IASPM 2014: Vocal Style and the Southern Man


Tim Wise, University of Salford

The Hillbilly/redneck stereotype, as portrayed in Easy Rider (1969)

ABSTRACT: Although America’s south has long been associated with political conservatism and intolerance (e.g. W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, 1941), it was only in the 1960s that country music began overtly to express such ideas, provoked by the counter culture’s stance on the war in Vietnam. The appearance at that time of songs defending the military action and extolling patriotism served to reinforce long-held beliefs that both country music and the southern states from which it emerged were reactionary and chauvinistic, strengthening ideas that the south was a world apart.

While a song’s political orientation is evident from its lyrics, I will focus principally on the voice that is singing them and on specific vocal practices repeatedly employed to suggest the southern man, both in country songs and in country music parodies from the other side of the political divide. Investigating vocal persona and political stance in a range of material, I will consider the ascendancy of the redneck stereotype over the hillbilly, aiming to show how certain country singing styles have served to construct, reinforce, and perpetuate stereotyped representations of both the rural south and its white other.

Tim begins with a short blast of ‘A few more rednecks’:

He intends to explore the voice and values embedded in US southern Country music. Country is perceived as shifting from a ‘hillbilly’ to a ‘redneck’ persona, citing historian Bill C Malone. This willing assumption of the name redneck seems to begin around 1970, and compares this ideal with the utopian ideals in the music of contemporaries (e.g. the Beatles). Infamous rednecks from Easy Rider and Deliverance are shown, and Tim notes the distinction between this culture and the hippy ideal. The hillbilly persona was being softened at this time, even though the stereotype was (and perhaps is) pejorative. Pleasant hillbillies for the middle classes were constructed through TV shows such as Hee Haw (the ‘pickin’ and a-grinnin’ musical spot) and The Beverly Hillbillies. On the cusp of the 1970s this stereotype was becoming eclipsed by the

An aside on Norbert Elias’s figurational theory – from The Established and Outsiders (1965). Why did participants willingly take on the attributes of derided stereotypes? He cites earlier black stereotypes in US culture. Aaron Fox’s work on country is cited, as is Tagg’s recent work.

Today he will be focusing on Country’s use use of the term ‘redneck’ as a form of hippy-baiting, with the aim of reinforcing traditional cultural values in opposition to the emerging counterculture. The earliest use of the term Tim finds is in 1891.

Johnny Winter’s song Dallas (1969) is cited – “I load up my revolver/ sharpen up my knife / Some redneck messin’ with me man/ I’m bound to have his life”. Clearly the term, here, is pejorative, and Winter’s counterculture voice is aggressive in this context.

We now analyse the lyric of ‘Fightin’ Side of Me’ (Merle Haggard, 1970):

I hear people talkin’ bad,

About the way we have to live here in this country,

Harpin’ on the wars we fight,

An’ gripin’ ’bout the way things oughta be.

An’ I don’t mind ’em switchin’ sides,

An’ standin’ up for things they believe in.

When they’re runnin’ down my country, man,

They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.

Yeah, walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.

Runnin’ down the way of life,

Our fightin’ men have fought and died to keep.

If you don’t love it, leave it:

Let this song I’m singin’ be a warnin’.

If you’re runnin’ down my country, man,

You’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.

Tim highlights the term “If you don’t love it, leave it [i.e. the USA]”. The message here, and in songs like it, is counter-counterculture – don’t complain about the country: just be a [goddam] patriot. The phrase became a propaganda slogan for those who supported the Vietnam war, even though the song was not a particularly big hit.

We now turn to Neil Young’s Southern Man (1970):

Southern man

better keep your head

Don’t forget

what your good book said

Southern change

gonna come at last

Now your crosses

are burning fast

Southern man

Tim notes that, famously, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s response was ‘Sweet Home Alabama’.

The next example is The Fugs ‘Johnny Pissoff Meets the Red Angel”, a parody of this point of view.

Frank Zappa also got in on the redneck parody act with Lonesome Cowboy Burt

WJ Cash’s The Mind Of The South (1941) is quoted, summarising some of these core values and how they are defended. The Charlie Daniels Band ‘Simple Man’ lyric is excerpted:

Now I’m the kind of man would not harm a mouse,

but if I catch somebody breaking in my house

I got a twelve gauge shotgun a waiting on the other side.

So don’t go pushing me against my will.

I don’t want to have to fight you, but I darn sure will.

If you don’t want trouble then you better just pass me on by.

As far as I’m concerned there ain’t no excuse

for the raping and the killing and the child abuse.

I got a way to put an end to all that mess.

You just a take them rascals out in the swamp,

a put them on their knees and tie them to a stump.

Let the rattlers and the bugs and the alligators do the rest.

Well, you know what’s wrong with the world today?

People done gone put their Bibles away.

They’re living by the law of the jungle, not the law of the land.

Well, the goodbook says it so I know it’s the truth,

an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth

you better watch where you’re going, remember where you’ve been.

That’s the way I see it. I’m a simple man.

Daniels’s lyric, Tim observes, seems to be a snide dig at counterculture and ‘intellectuals’. And with that thought, we saddle up as another strain of ‘A few more rednecks’ plays us out.

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