INSTITUTE FOR RURAL JOURNALISM & COMMUNITY ISSUES
Protagonists of 'The Real Beverly Hillbillies' battle find common ground
By Al Cross, interim director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
The man who proposed a reality show based on “The Beverly Hillbillies” explained himself April 14 at the opening session of a symposium on “The Media and Appalachia” at East Tennessee State University. Then he listened to the man who mounted a successful campaign to keep CBS from producing the show.
“I’m as unapologetic a hillbilly as you’ll ever meet,” Dub Cornett, a native of Appalachia, Va., said in introducing himself to the audience. He said he looked for a likeable family that could show the integrity and judgment displayed by the patriarch of the original show. “Jed Clampett had integrity,” he said. “The banker was the idiot.”
Cornett said that Appalachian stereotypes would continue to prevail in the media until those in the region are able to tell their own story. “The people here have never had a chance to speak for themselves,” he said. “The media have always defined us.” He said documentaries don’t have the impact of entertainment, and journalism has been taken over by show-business values anyway.
“If we don’t set the agenda, Paris Hilton will,” Cornett said, alluding to the show “The Simple Life,” in which Hilton engages with rural folk. “We can either get positive about it or we can keep hiding.”
Documentary filmmaker Dee Davis, president of the Whitesburg, Ky.-based Center for Rural Strategies, said he accepted almost of Cornett’s arguments, but did not believe the show would have turned out the way Cornett hoped, because CBS had set the frame for it and “would continually be playing off the stereotypes.”
Davis reminded the audience that the only “Beverly Hillbillies” character who could read was 26-year-old Jethro Bodine, who has a sixth-grade education and some weird ideas about how the world worked. And he noted that one CBS executive thought it would be funny to see the family interviewing potential maids.
Earlier, anticipating Davis’s remarks, Cornett argued that it is easy to say that the show could not have reflected well on Appalachia, but “That’s self-loathing, to me. It may have ended up that way, but you don’t get to figure that out beforehand.” He noted that no one was able to see the show he had in mind.
“This wasn’t a Snuffy Smith cartoon,” he said. “This wasn’t written by some guy from New Jersey.” He said that the show he had in mind might not have engendered pride in the culture of Appalachia, as he hoped, “but 100 years of sitting around griping about the way somebody else writes about it hasn’t done it.”
Davis said his center sprang from two observations – that rural people “blamed their situation on themselves,” thinking they could improve their lot merely by working harder, and not on government policies that often follow inaccurate perceptions; and that Appalachians don’t accept media representations of their culture, and believe “Whenever they look at us, they always get it wrong.” He said there is “a long-term perception of Appalachians as something less.”
He said the center quickly broadened its scope to include all of rural America, partly because “Nobody gives a shit about Appalachians – hardly us” and reframed the anti-CBS campaign as one for Americans “whom people consider hillbillies,” including those in the rural South and parts of the Midwest.
Cornett was “a wonderful gentleman to be in a protracted fight with,” Davis said, adding that Cornett told him they wanted the same thing, “but he was doing it like Al Sharpton and I was doing it like Martin Luther King.”
The session began with renditions of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” and a parody of the original show’s theme song, by a band that included bass player Raymond McLain of the McLain Family Band. The parody, written by Lana Whited of The Roanoke Times in 2002, went like this:
Come and listen to my story ‘bout a show I dread
A Hollywood producer wants a family that ain’t fed
Wants to put ‘em in a mansion with a hot tub and a pool
And to have the viewers laughin’ while the family acts the fool.
For ratings, that is.
Come and listen to my story ‘bout some former millionaires;
They’ve moved to the hills, to a shack that needs repairs.
They’re practically a-starvin’ ‘cause they never learned to cook,
And they learned to hand their washin’ by a picture in a book.
Pull up a chaise lounge,
Take your Guccis off.
Au revoir, now, y’hear?
America just saw the end of “one of Appalachia’s longest-running and most closely watched reality shows,” Doug Powell of Columbia College, co-editor of the media section of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Appalachia, told the session.
Powell was speaking of Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph, who eluded capture for years by hiding out in the Nantahala National Forest of western North Carolina. He said news reports of the case often represented a return to “the savage, dangerous, frightening hillbilly character” that appeared in print after the Civil War.
“They looked for the wild-eyed guy who would stand in front of the camera and say ‘I hope they never catch him’,” Powell said. He said afterward that many print reporters took the same approach. He told the audience that no journalists seemed to recognize the irony that “The anti-government zealot was sheltered by the largest public-land movement in American history,” the national-forest system.
The Rudolph case had many little-reported facets, Powell said, including this: Rudolph’s brother, who lives in Florida, cut off his hand with a radial arm saw and mailed it to the FBI with a note saying he was protesting the media circus around his brother.
Also, he said, national forests have many homeless like Rudolph, who live off tourist cabins and dumpsters like the one he was caught raiding. “It’s not what’s so different about Eric Rudolph, but what’s the same,” he said. “What does he teach us about the way things are? And not the great mystery of Appalachia.”
For the author's April 27, 2005 column in The Courier-Journal on this subject, click here.
Rural Journalism & Community Issues
Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-9879
Al Cross, interim director , firstname.lastname@example.org