You Know You’re a Hillbilly When…

By NANCY PATRICK

You probably remember a comedian named Jeff Foxworthy whose fame rests on his act that begins, “You know you’re a redneck when…”

I have never thought of myself as a redneck, but neither had I realized that I might possess hillbilly blood until the recent Nexflix production Hillbilly Elegy aired. If you watch it, Glenn Close’s character of Mamaw will surprise you.

The movie, based on the memoirs of J. D. Vance, relates the story of a young attorney who graduated from Yale Law School after completing his undergraduate work at Ohio State University. J. D.’s family originated in Kentucky where many of them remain. 

However, as teenagers, J.D.’s grandparents had eloped to Ohio, hoping for a better life. Their two daughters grew up in a home with young, uneducated, crude, and often violent parents. A major violent episode happened when the girls were quite young. Their parents had a big fight that ended with their mother pouring gasoline on her husband’s back and setting him on fire. 

The little girls rushed to his aid and put out the fire, saving their father’s life. After that incident, though, the parents never lived in the same house again. Ironically, their co-dependent and dysfunctional relationship resulted in their living on the same street with just a few houses between them.

One of the daughters, Bev, continued to live in the same neighborhood as her parents even after she had two children, Leslie and J.D. She never kept the same man around for very long, so the children moved from one house to another as Mom kept changing men. Bev had managed to complete nurses’ training but had never mastered her addiction to drugs. This addiction eventually cost her the nursing job she had and forced J.D. to decide whether he would continue to enable her or set boundaries that would allow him to pursue his own life.

J.D.’s grandmother, whom he called Mamaw, became the most influential person in his life. Her name provided the first clue that I might be a hillbilly. Although none of my friends’ grandchildren call them Mamaw and Pawpaw, my entire family used those appellations for our grandparents. Since my cousins and I all had two sets of grandparents, we differentiated between maternal and paternal grandparents by adding their last names to their titles. 

Why did this movie prompt me to think of my roots in rural Arkansas in the 1950s?  The most important element of the movie focused on the belief that family comes first—no matter what. Right or wrong—family comes first. For example, Mamaw twice persuaded J.D. to do the wrong thing to protect his addicted mother from the police. 

Once Bev attacked J.D. so severely that he feared for his life. He jumped out of the car and ran, screaming to the nearest house he could find. The occupant of the house brought him inside and locked the door as she called the police. J.D., in the meantime, called Mamaw and Papaw to come rescue him.

By the time the grandparents arrived, the police had handcuffed Bev and placed her in the police car. J.D. refused to press charges against his own mother because he read the signals coming from Mamaw’s face. He even lied to the officer, saying his mother had not struck him.

Another time, Bev came home demanding that J.D. urinate in a cup for her to present to her boss. She needed his “clean” urine because her own was dirty. Mamaw pressured J.D. to do it for his mother, again emphasizing the necessity of covering for one’s family—no matter the situation.

As I observed this family’s interactions, I remembered similar incidents from my own childhood. I observed uncontrollable rage on more than one occasion in my family. People screamed, cursed, and hit when anger possessed them.

J.D.’s own life contained a simmering anger just below his surface calm and complacence. That rage erupted during one incident when J.D. and some hooligan pals vandalized a business. When J.D. began hitting a pile of bags with a baseball bat, his first reaction seemed playful, but the longer he hit the bags, the more enraged he became. 

In dysfunctional families, there often brews beneath the surface an anger or rage that stems from one’s inability to control anything. Children feel at the mercy of the adults in their lives. Children suffer a feeling of utter helplessness when they witness their parents going through traumatic events. These traumas become part of the child’s psyche and never truly go away.

This movie also brought some humorous memories to my mind—things I’m glad I remember that add levity to a sometimes troubled past. One happened in the movie when J.D. asked his girlfriend Usha, now his wife, to get the “surep” for the pancakes. She truly didn’t understand what he meant at first. Then she said, “Oh, you mean syrup.” Another time, J.D.’s sister, Lindsay, brought him a fried bologna sandwich, which he relished. My dad loved fried bologna!

In my family, we pronounced Vienna sausage with a long “i” and long “e.” I learned how to pronounce gherkin (pickle) one day when I said “jerkin” and was greeted with a roar of laughter. As my education and life experiences expanded, thankfully, I never felt embarrassed or ashamed of my heritage. Rather, I took great pride in what my parents had done to provide my sister and me with their love and steadfast belief in us.

As a matter of fact, Mamaw told J.D., “where we come from is who we are, but what we choose every day is what we become.” Though not sure I agree completely with that, I do agree that our roots remain an integral part of our being. I proudly claim my hillbilly heritage and hope there is a place reserved for me in hillbilly heaven.

 Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing

6 comments

  • Loved your article. Many similar experiences …

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  • Good post. I worked and lived in Ohio for a year while completing a construction project in Cincinnati. A good portion of my subcontractor work force came from that region of Ohio and Kentucky. It was hard to figure who was more redneck or hillbilly; us Texans or them. We often joked about it, but for them, it was the real deal.

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  • I read the book but haven’t read anything good about the movie version. I, too, have some hillbilly-redneck kin and witnessed family violence much of my life, though we kept it hidden as much as possible. Guess I need to watch it. I did recognize aspects of the Mamaw character in one of my relatives.

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  • Sandy Parish-Tompkins

    OH MY GOODNESS!!! This hit home for me too Nancy!! I absolutely love this and I got a few chuckles out of it too!! This is one of your very best!! Love you cousin!!! Hope the remainder of your recovery goes smoothly and with as little pain as possible.

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  • Great review! I’ve been using this book for about 3 years in an Honors Class on culture! It goes along with another good book, American Nations, by Colin Woodard, that identifies eleven cultures that shape America, going back to the founding of each part of the country. He calls hillbillies Borderlanders, that stretches from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, south Missouri, Arkansas, down into west Texas! Many students, as you and I do, relate to this culture, which goes back to the Scots-Irish (who zealously fought over their land for centuries before coming to America, and continue that tradition). I thought the movie was pretty good if one has already read the book to make sense of it. (This year, we read with Hillbilly Elegy the 2020 book Hill Women by Cassie Chambers, written from someone whose roots are the county next door to Vance’s roots in Kentucky, from a women’s perspective. They worked together very well)

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  • Thank you Nancy. I too am a ‘Hillbilly’ or perhaps now a ‘Hill William’ from the Ohio valley near West Virginia. When I went into the military I mentioned how important innerst is. I was promptly informed the word was interest. I was embarrassed but went to work on my vocabulary.

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