My granddaddy was a miner, but he finally saw the light
He didn’t have much, just a beat-up truck and a dream about a better life
Grand mama cried when she waved goodbye, never heard such a lonesome sound
Pretty soon the dirt road turned into blacktop, Detroit City bound
Down that hillbilly highway
On that hillbilly highway
That old hillbilly highway
Goes on and on – Steve Earle, “Hillbilly Highway”
If I hadn’t left Alabama…if I hadn’t joined the Army…I don’t know what I would have done…but probably wouldn’t have been much in life. – Dad
If I hadn’t got kicked out of college in Tennessee…if I hadn’t joined the Army…I don’t know what I would have done…but probably wouldn’t have been much in life. – me
Steve Earle sings a twangy autobiographical song about family up and moving out of Appalachia…a migration below Moses’ level of biblical…but significant enough to fill Ohio and Michigan towns with hill people from the extremely rural areas bordering these two states in the south and southeast. The “Hillbilly Highway” was a real phenomenon. In the 40s, 50s, and 60s, coal miners, farmers, moonshiners, down-and-outs, and common folk came out of the hollers (not ‘hollows’) of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and other southern states. They established hillbilly enclaves in industrial towns and cities…to return to the South for vacations, deaths, births, marriages, and sometimes retirement. You can see their descendants on any large Southern lake on their boats…you can see them parked in Southern state parks…Michigan and Ohio plates on their RVs…Southerners think Ohio and Michigan invades the South annually like some weird reversed songbird migration…in reality though, its just kin returning to the land their parents and grandparents pined for while toiling in Michigan and Ohioan factories and mills.
J.D. Vance describes this migration and his kin in his autobiography Hillbilly Elegy. Vance was primarily raised by his transplanted hillbilly grandparents who had escaped Kentucky for better options in Ohio. Vance visits…vacations…among his Kentucky kin. Vance points out the honorable and the horrible of these hillbillies. He describes the alcohol and drug addictions…the violence…the requirement of being honor-bound by one’s word…and the responsibility of defending family against all outsiders. Vance despairs and glorifies his family…his Kentucky. In the end, though, Vance is…at best…a tourist. He wasn’t from Kentucky…he was raised by Kentuckians.
I get this completely…as a son of transplanted rednecks from Alabama…I had a childhood of visiting…vacationing with…family in Alabama…but I not from Alabama. My parents were from Alabama…I was from wherever we had most recently been stationed by the Army…my dad’s employer. My dad may have retired in Tennessee…I may have attended high school in Tennessee…but I am not a Tennessean. At best, I am a man who spent his life bouncing from Army post to Army post…ultimately, I am a man who spent a little time in Tennessee until it was time for me to hitch my own ride out of the South.
Whenever one returns the ancestral lands of the South…one sees the fire-brimstone Sundays tinged with rampant self-loathing and anger that comes as a side-effect of being from, and living in, a place that lacks in education and opportunities…a place that isn’t so much segregated as much as insulated. It isn’t a place that sees the world and decides to reject it…it is a place that rarely sees the world but retains a fixed notion…a visceral belief…of what the world is.
Vance has received critical acclaim for this ‘love letter’ to hillbillies and Kentucky…Hillbilly Elegy has received rave reviews because of Vance’s ability to both despair at his family’s problems and hold them aloft…finding the good in them…honoring them in his own way. I would argue that Vance…at best…accurately describes Appalachia and its residents, while describing a good tale about a boy born to a alcohol and drug addicted mother…a boy raised by his transplanted Kentucky grandparents. Vance offers a quick and interesting window into a place most people haven’t seen or experienced.
While reading Hillbilly Elegy, I was both torn and drawn to the people that populate Vance’s childhood. I get the adult realization that the kin we knew as children are not the people we come to recognize as we get older. Dads, uncles, older brothers, and grandfathers become less heroic and more…typical…full of shit…men who bluffed and compromised themselves through their lives. We see the maternal women of our lives go from being caring and loving angels to broken and mean-spirited women who navigate a world that still reeks of paternalism and sexism. The hillbilly childhood of Pop Tart and Kool Aid breakfasts become adult coffee and cigarette breaks. J.D. Vance…at best…is a good tour guide to a freakish and angry Appalachian theme park. Vance lets you get a glimpse of a place that is in a multi-generational education drought while soaked in alcohol, pills, and meth. Tourists have to pay extra to see the deep and dark secrets…the murders…the drug addiction…the hate…the self-loathing…hidden in ramshackle sheds that sit behind the double-wide trailers…in the back yards…sheds that seem to be getting slowly engulfed by the dark and menacing tree line.
If you’ve never been to the South…Atlanta and Florida doesn’t fucking count…then I suggest picking up Vance’s book. It will confirm some of your stereotypes…it will confirm some of your fears on why they consistently vote against their self-interests…it will give some light to the dark place you can’t see through that may explain why these hillbillies could and did vote for charlatan like Trump…Hell! We are talking about a place that welcomed and absorbed drunk and angry traveling preachers that espoused the Bible as literal and disparaged the idea that Christianity could be studied through theological surveys or philosophical pondering. This book gives you a good taste of the South…a taste that feels a bit smokey and gritty…hints of whiskey…hints of cigarette…hints of sweet tea and fried food.
If you are from the South…and if you’re from Florida, you’re only Southern if you claim the panhandle as home…this book will, at best, have you nodding at the familiarity. Have you saying “no shit” when some story is told…some family member that is simultaneously held aloft for praise and then having their failings easily exposed. Self-loathing through deep contemplation is something Southerners are pretty damn good at…nothing Vance tells you will be surprising…and it may even become boring due to it seeming so familiar to your own life’s stories. I came away from Hillbilly Elegy feeling that I should recommend it to those non-southern…non-hillbilly…friends that think that I can explain the South…or Trump’s election…because my parents are Southern. This book gives you an idea of Southerners.
I prefer hearing about the trials and tribulations my kin through music…I like to think of my life through Steve Earle and Drive-by Truckers lyrics…but page after page of an Appalachian-focused autobiography that isn’t accompanied by dueling banjos is merely boring and over-wrought. Of course…what do I know…I’m not Southern…I was just raised on Pop Tart and Kool Aid breakfasts and Southern parents. Ignore me…I’m not Southern…I’m just still traveling that hillbilly highway and where I come from…whatever Southern I am…is forever fading quickly into the past behind me.