I did not want to be a hillbilly, and I assumed that if I liked hillbilly music, that meant I was a hillbilly. I had to listen to quite a bit of it, though, from age ten on, because it was my father’s favorite, and he had control of the radio, which before TV was like having control of the remote.
I was ten years old when we moved 135 miles south, from the laboring lower class near east side of Indianapolis, to a hardscrabble farm near Oakland City. It was definitely a step down socially and economically.
In Indianapolis we did not have a car, but we could walk or ride the street car to any place we wanted to go. We had a furnace in the basement, and a gas stove, and an indoor toilet. On the farm, we had none of these things. We barely had electricity, and that only in the house, not the barn or the other out-buildings. We didn’t have a car, so we didn’t go any place, except for hitching the horse up to the wagon to go into town to have feed ground. It was a hillbilly existence. I did not want to be a hillbilly, so I did not like their music.
It wasn’t just that I wanted to be a city guy with a car and indoor plumbing. Hillbilly music just banged off my ear drums. It was twangy and nasal and ungrammatical. I had not lived long enough to understand that the twangs and the “ain’ts” were the necessary way to tell the stories of those songs. I had not lived enough stories yet to realize that the best songs always tell a story, a real one, an honest one, a true one.
All this comes to mind because we have been watching the excellent Ken Burns documentary on PBS about country music.
In Indianapolis I had liked folk songs that I learned at Lucretia Mott Public School # 3, on Rural Street. My sister and I sang them as we did the dishes—Down In the Valley, Darling Clementine, I’ve Been Workin’ On The Railroad, etc. I didn’t understand that folk and hillbilly came out of the same stories.
In high school in Oakland City, there were plenty of hillbilly kids, kids who liked hillbilly music. I wanted to run with the cool kids, though, the ones who listened to Frank Sinatra and Doris Day, not Hank Williams and Kitty Wells, the ones who danced to Benny Goodman and Count Basie, not to Bill Monroe and Bob Wills. I wanted the musical stories that came from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, not from Jimmy Rodgers and Minnie Pearl.
But “story” became the motif of my life. That’s all I’ve ever been—a story listener, a story teller, a story preacher, a story sharer. So country music became a part of my life, too, because of the stories, so much so that in my latter years I have gladly referred to myself as “a hillbilly.”
I usually add “liberal,” as in “hillbilly liberal,” so folks will know I like Meredith Willson as well as Tom T. Hall, but I’m my father’s son, even though there was a time he didn’t think so. I know he’s my father, because I like hillbilly music.
John Robert McFarland
“Yesterday is dead and gone, and tomorrow’s out of sight…” Kris Kristoferson