© 2013 B.L. Bierley
When I was a little girl it was not unheard of to call someone a redneck. It wasn’t intended to insult or glorify back then. I saw them everywhere, every single day. Heck, I was one myself. But my kind of rednecks were boys and girls who worked with their daddies and granddaddies all day in the field, sitting on a tractor to plow crop lands or bale hay, or throwing the baled hay into a truck to save for future use or sale.
They were the ones who mended fences, trained and exercised horses, or herded cows in for milking and back out afterward, or they managed a pig farm. They pulled beans and corn, or they planted them. Work and rednecks are two words that must go together to get the accurate sense of the terms. Most of them drove pickup trucks which sometimes got stuck in the mud when they were pulling out a stuck buddy or a cow, a regular hazard of unpaved throughways after it rained.
They would gather in the same fields they’d worked all day and tip back a few cold ones on the weekends when the sun went down. Even the younger ones would get into mischief now and then. They would occasionally put a pig in the ground to roast, and after eating their fill they would find secluded places to turn up the music and make dust while they danced or did whatever redneck kids did to have fun—basically whatever they felt like doing that wouldn’t get them arrested. They’d drive through mud to shake up the folks who’d had too much to drink for a thrill. Then they’d find a nice secluded place to make out on a blanket under some stars.
Rednecks were a different breed from what you see these days. Early ones almost all had red necks in the literal sense, from the hours in the sunshine before sunscreen was a regular part of the grooming regimen. It wasn’t a classification so much as a statement of fact. “Look at his red neck!” or “See, now, that’s a real redneck!” That’s exactly how the term “redneck” came to be in the first place.
Then Mr. Jeff Foxworthy came along.
Through a keen observation, this comedian pointed out the less-civilized versions that existed amongst rednecks. Suddenly the country thought rednecks were stupid, ignorant folks who couldn’t tell a dollar from a dip stick. Some of us were downright indignant over his depiction, but only because we didn’t feel we deserved that distinction as a population. We still laughed with him because we knew one or two individuals among us who truly did match the description, but Mr. Foxworthy generalized rednecks by throwing a germane classification underneath a very large umbrella.
The idea of a redneck would eventually evolve again as the lines of country music and pop began to converge. People began to recognize the wide reach of this piece of Americana in the entertainment industry. Being a redneck became more like a badge of honor, unfortunately for different reasons entirely than what they were honored for when I was a girl. No longer was the distinction of working in the sunshine for a red neck a qualification for being one.
Today being a redneck is synonymous with being country. It now generalizes anyone with a truck, or boots or who dips snuff and speaks with a drawl, manufactured or not, as being a “redneck.” I blame the music. Not that I’m not a fan, of course. If you read my blog, you’ll see my playlists are full of country music. The danger of it is that country music’s popularity is growing in many urban areas, too.
Those country music stars whose music over-reaches the concept of redneck-ness these days are the ones that make me sad. Many of them think all it takes is a country drawl to be a bona fide redneck. The result is a butchered accent and a shame to anyone who loses an “R” on a regular basis.
Don’t get me wrong, a natural Southern drawl is a beautiful thing to hear singing a ballad or a catchy tune. It’s the twangy, over-exaggerated mess many of them make in the name of “country music” these days that is most embarrassing. People who build their drawl until it’s almost comical ought to be ashamed.
I’ve known a few back-woods rednecks whose language needed a translator to anyone not from around there, and if it’s natural, there’s no shame in it. But in the movies and television and in the world of CMT and ACM awards, more specifically those individuals that claim to be Southern or country folks in particular, I hold doubts that all of those men and women speak with such heavy emphasis and truncated words all the time.
I shouldn’t really criticize accents for authenticity. I had a friend in high school whose accent was very deep. Let’s say she said the following phrase: “I need to iron my jeans so we can go out tonight.” When Green Beans (her last name was Green; that was an actual nickname, by the way) said this, it came out something like: “Ah need to arn ma jeans so we kin go a-yowt tuh-night.”—and that was just her casual, everyday speaking voice.
My friend was as country as it came, and her heavy drawl was natural. I tried hard to get her to shorten her syllables once, just teasing her. The word “out” would always be a two-syllable word, and the word “iron” would not translate to anything remotely recognizable. For the most part my own drawl has faded a little into a Northern-Alabama accent rather than the mid-Central Alabama twang of my youth. I do exaggerate my accent sometimes to tease DaVelma and Ziggy with my Deep-South Granny voice, where I add syllables and lose consonants when I’m trying to get them to do something. And whenever I go home to see Aunt Nana and Uncle Maverick my lilting accent naturally slips back into its former depth.
While the Sun Shines
I counted myself among the rednecks during my youth, though I confess I wasn’t forced to work as much as most. In my heyday I drove a pickup truck for a time during my junior and senior years of high school. It belonged to my step-father, who allowed me to drive his little truck for a while. It wasn’t his favorite, an old red Chevrolet, but instead a Black Nissan S-10 with a manual transmission, a white enameled toolbox in the bed and a factory radio. In it I occasionally hauled stuff for him, from old railroad ties for my mama’s flower beds to bulk mulch for the same.
Mostly my red neck came from hours outside in the sunshine and fresh air of a rural route existence, practicing (usually outside at someone’s house) cheerleading routines during preparations for basketball season. My school was K-12 all in one location, and we were too poor to have a football team back then. I also remember every summer watching little league, Babe Ruth league, and high school baseball games on old-school bleachers that would give you a splinter if your shorts were too short. Back then being a part of the crowd was all about family support, where the idea of a concession stand was everyone’s mamas making homemade ice cream and selling it for fifty cents a cup to help pay for the cost of cups, spoons and ingredients.
Not that I didn’t work at all. No, I had jobs now and then. And I did help with cows, pigs, hay and beans on occasions when a friend of my folks needed a hand. Where we lived you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a field of something (cows, pigs, hay or beans in particular). Aunt Nana and Uncle Maverick weren’t farmers by trade. Uncle Maverick still to this day works as an electrician who gets his red neck from hours pulling power lines and working on construction sites to run power to new buildings. And my cousins and I were raised as more gentile versions of redneck girls.
Farmers tans were so common back then where I grew up that we didn’t comment on them except when someone took off their t-shirt to go swimming anywhere there were girls around to see the stark contrast of white on red. Girls from my neck of the woods didn’t have much of a tan line at all. We could lay out in the sun pretty much anywhere during the day without a stitch on because the boys were too busy working to come around and see that we were naked! Boyfriend jeans weren’t as high fashion then, either. Who wanted jeans stained with tractor grease, grass or worse … manure? And their jeans were always without pockets because the Skoal or Copenhagen cans had worn them out, too.
You Call that a Truck?
Nowadays there is an entirely new class and genre of rednecks. Rednecks are people who do anything they deem “country” such as hanging out in a field, but doing no work in said field. And what’s up with these trucks they drive? Trucks today are like status symbols of the so called “redneck” boys and girls. They’ve got pristine paint jobs, stickers on the windows and fancy headlights. Their trucks are never used for hunting anything except a parking space, and they’ve got bedliners to protect beds that never haul anything messier than a cooler on the way to a party.
Back when real rednecks existed, trucks were used for working. They bore the marks of difficult jobs they were called upon to do. Scratches from rolls of barbed wire gouged the beds and fenders. There were dented by fence posts, heavy equipment or aggressive animals, and they stayed dirty most of the time with loads of feed or seed and sometimes crates of animals whose evidence left behind was anything but rose petals. My granddaddy’s truck once had a corn stalk sprouting from the rear fender when dirt and corn meshed for so long it sprouted. He left it there until the stalk got so high it obscured his license plate. Then we had to transfer it to the garden (we sure as heck didn’t waste it).
And just to clarify, not all the rednecks I knew drove those old working trucks all the time. Many of the boys I grew up with had big fancy trucks with tires taller than most of the girls they knew. But the difference between those guys’ trucks and guys’ trucks today is that those boys still used their trucks for the intended purpose when it called for it, like when a buddy’s property had a sweet, transmission-sucking mud hole that they would challenge others to get through. Or when they had to pull another guy whose truck tires were just too short or too slick to navigate that same mud hole!
What Do Rednecks Do for Fun?
Cow tipping is an urban legend, at least where I come from. I have never seen a herd of cows that could sleep through an oncoming assault. Most bulls guard their cows most fervently, especially from a tipsy redneck, y’all. But hearing these tall-tales of folks tipping cows for fun is just ridiculous. Anyone who claimed they were going cow tipping was usually just looking for a field to hang out it, minus livestock and other people. I think it was a ruse guys used to get girls off alone. Usually it was a guy who wanted a chance to talk his girl out of her well-worn jeans in order to verify her rumored lack of tan lines.
Truly, unless they’re trying to prove how little they cared for other people’s property, nobody harassed livestock on purpose. Cows ain’t cheap (Yeah, I said “ain’t!” What of it?). And if you damaged someone’s stock (or the fence that held it by running a bull into and through the barbed wire in the dark, let’s say), that was money out of somebody’s pocket. And low was your name if your daddy found out about it. You wouldn’t have any pockets, or money to put in them either, when he tanned your hide for hurting a fellow man’s business.
Cows served a purpose on farms. They provided milk or beef for families or industry. My parents’ friends used theirs for both, though their farm was mostly for dairy production. Any farm kid or friend thereof knew they were not there for amusement, folks. There were exceptions, of course. A buddy of mine used to say that you could tell if the fish were biting by the behavior of the cows.
According to J.D (his initials) if the cows were up and grazing, it meant the fish were biting. If they were lying down, it meant the fish were lazy too. I actually thought he had a point. Cows will roam and graze when it’s cooler outside, and fish swim closer to the surface to stay in the warmer water and to catch the bugs that fly around more in the humid, cooler temperatures. If cows aren’t moving it is probably because it’s hotter than the devil’s wife’s kitchen, and likewise the fish can swim deeper since the water heats up in the full sun. The bugs also hide in the shade when it’s hot to avoid the heat as well, hence nothing for the fish to come up and take a snap at anyway. Any good Southerner (fish or farmer) knows that bugs are worst at twilight when the weather cools, particularly if it is muggy and the light is dim. This likely correlates to the fact that most Southern men fish in the early morning and late afternoon to see the best results.
A more accurate event that young Southern rednecks get up to these days is the new pastime I like to call “Construction Barrel Tipping.” I’ve got proof every time I drive to work and see those orange and white barrels being righted by the road crews. I imagine every night when the foremen call it a day, redneck boys and girls ride around in their vehicles trying to see how many of these barrels they can upset before someone catches them. You’d have to push them just so to get them to fall away from traffic and land in such a way that they won’t roll back around on you and cause you to wreck. Good Times!
Old-Style Redneck, New-Style Redneck
In my opinion, too many people these days want to call themselves a redneck or a country boy or girl. I guess you’re allowed to do that in a free country. I’ll always have a little more respect for the redneck who came by his or her title the old-fashioned way, though. I admire kids who know what it means to earn something, not have it given to them. Kids who listen to country music stars singing about being a redneck want to identify with the lifestyle I suppose. They may be able to identify, alright, until they have to go clean holding pens or stand guard in a pig sty to keep a sow from lying on her litter of future bacon and baloney and smothering them. If they were then asked to go out and bale hay then load it on a truck in the heat of an Alabama summer, they’d run back to their air-conditioned homes and watch CMT so fast they’d give us a crick in our neck as they passed us in a blur of shininess.
Real rednecks aren’t shiny. They’re dirty. The granny-beaded neck of a kid who has grain dust and hay and cow manure on his or her person isn’t just a line in a song. It’s the natural result of someone doing a job because daddy said they would, not for an allowance or anything else they could get because they felt entitled to it. Most of the rednecks I knew worked with their parents because the farm was a lifestyle and a legacy they hoped to inherit someday.
A real old-style redneck boy or girl would drive whatever mama and daddy let them have because he or she would be grateful to use anything to get away from work for a little while on Friday and Saturday nights. And if they messed up, they paid a price. If they came home muddy or drunk or tore up a vehicle with some kind of shenanigans, then they had earned their butt whupping. Unless the truck was no longer running, they were expected to wash that mud away before the sun went down on Sunday evening. This was after they sat through a Sunday service because mama said they would and prayed to a real-live God not to spoil the good reverend’s carpet in the sanctuary if they threw up on it.
Old-style rednecks knew that if their sins of the weekend meant they made a baby they no longer got the privilege of going out with friends while their parents stayed home and raised the child. Old-style rednecks were made to take responsibility for what they did. They became parents and learned what that meant firsthand. Consequences counted back then. People might argue that that was rough, or cruel and unusual punishment, to let one mistake take away someone’s youth. Well, maybe so. But where I grew up if you planted it then you raised it. If you wanted the grown-up privilege of having sex, then you got everything that went with that, including children.
I’m not saying they were abandoned by their parents when that happened. No. But the idea of grand-parenting in a redneck society is a lot different where I grew up, too. Your grandmother and grandfather were on the same level as your parents no matter which side of the shotgun you were conceived. Grandparents were owed added respect for their seniority. Grandma would also tan your hide with a tulip tree switch just the same as your mama would when you deserved it.
Raising kids was a group effort in those days. My best friend’s mama could yell at me the same as my own, and my reply would be, “Yes ma’am” to her without hesitation because I knew what waited for me at home was worse than just loud words if I didn’t. It wasn’t abuse, just strong discipline. I both feared and respected that. It kept me in line most of the time.
Old-style rednecks looked a little uncomfortable in dressy clothes because they had calluses and muscles that came from honest work, not gym memberships and steroids. They didn’t buy jeans with holes already in them because they’d be naked for sure after they worked in them for a week and wore them the rest of the way out. Holey jeans that the new-style rednecks wear are what I call cheats and short cuts. My favorite pair of jeans growing up was a pair that I wore until they literally had holes just like the ones I see kids paying an exorbitant amount for off the rack today. I knew I should’ve saved those!
Do I Have a Point?
Yes, I have a point. I guess it’s that nowadays we give things to people without expecting them to work for it. Rednecks aren’t just made, they’re born and cultivated by the work they do and the way they were raised, and despite Mr. Foxworthy’s take, they’re not all silly and ignorant. The only problem I see is the ones who call themselves rednecks that really aren’t anything close to it.
In my day the way you got a trophy wasn’t just from participation. You earned it based on merit and talent. Not everyone plays baseball or soccer or football with the same ability. And I think we’re making a mockery of our kids by letting them believe they are entitled to trophies they didn’t earn. Same goes for people who think they are rednecks.
Okay, so maybe some of these new country singers earned their redneck status. I know some of their fans know the reality of what those cute cowboys and country girls are singing about in their songs. But the number is dwindling. The American family farms are dying out. Kids today are forced to aim higher than the trade jobs of blue collar work because we as society tell them all they can be whatever we say they should be. And I guess that makes me a little sad.
The State of Alabama has the guy from “Dirty Jobs” doing commercials hawking the trade professions to young people as viable careers for a reason, folks. We’ve changed the way we teach kids these days. We’re trying to manufacture monkeys trained to go to college instead of intelligent and productive individuals. They say everyone should go to college. Well, I disagree. When they separated diplomas, it suddenly made kids who went into trades seem less-valued than those who got an advanced diploma.
That’s not what we should do. Rednecks in my day could be trade workers, farmers AND/OR college kids—all of whom had a daddy who owned a farm or did an honest day’s work. My daughter DaVelma is a redneck of the old-school variety by legacy, despite being a city kid in her everyday life. She’s out in the fields, or driving a tractor, riding a horse or doing a yard chore whenever she’s home at her daddy’s place. Her little redneck butt is going to college in some form, be it trade or degree, whether she likes it or not. I’m not saying she’s got to be a brain surgeon, but she better find a niche or a career to support her redneck lifestyle. She begs for a horse every time she has a chance. I tell her this: “If you want to own a farm, you better specialize in something that will make enough money so that you can support one!”
Those rednecks that I grew up among, ones who wanted to do something else besides farming, studied and took the higher level classes offered and went to college. Even still, they recognized that their hard-earned degree was paid for with blood, sweat and tears, and they appreciated it. The ones who didn’t aim for college weren’t treated like second class citizens, though. They got up and went to work just like their “citified” siblings, cousins and friends who went off to college. Sure, they teased us about our “book learnin’” but all in good fun. I don’t want you to be confused by what I am saying. What I mean to say here is that real rednecks aren’t just people who didn’t go to college!
More to the Point
I’ll hop on my soapbox now. Many of our new-style rednecks these days don’t know the value of hard work, but I will also say it’s not really their fault. I blame whoever started treating people who aren’t cut out for college as if they’re ignorant or stupid. Some people aren’t meant to be in an office working nine to five. And we shouldn’t make them feel guilty for not wanting that.
We shouldn’t stigmatize our children for wanting to do honest work that makes them happy. And it’s true what Mike Roe says in those commercials. We need electricians and mechanics. We need people to work cotton fields and raise cows and chickens. We need people to work in mills and do trades because when there are no more trade workers there are no commodities. Without trade-trained men and women prices will increase to pay workers in order to draw the numbers back. And we will pay for it because we cannot eat computer software or iPad applications. Technology might be an up and coming career that’s cut throat and ambitious, but will technology be comfortable as bed sheets or taste good in your cereal bowl? No.
Rednecks are real people who do real jobs out in the elements. They’re everywhere in this nation, not just in the south. And we cannot continue to make them the new Barbie and Ken or we’ll lose the real value of what a redneck brings to the party. Be reasonable.
Why do American schools fail to live up to the standards set by other countries? It’s because other countries don’t spend all their time and money trying to fit square pegs into round holes. I’m not saying we should be fascist with our education system and only educate the smartest and brightest. But I am saying we shouldn’t judge kids just because college isn’t their thing. We shouldn’t expect every child in America to be a Presidential Scholar or a college-bound cookie pressed from the same mold as every other kid in the country.
Einstein once said, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its life thinking it is not worth anything.” I think we should put some stock in those words. On the flip side of this coin, not everyone is cut out to be a redneck. They’re a sacred bunch of world-smart, hard-working, not-afraid-to-get-dirty individuals who hold this country up by its foundation, y’all. Let’s try to remember that they are just as important as the financiers and the software designers.
Real rednecks may not make the gaming technology you demand and enjoy, but they run the power lines so your game will have electricity. They mill the wood and textiles to make the furniture you sit on so that you can comfortably enjoying that same gaming technology. They can do all these little things that many people now feel are beneath their stubborn entitlement in this country.
So in summary, what I mean is this: be a redneck if you want to be a redneck. Be a hard-working redneck, and be proud of it. As I remember them they’re a pretty awesome bunch of folks.