Keep me here, Christ, far away
from open ground and flat country.
Let me suffer the cold of glens.
I dread the cold space of plains.
Never miss a local story.
— Seamus Heaney, “Sweeney Astray”
The big metaphysical question is: How long can a family be gone from Breathitt County and still claim to be hillbillies?
And just what is a hillbilly?
Can a person spend holidays in Jackson, hotter than a pepper sprout, and a few weeks in the summer and then go back to Middletown, Ohio and analyze us?
Well, why not?
A few years back a guy named Robert Shenkkan spent a weekend in Eastern Kentucky and wrote a remarkably apt play called the “Kentucky Cycle,” then caught hell from the literati who claim to speak for the mountains, but who mainly live somewhere else.
It was said that Shenkkan exaggerated certain features of life in the coalfields, but that’s what drama does, doesn’t it?
Now a lawyer from off named J.D. Vance has written a book called “Hillbilly Elegy” — an elegy being a lament, or a mourning of the passing of something. Vance claims to be related to Bad Jim Vance, the meanest of the Hatfields, so we don’t want to upset him, but some have boldly questioned his bonafides.
Time was when nobody wanted to be known as a hillbilly. Nowadays, everybody wants to be one, except those out on the roads who are victims of hillbilly profiling and who get pulled over by the police simply because their old truck has a coal-miner-peeing-on-the-president decal in the back window.
That is probable cause for something, and gets the hillbilly hauled into court and relieved of several hundred dollars in fines and costs to fund the edifice complex which got us all those new courthouses, and leads to the hillbilly having to shoplift groceries.
Just who is a hillbilly?
Pikeville claims to be the capital of the Hillbilly Nation and each year we thrill tens of thousands and turn the stomachs of about that many by having a three-day party in celebration of the stereotypes.
The hillbilly stereotype, like others, has some foundation in truth and we have taken the venom out of it by embracing it and being proud of who we are.
You must look at certain things to know if a person is a hillbilly. Does he speak hillbonics, the official language? (Why anchuns in church?) The language has survived. despite schools which have tried to teach us into talking like Peter Jennings.
Cratis Williams described the musicality of the language and how it flows like a stream: “I was a’goin’ down the road a’ thinkin’ what I would be a’sayin’.”
If a person can speak the native tongue, then you must ask if his favorite food is chicken and dumplin’s. If he answers that he prefers squirrel brains, that might be enough.
If Vance can sing “Rank Stranger,” knows creasy from poke, and wears a hat more than three years old, let him speak for us.
Reach Larry Webster, a Pikeville attorney, at email@example.com.