Goodbye, Cornfield County
July 16, 2021 1:09 PM   Subscribe

The Weird History of Hillbilly TV. "There is the South. But there is also“the South” — the version of our region conjured by television executives. Today, Gabe Bullard takes a hard look at the weird history of hillbilly TV, from Andy Griffith to “Duck Dynasty.”" From The bitter southerner.

"“Rural America was like true America: simpler, without all the problems of big city life, technology, the Russians, and that kind of stuff,” says TV historian and former executive Tim Brooks.

CBS did not invent the idea of using the South as a foil for modern life, but the shows it aired streamlined the concept for television. The combination of old stereotypes and mass media created an alternative "South" that combined all of rural America into a single land of silliness, simplicity, and safety. And it put an exaggerated idea of the white working class at the center of everything."
posted by soundguy99 (28 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Excellent. A Face in the Crowd is well worth seeing.
posted by Rash at 1:34 PM on July 16 [11 favorites]

Cornpone images of the rural white South were and are popular with so many white Southerners, who either ignore or embrace them as they please. You can easily find a picture of the men of Duck Dynasty with smooth round faces, tucked-in polos and khakis. The camouflage and bad opinions are -- well, not a put-on, but a deliberate choice, as deliberate as Mr. Hillbilly Elegy's choice to delete his anti-Trump tweets now that he wants to be a senator. It's choosing backwardness, choosing the caricature.

Now honestly, I'm never going to be one of those Southerners who loses their accent and pretends they never heard of the place, but I have lost so much patience.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:33 PM on July 16 [34 favorites]

Interesting, but the article glosses over the late-70s & 80s.
No mention of The Dukes of Hazzard, which was a cultural phenomenon.
posted by cheshyre at 2:45 PM on July 16 [14 favorites]

Seconding the Dukes of Hazzard, which continued a long series of moonshine-driver romances going back to Robert Mitchum's Thunder Road. Just to complete the circle, Ron Howard's directorial debut, Grand Theft Auto, also relates to this genre (car chase, good bad guys, etc.)
posted by CCBC at 3:05 PM on July 16 [6 favorites]

My grandparents, who came from very poor roots but were solidly middle-class, watched 'Hee Haw' religiously. As did I; though whether I was born with a corny sense of humor that allowed me to laugh at the jokes, or the show had a major influence on my personality, is a question for a different thread. I'll say, though, that while some of the jokes still make me chuckle, some of the rest became problematic as I grew older and learned more. But c'mon, who doesn't think this is funny?*

"I crossed a doorbell with a hummingbird."
"What'd ya get?"
"I dunno, but it's a humdinger!"

*This is NOT a poll, no responses will be taken at this time
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:36 PM on July 16 [24 favorites]

the article glosses over the late-70s & 80s

I thought it also could've mentioned earlier hillbilly stereotypes such as in Li'l Abner and Mountain Dew advertising, but the article's specific focus was TV and CBS' Rural Purge.
posted by Rash at 3:44 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]

I feel like popular fiction does this to...everything? Accurate portrayals of cultural phenomena will always come in a far distant second to the demands of producing a narrative that's comfortable and comprehensible to a mass audience.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:47 PM on July 16 [2 favorites]

It's only fairly recently I've noticed how many people have been vocally nursing a 50 year grudge over the rural purge. Or nursing that grudge retroactively because they didn't actually care or notice at the time. Or weren't even alive when the shows were originally broadcast.

Just another example how profoundly stupid these culture war skirmishes strive to be.
posted by 2N2222 at 4:49 PM on July 16 [3 favorites]

Stupid is a good cover for malice, frequently.
posted by Jacen at 4:51 PM on July 16 [10 favorites]

I haven’t finished the whole article yet, but this quote really grabbed me … for reasons.

“Another piece in The New York Times called "Hee Haw" “the Spiro Agnew of the CBS lineup, the key to the heart of the ‘silent majority,’” a reference to the Americans whom Richard Nixon appealed to — older, white, perhaps resentful of protests and feeling left out by progress.”

Why does it seem so relevant now? /s
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 6:04 PM on July 16 [3 favorites]

At my grandma's it was either Hee Haw or Lawrence Welk, so I was a reluctant Hee Haw fan out of necessity.
posted by emjaybee at 6:22 PM on July 16 [8 favorites]

Hee Haw was one of the choices for us as little kids as it was known to be safe yet somewhat entertaining. Similar to these days when the grandparents and grandkids are gathered around the TV, and... Food Network it is.

(I didn't learn until much later that Roy Clark could shred.)
posted by kurumi at 7:14 PM on July 16 [19 favorites]

The camouflage and bad opinions are -- well, not a put-on, but a deliberate choice, as deliberate as Mr. Hillbilly Elegy's choice to delete his anti-Trump tweets now that he wants to be a senator. It's choosing backwardness, choosing the caricature.

Duck Dynasty was patently kayfabe, a work. Mostly light-hearted and harmless, really. Then the day came when I heard the patriarch refer to Halloween as a "pagan holiday," and I knew what was up a year before the rest of America.
posted by praemunire at 7:27 PM on July 16 [8 favorites]

My Chicagoan parents moved to literal Mayberry after my mom retired (my dad is still working, for a local Mayberry company). They like it there! (I like it there!) But my lifelong Republican mother, who haaaaaaaates Democrats and thinks they're all evil, has been wildly radicalized by living in Mayberry, in a way I don't think could have happened in the Chicago suburbs. And not radicalized in a Fox News direction! My parents are very traditional Catholics, and since they moved down South, everyone they meet is trying to get them to go to a Baptist church, non-stop. (My dad: "Everyone's Baptist and they've all been divorced three times and they think I'm going to hell!" Me: "WELCOME TO NORTH CAROLINA!") And they are not subtle about it! They're like, "Look, you belong to the country club. You need to belong to the Baptist Church. The Catholic Church is for illegals, and they aren't Christian." (North Carolina has the smallest percentage of Catholics in the country, and they are ALMOST ALL migrant agricultural workers or meat processing workers; the small handful of US-born Catholics are almost entirely affiliated with universities.)

My mother, who literally thinks Obama is a socialist, just got angrier and angrier about this. In 2015, after the Charleston shooting, my nice polite white-lady suburban-Chicago mother started attending Spanish-language Mass. (She refused to let me attend events at Northwestern because there might be gangs in Evanston. Not even Chicago! Tori Amos concerts in Evanston AT NORTHWESTERN.) She fucking HAAAAAAATES Spanish-language Mass. She's like, "I have no idea what they're saying and I don't even know the communion prayers!" But she was SO PISSED about the the shooting, on top of all the damn comments about "illegals" and "ethnic Catholics," that she started going to Spanish-language Mass and -- instead of sitting in the front row like she's done her entire life (and do you know how little you can shirk Mass if you're in the front row and you're six????? It sucks) -- she started sitting in the back-row seat closest to the door. Then during the 2015 Trump campaign, their parish church was lit on fire -- it was ruled arson. Right-wing, anti-immigrant arson. She started attending multiple Spanish-language Masses every Sunday. They were all like 70 migrant farm workers ... and my mom, sitting right next to the door (or, for a few weeks, in the middle of a field). We were like, "Mom, this seems dangerous." She was like, "What are they going to do, shoot me? I INVITE them to shoot me. I'm a nice old white lady, I DARE them to pull their guns on me. I will call the cops. They will get arrested. If someone comes into the church, I'm going to stand there and DARE them to shoot me."

"Mom! Be less Catholic!" we begged. We were ignored. She spent SIXTY-SIX YEARS never missing a single Sunday except when she had babies, and then she had the priests bring her communion in the hospital, and arsonist assholes were not going to stop her. Arsonist assholes radicalized her in a way none of her children ever managed (we tried!), and honestly it became frightening because a 70-year-old woman with the courage of her convictions who GIVES ZERO FUCKS is super-terrifying.

(She got invited to an ugly sweater Christmas party. She got a Trump sweatshirt at Goodwill. She went to the party. People said, "Where's your ugly sweater?" She said, "This was by far the ugliest sweater I could find." She got thrown out of the party.)

ANYWAY, they both really liked the Andy Griffith Show as entertainment before they moved there, but now that they live in Mayberry, the shine is off the rose. They have a lot of great friends -- honestly, great people! -- but fundamentally they live in a place where people think arson is an appropriate response to ... Democrats existing in Washington DC. (Honestly they barely exist locally.) They live in a place where Baptists are the majority religion and Methodists are the despised minority, and anyone else barely registers and is treated with great scorn. They live in a place where Covid masking guidelines were ignored, hardly anything shut down when the state ordered it, and vaccine uptake is terrifyingly low. It's a nice place! But it's not a community that cares about its own, let alone people it considers slightly outside its own.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:29 PM on July 16 [95 favorites]

My grandpa, a central Illinois farmer all his life, loved Hee Haw... but really for the music, not so much the cornpone humor. The weird conflation of southern rural caricature for rural life everywhere in the US never really reached him; he smoked cigars instead of chewing tobacco and supported his children becoming doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, and librarians (with a couple of them staying on the farm).

The article itself does tend to focus on the bits that support it and studiously ignores the ones that don't. Junior Samples may have been a genuine hick, but Minnie Pearl, scarcely less important to the show, doesn't quite fit that stereotype; the Sarah Cannon Research Institute in Nashville bears her real name after she became a spokeswoman for the medical center where she received treatment for breast cancer. And the TV version of In the Heat of the Night ran for seven seasons and co-starred Carroll O'Connor after he left the more prestigous All in the Family. And Bullard could have left off mention of the Duggars, probably.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:24 PM on July 16 [8 favorites]

Minnie Pearl read one of my grandmother's jokes on the air. It was among my Mimi's proudest moments.

(To be honest, I am a fan of picking and grinning, and I actually like the Beverly Hillbillies tune, if not the show)
posted by Countess Elena at 8:44 PM on July 16 [6 favorites]

I saw an episode of Hee Haw a few years ago at my uncle's. One of the skits was a preacher explaining how he conceals when he needs to check his watch while giving a sermon. I thought it was funnier than SNL in the past few years.
posted by riruro at 9:02 PM on July 16 [3 favorites]

Also thought Dukes of Hazzard was weird to omit.

Maybe also Mama's Family (last gasp for the folksy hillbilly domestic sitcom?) and Designing Women...In The Heat of the Night too.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:19 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]

producing a narrative that's comfortable and comprehensible to a mass audience.

Needs more Buddy Ebsen.
posted by clavdivs at 10:29 PM on July 16

Mama's Family was folksy but wow it could turn kinda harsh, like Carol's gang would flash a lightening strike of serious acting for a moment.

Green Acres scripts are stoner art.
posted by ovvl at 10:59 PM on July 16 [7 favorites]

More interesting their take on Rectify. (In passing on that article: "A wise man from Carville, Louisiana, once told me there was nothing I needed to know about living life I could not learn by watching 'The Andy Griffith Show.'”)
posted by BWA at 4:20 AM on July 17 [3 favorites]

My Chicagoan parents moved to literal Mayberry

Not to make light of the problems your parents have had in Mt. Airy, but I do hope you've been able to hit the Snappy Lunch for a pork chop sammich or two.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:32 AM on July 17 [4 favorites]

Green Acres scripts are stoner art.

I've never been a stoner, but Green Acres was wonderful and I thought it held up when I watched as an adult. It's barely mentioned in the article, but it's not the same kind of noble countryfolk show at all, though it did go with the rural purge. Most of the rural people are completely incompetent, and Mr. Haney is an unrepentant cheat and liar (my son and I went to a horrible supposedly all-you-can-eat brunch that gave customers a single one-egg omelet (think like a piece of paper) and a choice between a half and a quarter of a waffle - we promptly started calling it the Haney Brunch).

I would also say that Gomer Pyle USMC not mentioning Vietnam is a comedy thing, not a rural thing. There's a long history of military comedy ignoring war (see Beetle Bailey). I didn't watch McHale's Navy, but from what I've read, the actual war that was its setting didn't enter into it much. To my knowledge, the first comedy to really try to engage with a war at all was probably Hogan's Heroes, which was a hit, but much criticized for supposedly putting a comedy in a Nazi concentration camp (it was a POW camp, but that defense didn't seem to help much). My mother was horrified by its existence, and she was not alone. The fact that two of the actors playing Germans had actually fled the Nazis did not seem to help either (John Banner, who played Sargent Shultz, lost much of his family in the Holocaust).

Later there was MASH, which was a whole different thing. I'm pretty sure Henry Blake was not only the first sitcom character to die in a war, but the first to die at all. Before that, when actors died, the characters were said to be "visiting relatives" indefinitely (Dennis the Menace, Petticoat Junction). I think it's hard to explain now what a complete shock it was when they killed off Henry Blake. Also, MASH turned off the laugh track for operating room scenes, further separating "serious war" from "comedy war."

But thanks for posting this article. I'm old enough that I watched all of those shows as a child and knew only vaguely about the "rural purge." I do remember visiting rural relatives in Kentucky in the 70s and them watching Hee Haw because I had no idea it was still running in any way at all - I just assumed it went off the air around the same time as Laugh-In. So this cleared that up.

And Eyebrow McGee's story of her mother is now one of my favorite things on Metafilter ever.
posted by FencingGal at 5:32 AM on July 17 [11 favorites]

Another surprisingly relevant side journey into tv land of that age: Real People
posted by cybrcamper at 10:01 AM on July 17

MASH turned off the laugh track for operating room scenes, further separating "serious war" from "comedy war."

Relevant Futurama
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:41 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]

I was going to defend Green Acres as a counter-example to this argument, but after watching a few youtube videos of Mr. Douglass giving various versions of the "fife speech" to support my defense, I've realized that I've only viewed the show through a modern lens and I'm probably missing a lot of the original context that this article is referring to.

I've always thought of Mr. Douglass as a spoof of conservatives who repeatedly lionize "hard work" and "American farmers" without actually knowing anything about it. He's a Reagan Republican proto-yuppie who fled the big city to live a more authentic life in the country and he's discovering much to his chagrin that the version of America he extols doesn't really exist and he's actually the outsider and no matter how hard he tries, he can't make the world around him match his internal model.

But I'm starting to think that's not how he was originally intended. A lot of his idealism is actually tied to the New Deal and the Great Society--his impromptu speeches often praise resources made available to farmers by the federal government and how science can make farming easier and more productive. And of course his speeches are always humorously refuted by some bit of surreal local information which contradicts his argument and makes him look like an idealistic fool painting the world in broad strokes.

In the context of when it first aired, I think it can be argued that he actually represents the "de-Southifying" forces which threaten to change the status quo and the surreality is just a way to emphasize the futility of trying to change anything. I don't think it's a coincidence that Hank Kimball, the county agricultural guy, is hugely incompetent at backup up any of Mr. Douglass' idea of how the government should act, and also a bit of an outsider (I may be wrong, but I don't think he interacts with the other townsfolk often?).

It's still great stoner comedy, but I will be side-eyeing it from now on.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:20 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]

As someone who remembers that time period, I can see where it would seem like his idealism would be tied to the New Deal, and I think RonButNotStupid's analysis is very interesting, especially regarding Hank Kimball, but I really think the show was more a spoof of the "back to the land" movement that was gaining in popularity at the time. Comedies on TV then were just not overtly political like that - not until the Smothers Brothers, which was a variety show and not a sitcom. I would say the first really political sitcom was probably All in the Family.

Per Wikipedia, by the early 1970s, approximately 10,000 Americans were living on communes, many of them farms being run by people who didn't know about farming. That was more popular after Green Acres started, but the book The Egg and I, published in 1947, tells a very Oliver Douglas kind of story, by a woman who joins her husband whose dream is to leave his office job to start a chicken ranch. The book was made into a 1947 film starring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert. So that idea was in the air over a decade before Green Acres started.

A few things from Mental Floss on the origin of the series:
Like other early TV shows, Green Acres had its roots in an old radio show. “Granby’s Green Acres” had the same basic premise about a banker-turned-farmer who knew more about growing funds than crops. The show only aired for about seven weeks during the summer of 1950, but it allowed Jay Sommers to create and produce the similarly-themed TV show more than a decade later.

If it seems a bit farfetched that a city slicker would leave a lucrative career in finance to rehab a dying farm without knowing a thing about agriculture, well, at least one person has tried it. “I got the idea from my stepfather when I was a kid,” Sommers, the show's creator, said in a 1965 interview. “He wanted a farm in the worst way and he finally got one. I remember having to hoe potatoes. I hated it. I won’t even do the gardening at our home now, I was so resentful as a child.”

Eddie Albert, who starred as Oliver Wendell Douglas, had previously eschewed television roles, believing that the medium was "geared to mediocrity." But after his agent explained the idea behind Green Acres, Albert was hooked. "I said, 'Swell; that's me. Everyone gets tired of the rat race. Everyone would like to chuck it all and grow some carrots. It's basic. Sign me,'" he told TV Guide. "I knew it would be successful. Had to be. It's about the atavistic urge, and people have been getting a charge out of that ever since Aristophanes wrote about the plebs and the city folk."
posted by FencingGal at 8:10 AM on July 18 [5 favorites]

After his Blue-Collar Comedy Tour launched, Foxworthy said the tour's inspiration — the popular tour of black comedians and Spike Lee-directed film "The Original Kings of Comedy" — was for people who were "hip," and his tour was for people who were "not hip." "They're the ones who wake up every morning and go to work and go to war, and, dadgum, there's a whole lot of 'em out there," he said.

My maternal grandfather was black, but NOT AT ALL hip. He lived in the north and worked at a manufacturing plant, but had been raised on a southern farm. When he bought the family home in MI, he made sure it was in a rural enough area where he could replicate much of what he did as a boy: shoot, fish, raise chickens, grow his own family's food. It was definitely a slower-paced life for hm in the 20s and 30s, and that's what he liked. He got away from Detroit as soon as he could as a teen. It was too fast for him. He loved all the 60s hillbilly shows like Hee-Haw, George Jones was his favorite singer, and there were millions of black people in America like him, who, save for the racism, had a lot of the same opinions and feelings about the world as their white counterparts.
posted by droplet at 1:52 PM on July 18 [10 favorites]

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