I grew up in a house that had butter on the table and a pitcher of sweet tea in the fridge. The trees were filled with cicadas and Spanish moss, the heat was wet enough to bubble paint, and every young man strutted a worn white ring on the ass of his jeans. The redneck stigmata. The mark of the Skoal.
Where I come from, a redneck rests somewhere between a hillbilly and white trash. Contrary to popular definition, not all rednecks are ignorant Caucasian po’ boys with a sunburn, though many are. A redneck can be a member of any race (witness the Utah Jazz’s Karl Malone, a man who spent his hard-earned NBA dollars on a customized eighteen-wheeler complete with airbrushed pictorial), gender (Tonya Harding, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline—rednecks all) or even tax bracket (Sam Walton, Ross Perot). What a redneck cannot be is urban, refined or born to money. And a redneck never looks comfortable in a tie.
I hit puberty surrounded by boys with spit cups, jacked-up ’Cudas, coon hounds and rifle racks. Consequently, I fell in love with them, and rednecks became my definition of real men. They hunted, swore (but never in front of women), spat, sweat, fought and wore their Wranglers either dripping loose off the hipbone, like well-cooked pork barbecue, or cradled snug around their butts, like hands cupping water. They had simple wit and no fashion sense, and they often stank of cheap beer and cheaper cologne. No matter. They were my Cary Grants.
So what if they couldn’t banter or command the best table at a swank restaurant. Show me a self-obsessed man and I’ll show you a lousy time in bed. Hollywood knows this, and consistently makes all of its virile, bad-boy characters rednecks. Tommy Lee Jones, Scott Glenn, Brad Pitt, Sam Shepard, Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, John Travolta, Kurt Russell—all have played rednecks who, while molasses slow, knew their way around a barn. My redneck loves could shingle a roof, raise a fence, remove an engine and, when necessary, shoot the head plain off an errant water moccasin. Conversation may have been limited, but not once did my toilet flood over, and I never had to wear sneakers in my backyard.
Where I come from, a redneck rests somewhere between a hillbilly and white trash. Contrary to popular definition, not all rednecks are ignorant Caucasian po’ boys with a sunburn, though many are.
My prom date, Red, sported a wiry mustache and drove a black-and-gold Camaro. Instead of a corsage, he brought me a plastic duck he’d stolen from a Chi Chi’s restaurant. My mother gamely took a celebratory snapshot of me holding the duck in front of my ruffled, polished-pink gown while Red used his fingernail to clean his left ear. His tuxedo was an inch too short and smelled of fried chips. But none of that mattered, because when Red’s Camaro stalled out on the way to the after-prom party, he hopped from his seat, popped the hood, spied the belt at fault and replaced it from the stock he kept in his trunk—within ten minutes, we were back on track to the rib shack. He didn’t swear, and he didn’t whine. I had never been so aroused.
Years later I met Darren. Darren lived in my apartment building and, as I would later learn, kept a gun behind his bed. I often watched him play catch on the street in acid-washed jeans and a feather-thin T-shirt that danced across every ripple on his back. Every now and again, he’d miss and the ball would roll my way. Soon we became friends. Darren was the kind of man who’d lug a sofa bed up three flights of stairs without a whisper of complaint. Actually, Darren, like all rednecks, never said much about anything, making a whoop only over what was important—food, sex and the Crimson Tide.
I’ve since left the South and realized that the rest of the world does not share my affection for men like Red and Darren. Look at Billy Carter, my sweater-vested companions sniff derisively; look at Clinton. Well, I have looked, and it is true that rednecks don’t generally age well. They drink too much, their bellies distend, and most possess a predilection for siliconed blondes and themed belt buckles. Well, hell, at least rednecks retain some of their former shit-kickin’ glory. Unlike their effete northeastern shadows, country boys rarely fade away. Instead, they intensify with age, like peachberry wine, and occasionally (like Jesse Helms and Jimmy Swaggart) they grow rank.
So what if they couldn’t banter or command the best table at a swank restaurant. Show me a self-obsessed man and I’ll show you a lousy time in bed.
Still, as Hank Williams Jr. sings, a country boy can survive, and survive they have. With Clinton in office, Newtie at bat and The Jeff Foxworthy Show beating the pants off all those Friends clones, it’s virtually the year of the redneck. No cause for alarm, brothers. Good old boys can teach us all something.
For example, how to appear earnest without being cloying. Cowboys used to have a handle on it, but after the Hollywoodization of Montana and Wyoming and the unfortunate popularity of disco honky-tonks and the ghastly electric slide, I’m afraid their sincerity dance is done. I mean, Dennis Quaid considers himself a cowboy. Rednecks, however, are simple enough to stay, or at least seem, honest. When a pre-anointed Elvis fidgeted before the cameras in his early television interviews, stammering that he just wanted to make his mama proud, America ahhhed. And when Bill Clinton swore on a stack of Bibles that he rose from a town called Hope, few of us rolled our eyes.
Such is the gift of the redneck to be underestimated by the jaded literati, the smug digiterati and the slender-fingered politicos who, although it pains them and they do it poorly (George Bush eating pork rinds; Michael Dukakis driving a tractor), adopt redneck tics whenever they need to appear more sincere, more of the People.
However much the North would like it to be, the country is not above redneck lust.
When a redneck does ascend the socioeconomic ladder, he does it with flair and an unconscionable lack of self-doubt. Garth Brooks swings from the rafters. Ross Perot parades his flow charts. Jerry Lee Lewis humps his 13-year-old cousin. For a redneck, fame is sweet indeed. And humility, well, that’s about as useful as a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest.
Take James Carville, who, swigging Coc’ Cola and playing the mad Cajun, spurred buttermilk-biscuit glamour to new heights. If the world didn’t miscalculate rednecks, Carville would never have succeeded and Clinton would be on a Carnival Cruise with Gennifer.
However much the North would like it to be, the country is not above redneck lust. Forrest Gump was about as crimson as they come, and America loved the bejesus out of him. Gump embodied several redneck attributes—he was easy to please, free of hang-ups, unafraid, loyal and blissfully unhampered by self-awareness. He was the perfect redneck. Dumb yet smart. Naive, honest, buzz-cut. Robin Wright could have done worse.
I’ll be going home soon, where the men I’ll encounter will be a welcome change from the skinny-necked Westchester nebbishes who can’t begin a sentence without the word clearly and are petrified of getting their hands dirty. I look forward to a date with a man who opens my car door and holds his liquor. A man who loves his mother and his dog with equal ferocity. A man red as Christmas, named Jesse or Hollis or Wesley. And when he asks me if I’d like to join him on the porch just to sit a spell, I won’t underestimate him at all.
[Photo Credit: Suzi Jones c/o Wikimedia Commons]