We are the “New “Hillbilly”

Generations removed from our original Ozarkian immigrant ancestors, we didn’t necessarily grow up in a log cabin or attend school in a one-room school building (although some of our school districts weren’t much bigger). Most of our roads were paved, and some even had the curves taken out and, except during ice and other storms most of us don’t remember going without electricity. Water wasn’t gathered at the creek for drinking, but was drawn from wells found by "water witches."

Some of us only spent summer vacations and Christmas at the "old home place," the home of our grandparents and great-grandparents. That was when we learned about outhouses (if they didn’t yet have indoor plumbing), how to ride, both horses and tractors; put hay up, or help out at the "family business." It was during these times that we picked ‘maters; caught fireflies and put them in old Mason jars with holes punched in the lids; went swimming in the creeks; and learned what poison ivy and sumac (often pronounced "shewmake") looked like, and that calamine pink qualified as a new skin tone.

Each generation’s exodus to the big cities for economic reasons also marked those who stayed behind. The feelings for extended family members didn’t get lost, but did change and as aunts, uncles, and cousins had to miss annual trips "back home" for various reasons, their own feelings changed.

As I sit here, listening to classic 70s rock and looking south over land that my people and my husbands knew so well, I ponder these things and more. It is undoubtedly their voices guiding my pen–they’re yelling over the music today.

We, the descendants of those who defined hillbilly in the early 20th century, feel a common tug to the hills, hollers and curved roads. Like those before us, some of us attend church for social reasons–in the busyness of life, there are times church is the only time to see friends and family.

But most of us find the Creator in each curve of a road snaking up the bench of these ancient mountains. We find Him in each ridge sloping—or starkly dropping, as the case may be–down to the hollers. We rejoice in the different seasons, so that no two months affect our senses the same. We feel a sense of rightness in the creeks that flow, be they wet or dry weather creeks; their purpose is self-evident in the sycamores and other trees lining their banks, and the narrow valleys they’ve created.

Some would call this communing with nature, but it’s more than a hike or a ride to the back forty. It doesn’t matter who holds title to the land, as long as you’re looking and admiring from afar–it’s all ours, this scenery designed by Someone much smarter than those of us enjoying it. We sorrow every time the land is disrespected. In discussing it with another, we mention some landmark, some geological feature forever disfigured, some beloved building torn down; we feel the same sorrow and sense of loss for a few seconds.

By the same token, we go together down the back roads, and not a word is said in our joy that we have this privilege of sharing what these things of our heritage bring us. These emotions are so deep, we often turn from them, both in feeling and in conversation. A people can only feel so much before the strength of the feelings overcome even the strongest.

We are beginning to recognize that much is gone, to be replaced by a new way of looking at things, a new way of life. But some things never change. We believe our children should work for what they want. These days, children don’t necessarily work for their family’s survival–but maybe they should.

We believe that each hill, each valley, is important. Curves in roads are there for a reason–straight roads cannot give you the same satisfaction that comes with successfully reaching a small village via the only road in, which climbed mountain shoulders and ran alongside creeks, crossed creeks, and held the excitement of what was just around the next curve.

We believe that we don’t have to be a part of the rat race any more than we want to and that a person a person should do what is important to them, as long as it is responsible and non-interfering.

We don’t mess with another’s belongings, in the belief that what goes around, comes around.

We like neighborhoods over subdivisions.

We prefer bonfires on the creek banks, with a cooler of soda and/or beer and the car radio playing over the light shows, dancing and champagne found in "civilization".

We want to be buried in the small, quiet cemeteries with century-old pillars and real flowers whenever someone feels like visiting.

We attend family gatherings and potlucks instead of socials with diamonds and silk.

We don’t have to have our name emblazoned on every surface to know we exist.

We are computer-savvy, but our work clothes are usually made by Big Smith,
Wrangler, and Levi Strauss, not Donna Karan, Escada, or Calvin Klein.

We pick up arrowheads and fossils from creek banks, pick greens and boil sassafras from the hills, and we send emails to cousins in Japan or wherever their lives take them.

We adopt personas for the people who don’t "know" us, and can’t really define what it is we show the people who do.

Our ancestors sometimes believed "hillbilly" was a derogatory term. Most of us don’t feel that way. We know the truth behind the word, and it is only fools that think the stereotype truly exists. If a person looks down on a hillbilly, we know that person is only seeing what we want him or her to see– and to our glee, they’ll never know that we’re "gulling" them.

We are at the forefront of a new movement, a focus on who we are and how we came to be here. A belief is being born again, one that states that our past is important, and maybe it’s time we stood up and said, "No more!"

Some of us are slowly coming to realize that the value of our ancestral lands isn’t determined by the price the highest timeshare builder can bid for it–the value is in the land just being there, a treasure to behold every season of the year, with a minimum of "use" by "progress".

One tradition that we should no longer hold dear is our apparent passiveness and helplessness in the destruction of our past. That history is largely symbolic now, for the way of life our grandparents, even our parents, led, is gone–and it can’t be restructured or restored. We really don’t want to lead it again, for the most part, for like them, we go about our lives finding a bridge between what we hold dear and what the future holds in store.

But we are still here, tied to the land, and continuing to hold it in our hearts and our connections with each other.

The author, Vonda Wilson Sheets, is a 6th generation Taney County native. She has a background in geneology, history, theatre, and film and a deep appreciation for these Ozark Hills she calls home.