On Sunday night, the History Channel broadcast a two-hour program on the Appalachian people called Hillbilly: The Real Story, hosted by Billy Ray Cyrus. Considering the title, I expected a piece on the historic, social, and economic influences on the Appalachian region and how it shaped our country's perception and stereotypes of us. It was very informational and entertaining, and focused on many of the important events that shaped the region. They could have easily called it The Appalachians, however, as the direct mention and explanation of hillbilly stereotypes was sparse. They also neglected to mention what I felt were key components of our region and culture.
There were many good segments to the program, the origins of the Scotch-Irish settlers, and particularly the piece on the Overmountain Men and the Battle of King's Mountain, which was fought against the British in 1780 in Cleveland County, North Carolina, not far from where I live. There was a very lengthy piece on Matewan and the Battle of Blair Mountain in Mingo County, West Virginia, in which union mine workers marched in rallying protest against the autocracy of big coal companies (see Denise Giardina's novel Storming Heaven). I was surprised, though, that such a lengthy piece neglected to mention how coal company speculators tricked landowners into selling the mineral rights to their land, or the current coal mining practice of mountaintop removal. Perhaps that would have been too political or controversial for them. There was also an interesting and respectful piece on snake handlers and their religious beliefs, which is unique to our region. Moonshine making and stock car racing got a considerable nod. The story mainly focused on the Flock family racing team, and I was disappointed there weren't mention of other moonshine-runners-turned-racers such as Junior Johnson. There was also a considerable segment on the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and its creation of the Fontana Dam, the tallest dam east of the Mississippi, and how it affected the economy after the Great Depression.
In the end, I felt the program ran out of time before it ran out of things to discuss. The last three minutes or so barely mentions the history and influences of Appalachian music on popular music today. No mention of the Carter Family or early "Hillbilly" music, or the birthplace of Country music, Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia. Throughout the program there were a peppering of explanations as to how and why the mountain and Hillbilly stereotypes were created, but not enough explanation to suite me. This program could have easily been a two or three part series. If I could pick one thing to criticize the most it's the lack of detail in how the media, the sole culprit, perpetuated the Hillbilly stereotype even today . I learned some things I didn't know, though, and I would recommend anyone to watch it whether expert or novice on the subject of Appalachia. There are far worse things to watch on TV these days.
The show will run for a few more nights: September 24 12:00 AM, September 27 8:00 AM, September 27 2:00 PM
Billy Ray did have an astute thing to say in conclusion, that the Appalachians aren't just a part of America, but that "We are America." Still, if I were an outsider watching this program, I would conclude that the Hillbilly stereotypes were all true, as this program merely explains and, I think, reinforces them.