three people stand before a man with a camera and a woman with a large boom microphone to film an interview
Behind-the-scenes photo of Director Ashley York working with cinematographer Jonathan Schwarz to interview her father, Tim York (left); her aunt Regina York (middle); and her aunt Karen Vaughn (right) on location in Breaks, Virginia. Ashley’s dad and aunts were born and raised in Letcher County, Kentucky and share their perspectives about the War on Poverty initiatives in the film (Photo by Kim York).

Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.

Hillbilly is a word that’s full of implications. It can be used as a self-bestowed label of pride or one that’s dismissive and insulting. My parents’ families moved from a tiny town in Tennessee to a growing industrial city in Indiana in the 1940s and mostly shrugged when they heard the word, although I had an aunt who would fight you if you called her that (I did not).

The 2018 documentary film “Hillbilly” comes with a lot of implications too. The film, co-directed by Ashley York and Sally Rubin, carries the weight of the word and more: for the documentary, York returns to the small Kentucky town where she grew up to talk to people during the run-up to the 2016 election between Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican Party nominee Donald Trump.

YouTube video
A trailer for ‘Hillbilly’ (2018), which can be watched on YouTube (buy or rent), Tubi (free streaming), and elsewhere.

York, a filmmaker based in Los Angeles and a Clinton supporter, interviews her grandmother Shelby and other family members who are ardent Trump supporters. More than simply drawing family battle lines, York and Rubin depict the people not just on one side or the other, but instead examine all sides, from the sons and daughters of coal miners, like York’s father and grandfather, to the LGBTQ+ people and Black people also living in the hollers of Appalachia.

There’s a point made in the film — which has won many honors, including the jury prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival — that beyond the term hillbilly there’s a lack of knowledge about the people of Appalachia. As Chad Berry of Kentucky’s Berea College notes in the film, there’s a sign at the Iowa state line that you’re entering Iowa, but no sign announcing you’ve arrived in Appalachia.

“There’s no other region of America more misunderstood than Appalachia,” Berry says in the film.

In an interview for this newsletter, York said there was a notion to reclaim the word “hillbilly” just as many in the LGBTQ+ community have reclaimed the word “queer” in recent decades. But she said the greater intent of the film “Hillbilly” was to paint an honest portrait of a people who have been misunderstood and maligned for more than a century, and how those people figured into Trump’s election.

As a 9-year-old girl in 1989, growing up in Floyd County, Kentucky, York watched a CBS documentary, “Another America,” about Appalachia. The program didn’t capture the Appalachia she knew.

“I was horrified,” York said. “I knew that something felt really terrible about it. I feel like if you grew up there, you were part of a region stigmatized and part of this national joke. I remember this sense of shame.

“More than a hundred years of literature and films and TV shows perpetuated mountain people as being inbred and not smart.” 

The reclaiming of words and reshaping them for new generations is doubly familiar to Alana Anton, a sociologist and assistant professor at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, who has lived her whole life in the South and in the shadow of the Appalachian mountains. On Twitter and in real life, Anton is known by her nickname, “Professor Queerbilly.”

“When I was growing up, it was more ‘redneck’ than ‘hillbilly,’” Anton said in an interview for this newsletter, regarding words that others used to stigmatize. “I started claiming [what some meant as insults] as my identity. The more I got into Appalachian studies the more I felt that was me. Now I associate that with being in the mountains.”

Under the Microscope

Hillbilly as a word saw increasingly common usage in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In January 1910, the Jackson Daily News hit a two-fer in an article about a Mississippi legislative election, citing one candidate who “takes pride in declaring that his supporters are ‘red necks’ and ‘hill-billies’ representing remote rural precincts and out of touch with the ruling spirit of the time.” That same month, the Montgomery Advertiser in neighboring Alabama cited the need to refer to “our agricultural friends not as hay-seeds, doodle-blowers and hill-billies, but as citizens the equal of any.’” 

Meanwhile in Nebraska that same month, a writer at the Plymouth News cited “the wildwood Hill Billies I have seen (with) beards some feet long a switch of the loose ends hanging out from under the waistcoat … others braided the growth and tied it around the neck, while still others braided it around the waist, tying it behind like apron strings … one told me he combed and plaited his every night, and put it away into a long linen bag or nightgown, so as to keep it from getting all tangled up with his wife and his feet.”

Frontiersman and Tennessee legislator Davy Crockett — an ancestor of mine — was the first hillbilly icon, according to the Encyclopedia of Appalachia. But the stereotypical hillbilly, the encyclopedia continued, “is the dominant icon of Appalachia … a lanky, black-bearded white male who lives in a cabin in the mountains with an outhouse out back. He wears a battered slouch hat, totes a shotgun and a jug of moonshine and holds little regard for the law, work, cleanliness or book learning. He has loose morals and is decidedly dangerous.”

For nine years and 274 episodes in the 1960s, the CBS sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies” ensured that Americans always associated hillbillies with guns, possums, and backwoods wisdom.

York’s film uses movie clips of tooth-deprived, often menacing hillbillies early on to sum up the public perception of the word. York said she and Rubin felt like they had to acknowledge those tropes but wanted to make short work of it. 

“We didn’t want to belabor that,” York said. “I was born in 1980. I grew up watching modern TV, Prince and Madonna. All that (hillbilly) stuff felt very passé to me.”

Besides the 1989 CBS documentary “Another America,” which aired when York was a girl, she was prompted to pursue a film about hillbillies in the wake of the MTV “reality” series “Buckwild,” a successor series to “Jersey Shore” about young friends in rural West Virginia who spend most of their time drinking and roaring through the mud in off-road vehicles. The series aired for only one season in 2013. 

York, who had studied journalism at the University of Kentucky and then earned her master’s degree at the University of Southern California, was teaching in California and saw series like “Buckwild” as an exploitative treatment of young Appalachians.

She and co-director Rubin then began pre-production on “Hillbilly,” interviewing writers and experts who could speak authoritatively on Appalachia and its people, including authors bell hooks and Silas House, who are interviewed in “Hillbilly.”

York noted that in a radio interview, hooks had said, “I think there is a lot of hope for hillbilly,” adding, “I feel like we have to deconstruct ‘hillbilly’ and claim it at the same time.”

A “Permanently Poor” People

As offensive as “Buckwild” and “Another America” were to York, a couple of earlier documentaries and a popular feature film cemented these perceptions of Appalachia for many Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. President John F. Kennedy visited a poor Appalachian family and so did President Lyndon B. Johnson. The latter in particular declared a “War on Poverty,” initiating the Food Stamp Act of 1964 and the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, and journalists visited the region to see what these people were all about.

a black and white archival photo shows an older man in a suit and tie stooped down on a front porch to speak with a man and his five children
In April 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson visited Martin County, Kentucky to rally support for his War on Poverty. The Poverty Tours culminated in August of 1964 with the signing of the Anti-Poverty Bill (Photo courtesy of National Archives/LBJ Presidential Library).

The people of rural Kentucky profiled in the 1964 CBS News report “Christmas in Appalachia” are “permanently poor,” narrator Charles Kuralt maintained. Kuralt introduced viewers to the families of the holler by walking their rutted, muddy road, showing their small cabins and shacks, and touring the one-room, seven-grades schoolhouse where students had to stoke the stove with coal dug from the nearby hills.

The 1968 documentary “Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor People” highlighted how those who worked in the coal mines were exploited by big coal companies, which worked miners to death then put the survivors out of work by mechanizing coal mining, eliminating the jobs and livelihoods of many Kentucky families.

One year later, some high school students in East Kentucky started learning how to make films through a War on Poverty program. Their work grew into Appalshop, the media arts center that provides ways for Appalachian people to tell their own stories through film, television, and radio. Their catalog now has a half century’s worth of titles that celebrate Appalachian culture and directly address the images portrayed in works like “Christmas in Appalachia.” 

Another iconic image that Appalshop later addressed, through the film “Strangers and Kin” (1983), was that of “Deliverance,” the 1974 film that set the depiction of hillbillies back decades. Say what you will about years of hillbillies being seen as shiftless or menacing, many of the the documentaries and television stories treated the people of the Southern Appalachians with some sympathy, at least.

John Boorman’s film by contrast was in service of a harrowing survival thriller about four Atlanta businessmen, played by Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, who are hunted and assaulted by backwoodsmen on a canoe trip down a remote Georgia river.

The most oft-cited, oft-imitated scene is one in which Cox’s character plays a duet, “Dueling Banjos,” with a heavy-lidded, perhaps developmentally disabled boy, played by Billy Redden.

In “Hillbilly,” York finds Redden, who in the mid-2010s is working at a Walmart, bringing grocery carts in from the parking lot. As York reports, Redden was paid $500 to act in “Deliverance” — and help create a portrait of a hillbilly cliché that has endured for half a century.

If “Hillbilly” were only a rehash and refutation of Southern and Appalachian tropes, it probably wouldn’t have been as acclaimed as it was. But York and Rubin, who had been working on the film since 2013, found themselves with a new, true-life storyline in the 2016 election and the impact it was having on York’s family.

“In the Midst of a Tornado”

Work on “Hillbilly” was progressing, York felt optimistic about the Clinton campaign, and in an interview she fondly recalled the night Clinton became the Democratic Party nominee. At about the same time, York said, she was seeing increasingly strange, anti-Clinton Facebook posts from her grandmother back in Kentucky.

“My Granny Shelby got completely seduced by Donald Trump and was posting those things on Facebook and I thought, ‘What is going on? My grandma has been a Democrat all her life.’ She was a Democrat through and through.

“We all found ourselves in the midst of this tornado.”

It became obvious to York and Rubin that “Hillbilly” would focus not only on the people of Kentucky, from the struggling towns to the organizations that gave hope to young people, but also the 2016 election and its effects on York’s family.

As the film was being shot, York said, there was no intention to make her a character in the film. She was, in classic documentary style, the interviewer sitting at the kitchen table, asking people, including her grandmother and other relatives, about their lives and perspectives, on Clinton and Trump among other things.

“I thought the end of the movie would be Hillary Clinton winning election and Silas (House) and bell (hooks) and I square dancing.”

Instead, York and the filmmakers were “heartbroken” that Trump won, thanks in part to voters in Southern and rural states. After looking at the electoral map, House was quoted as saying that he would no longer defend rural people.

York didn’t set out to make a film that so closely reflected her experiences and those she interviewed, including family members. 

“But this film, as personal as it is, it’s equally political,” she said. 

“Hillbilly” was funded by money that the filmmakers raised as well as funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and its performance in competition at film festivals across the country and its enduring legacy, five years after it was released, is proof of its success, York said.

York said she wished that her film had been picked up and produced by streaming service Netflix. Instead, the streamer invested in Ron Howard’s film version of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” “I thought [that film] was so irresponsible.”

“I wish that our film could have been on Netflix. It would have been a perfect companion to ‘Hillbilly Elegy.’ But corporations are going to do what they do, whether it’s how they treat coal miners in Kentucky or writers in this town [in Hollywood] with a writer’s strike going on.’”

“I Never Called Myself a Hillbilly”

Today, York is working on a pair of projects that are very different from “Hillbilly” and focus on true crime and entertainment, respectively.

“If someone said go make ‘Hillbilly 2,’ it would be a great film,” York said. “Just continue the story. But you’d see a much different Ashley York.” 

How so? 

“I am so livid,” she said. “The truth of this country and the lies we’ve told since its founding, under the delusion we’re all equal and racism doesn’t exist. We’re at a very vulnerable time for our nation … We have to be vigorous and question everything.”

two women take a selfie with the iconic Hollywood sign in the background
Directors and Producers Ashley York (left) and Sally Rubin (right) (Photo by Ashley York).

Sociologist Alana Anton also believes that informed study of our recent past, filtered through perceptions of the people of Appalachia, will help us make our way into the future. Her dissertation is about the news media’s use of words perpetuating or eschewing the hillbilly stereotype during coverage of the 2016 and 2020 elections. 

“My accent, if I was up north, people would be able to pick it out,” Anton said. “On Twitter, I see people say, ‘Only hillbillies and rednecks say y’all.’ It’s the most gender-inclusive pronoun we have. I’m quick to defend against that thinking. I would be happy if everybody said y’all.”

“I never called myself a hillbilly,” York said. But she said that reclaiming the term in her film is a step toward a goal.

“We really wanted to elevate the perspective of people you don’t think about when you think of Appalachia — Silas House, the young people, my dad and his two sisters who are all progressive.”

Anton agreed on the need to make Appalachia and the word “hillbilly” less about menacing “Others” creeping through the backwoods and more about the diversity of the mountain people.

“My goal is to popularize ‘queerbilly,’” Anton said. “I’m proud to see people use it.” She laughed. “I even got a tattoo: ‘Queerbilly Hellion.’”

Keith Roysdon is a Knoxville-based writer of news and pop culture commentary. For the Daily Yonder, he’s recently written about Superman’s small-town origins, notorious tourist attractions, and historic cemeteries. His fourth co-written true crime book, “Cold Case Muncie,” about unsolved murders in what’s long been considered America’s typical small city, was published August 14 by the History Press.

This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.

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