decade arguing that for almost any useful knowledge we are better off listening to our grandmother's wisdom than academia.  In short, the northern deification of professors is misplaced and probably makes us dumber not smarter. But hillbillies do not have this idol. If I am around my hillbilly friends and refer to an academic study as proof of something, I will probably just hurt my case. I will be met with an eye roll or maybe a chuckle rather than the respect I get from my northern friends. There is sort of an ingrained idea within this culture that academia is mostly ridiculous. And they are right.

Now, I want to close by acknowledging that Vance and Sowell are not without a point in their criticisms of hillbilly culture. No culture is without problems and hillbilly culture is no exception. I agree that the higher divorce rates, higher unemployment rates, higher violence rates, and higher substance abuse rates are not good things. I would argue that some of this is not the culture's fault but issues relating to flawed government programs that incentivized out of wedlock babies and made low paying jobs harder to get (by raising minimum wage and increasing the cost of employing low skill workers). But some of the problems predate these dumb government policies and can only be attributed to the culture itself.

But there is a difference between improving a culture and destroying it. I think that hillbilly culture needs improvement. But I hope it is never destroyed. Because it is, in so many ways, a beautiful thing. It is my grandmother. It is great music. It is loyalty to family. It is simple and unashamed faith. It is my bloodline.


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