Joe Bob's America

A Brief History of the Redneck

January 30, 2017

The first big migration of rednecks to America was between 1717 and 1770. And they didn’t go to New York. Screw that. And they didn’t want Philadelphia or Boston, either. They hated cities. What they wanted was the first land you came to where there were no people. So they chose Pennsylvania because they had freedom of religion there, and they struck out west until there were no more cities and no more Quakers and no more Amish people and when they got close to Indian territory, they stopped and cleared the land for farming. And built a Presbyterian meetinghouse. Not a church—don’t call it that. The word “church” was so odious that they couldn’t even say it, so they called it a meetinghouse.

Okay, normally we Southerners don’t think of these people out in the middle of Pennsylvania as our kinfolk, but the biggest concentration of Scots-Irish Presbyterians is in…Pittsburgh.

James Carville, the political adviser to Bill Clinton, used to say, “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west, with Alabama in between.” But he was only half right. Pittsburgh is as redneck as Tuscaloosa.

So where do you end up when you’re trying to get away from all the people and be by yourself?

You end up in the mountains.

Nobody wanted to go up into those mountains in Western Pennsylvania—except the Scots-Irish. The question is sometimes asked, were the rednecks already hillbillies? Or did they become hillbillies when they found the Appalachians?

As I pointed out before, the highest mountain in Cumberland is 3,200 feet. The Smokies are 6,600. They had to learn to be mountain people. The reason those backwoods shacks exist in West Virginia is that they were escaping, hiding, and putting out a sign that said “All Representatives of All Governments Will Be Shot on Sight.”

And so the rednecks flow down through the Appalachian range, south through the Carolinas and Tennessee and north Georgia, and then out west to where one of ’em names the Cumberland River—where Nashville is today, at that time the farthest extreme of “the West”—and they create what we now know as…the South. Southern states are, in fact, full of places and things named Cumberland—rivers, creeks, mountains, sausages, crossroads, farms, dairies, hotels, counties, towns—but the original Cumberland doesn’t even exist anymore, having been abolished in 1974! The former lands of Cumberland are included in the modern county of Cumbria, but it’s almost like the American rednecks stole Cumberland from England—or, more precisely, picked it up off the side of the road when England tossed it out.

And the rednecks didn’t just go south. They also flowed down through the Ohio River Valley, which is why you have rednecks in Kentucky and Southern Indiana and Illinois and Missouri, which are not technically Southern states.

By the way, I keep hammering on Presbyterianism, but if you’re a Baptist or a Methodist, you’re still Scots-Irish. You used to be Presbyterian. Your ancestors switched over.

What happened is, after the Scots-Irish crossed the mountains and spread out through Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky, they couldn’t get enough preachers.

And that’s because the Presbyterians insisted that all preachers be educated.

And the place they were educated was Princeton University. Princeton was formed in order to train Presbyterian ministers. So you had to wait till Princeton turned one out and then persuade him to trek his ass over the mountains and find your little piddly congregation that probably wasn’t able to pay him.

Meanwhile, the Baptists and Methodists are coming through, and they say, “Screw that, anybody can preach, we’ll lay hands on the guy and he starts preaching.” And so it got kind of boring in the Presbyterian church waiting for your preacher to show up when, right down the road, the Methodists and Baptists were rolling around on the ground having ecstatic experiences, sometimes while drunk.

So all the Presbyterians jumped over to Methodist and Baptist, except for the Cumberland Presbyterians. They said, “We don’t give a flying frijole whether you went to Bible school or not.” They were perfectly happy to let anybody preach, they didn’t care. They especially didn’t give a diddly-squat about what a college in New Jersey was telling them to do, and that’s why when you get out as far as Texas, all you have, Presbyterian-wise, is Cumberland Presbyterians, you don’t have any regular Presbyterians whatsoever.

Now. That was 300 years ago that the rednecks started coming over here. And my point is that they weren’t native. They were just…immigrant refugees refusing to give cops their ID.

And even though they’re denigrated today as Angry White Men, they were recognized in their day as the only farmers who didn’t use slaves. It’s a little weird to be characterizing them as bigots when, all through the years when it mattered, it was the Anglican aristocrats who owned the slave plantations, not the redneck Presbyterians. The rednecks got mistaken for bigots, because it was true that they didn’t like black people, but only because they didn’t like anybody.

They actually didn’t need slaves because they harvested their main crop themselves, and that crop was whiskey.

Moonshine.

What today we would call “artisanal craft bourbon.”

The rednecks were, in fact, the only people in history to wage war over whiskey. The Whiskey Rebellion lasted from 1791 to 1795, and it all started because Alexander Hamilton decided to put a tax on whiskey.

You had all these Scots-Irish farmers in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia who had been turning their grain and corn and barley into whiskey for a whole century, and then centuries before that in Ulster and in Scotland. So they said, “Uh-uh, no way, we just fought a war to get rid of taxation without representation, and now you’re telling us that we’re supposed to pay money back east for one of our crops?”

So they refused to pay, mobs were formed, revenue agents got tarred and feathered, barns got burned down, and there were two armed battles. These were the guys who had fought the goldurn Irish chieftains, they weren’t afraid of a New York dandy like Alexander Hamilton. Eventually George Washington himself led a force into Western Pennsylvania to put down the rednecks. It’s the only time in American history that a sitting president has led an army into battle. Two of the rednecks were captured, tried, and sentenced to death. Later pardoned. One of those was a man named Philip Wigle, and today there’s a Wigle Whiskey, made in his honor at a Pittsburgh distillery—indicating that rednecks never forget. I’m especially proud of Kentucky in this war. No Kentucky whiskey maker ever paid a single dime to the government.

And, by the way, it wasn’t rotgut whiskey. It was smooth, because it was the tradition in the Lowlands to triple-distill.

Okay, so there’s a direct line from the Presbyterian Church to the Ulster wars to the Whiskey Rebellion to bib overalls to moonshine to country music to NASCAR to the ability to vote for Trump while simultaneously despising him. Which brings me to my ultimate point about redneck history.

The reason Bill Clinton coined the term “angry white men” in the first place is that he stood eyebrow to eyebrow with them. He grew up in Hope, Arkansas, went to high school in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and campaigned in places like Jonesboro, Arkansas, where they’re still complaining about the 2 a.m. closing time for bars. (A redneck believes that no bar should ever close.)

So Bill knows, and most Southern politicians know, that rednecks might be just a little crazy.

Because the redneck alpha male is paranoid. All these Scots-Irish whiskey farmers have been hounded by kings, presidents, and revenue agents for 400 years. They assume anyone they don’t know is probably gonna kill ’em. So they’re secretive, sneaky, and hair-trigger violent. This is why rednecks are always used as foils, enemies, and villains in the movies. (See: God’s Little Acre, Tobacco Road, Cape Fear, Sling Blade, and, for the purist, Deliverance.) There’s no such thing as a headline that says “Rednecks March on West Los Angeles, Demand the End of Stereotypes.” And I’ll tell you why.

Rednecks don’t need organizations. Rednecks are convinced that they’re protected by God.

To prove this, I refer you to the ultimate documentary on Southern redneck culture—Smokey and the Bandit. Not only the highest-grossing movie of 1977, but the eighth-highest-grossing movie of all time. Four hundred million at the box office.

The premise of Smokey and the Bandit is that Burt Reynolds and his sidekick, Jerry Reed, have to move 400 cases of illegal Coors beer from Texarkana, Texas, to the south side of Atlanta, and they have only 28 hours to drive from Atlanta to Texarkana and back. In the movie they say it’s 900 miles each way. This is the kind of casual redneck lie we tell all day long. In actuality it’s just 700.

Smokey and the Bandit pretty much sums up the past 400 years of redneck history. Illegal alcohol. Fast cars. Bad girls in cutoff shorts with a checkered past (Sally Field is a runaway bride). Defiance of the law. Twisted humor. “Insider” language so the authorities don’t know what you’re talking about. (Trucker CB lingo.) Our own genre of music. (“East Bound and Down.”) Risking your life rather than submit to a police officer. Lots and lots of twisted metal. And the whole theme of the movie is “We’re gonna drive 1,800 miles through enemy territory to enforce our right to drink illegal alcohol at a party.”

You may remember the scene where Burt and Sally get trapped on a dirt road where the bridge is out, and Sheriff Jackie Gleason and several deputies are in hot pursuit.

At the moment of truth, the deputy’s car goes bumper down into the ditch while Burt’s Trans Am sails so far over the creek that, as it enters the woods on the other side, it appears to still be rising, which would defy the laws of physics.

I like to think there’s a reason for that. Somebody looked down from heaven and saw a redneck fighting the government, the police, popular perception, the snooty opinions of motion-picture executives, and the accumulated snobbery of 400 years, and he said, “Bless you, my son.” It was John Knox, the original redneck, performing a little miracle.

God loves rednecks. Why else would He create the Trans Am in the first place?

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