The 'country cousin' in us all

From music to comedy, literature to reality TV, country culture has long amused, fascinated , and even educated Americans.

SAUL YOUNG/KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL/AP
A TRANQUIL MOMENT AT CHARIT CREEK LODGE NEAR JAMESTOWN, TENN.

People have chuckled at the accents, expressions, and get-ups of their country cousins since the first hunter-gatherers settled in the town of Bedrock – and, a little later, moved on up to the East Side. (I say, Muffy, did you hear those rubes hootin’ and hollerin’?)

And for just as long, city slickers have been brought up short by the virtue, wit, and honesty of rural folk. Nowhere was hayseed dialect better used to deliver trenchant truths than in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Through the voice of an uneducated river-town boy, Mark Twain skewered pretense, pride, and the shameful inhumanity of slavery and racism. Huck’s surface simplicity and the adventure he and Jim had on the Mississippi is the sugarcoating that generations of readers have enjoyed while being urged to think more deeply about the society the two were fleeing.

Not every homespun tale is as powerfully subversive as Huck’s, but even in broad comedies like “The Beverly Hillbillies” or gentle ones like “The Andy Griffith Show” bumpkins usually prove to be wiser, or at least more genuine, than their urbane counterparts, whose snobbery is its own kind of stereotype. Of course, there’s a little acting involved as well. I once ran into Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon – aka Minnie Pearl – at a conference in Nashville, Tenn. She didn’t greet me with a big ol’ “howDEE!” but a polite “hello.” Impeccably dressed and coiffed, with nary a price tag in sight, she could have chaired a Federal Reserve meeting.

And as you’ll see in Patrik Jonsson’s cover story (click here to read it), behind country comedy and “Swamp People” shenanigans is an enduring culture that celebrates work, self-sufficiency, and life close to the land (or water). 

One cultural analyst tells Patrik: “This is deep in American mythology.” Or as Jeff Foxworthy, who has made a living off “you might be a redneck” jokes, once said: “You can call us rednecks if you want. We’re not offended, ’cause we know what we’re all about. We get up and go to work, we get up and go to church, and we get up and go to war when necessary.”

That is not to praise everything a bubba does. There’s bad behavior in rural America. Which makes it like the rest of America and the world. But there’s definitely local color there, which is why Hollywood returns to it time and again (currently with a slew of “redneck TV” reality shows) and why country music tops the charts and launches crossover artists such as Taylor Swift.

There’s a little country in everybody. For me, Texas, where I grew up, is a feeling that floods in when I hear the strains of country fiddle or meet someone with a comfortable drawl. My heroes haven’t always been cowboys, but I like their music and free spirit.

 
Those traits travel well, too. You can find them in my corner of New England and everywhere in the world that can use some hootin’ and hollerin’ from time to time.

John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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