"Redneck" and "hillbilly" are two of the most loaded, complex words in the American language. When used by people living in cities, the two terms—"redneck" in particular—generally point to a sackful of red-state stereotypes: Confederate flags, guns, racism , and a kind of prideful ignorance and a not so subtle reference to another contentious term—"white trash." But within the communities where self-identified rednecks and hillbillies actually live, these words have layers of meaning.
At their simplest, a "redneck" originally meant someone who has been sunburned from working outdoors, and a "hillbilly" is someone who lives in the hills. But the meanings have twisted over time—when union miners fought the industry that was exploiting them in the early 20th century, they reportedly wore red bandanas on their necks to identify themselves. Today, many proudly self-identify as rednecks not as a nod to that rebellion but to link themselves to a set of cultural and political markers, an entire philosophy of living.
But official histories of these terms always fail to convey the shades of meaning that they take on. Sometimes the words can be empowering (when they are used by the people they describe), and sometimes they can be cruel (when they are used by outsiders).
To offer up a more nuanced and varied understanding of these terms, I interviewed people about these words and their meaning during my travels through central Appalachia. The resulting conversations showed how meanings of loaded terms can be in flux, changing based on the speaker and the audience. There is no single definition for either "redneck" or "hillbilly," but here are a few personal ones that were shared with me:
Patrick Green, 34, from West Columbia, West Virginia
What's my life like? I work daylight to dark every day. I pay my own way. I don't ask the government for nothing. I don't want the government to know about anything I do. I don't ask for no welfare. I do my own thing. I work in the sawmill. I'm a professional board stacker.
A true redneck don't give a shit about nothing but putting food on the table, working, and getting drunk. A man ain't got a job and can't provide for himself can go to hell as far as I care.
West Columbia used to be one of the biggest cities in this area. It was a mining community. Right there by the house, if you walk up through the woods, you'll come across seven coal mines. They stopped back in the 50s, I think.
I live on a road we call Tin Can. It got the name Tin Can 'cause back in the day beer used to be in metal cans, and everyone would throw 'em on the road. When the flood come up, you wouldn't see nothin' but the tin cans floating up. The Greens have been around here since the 1600s, that's what Uncle Don says—that's the Indian side, anyway. My grandpa used to make moonshine up in that holler. A holler's where you can step out on your from porch and go, "Hey, you got any sugar?" and they'll holler back, "No! You got any eggs?"
You know how "redneck" actually got its name? Back in the mining wars, when the coal miners were going up against the government or whatever, they took red bandannas around their necks, so they wouldn't shoot one another. A "redneck" can mean a snitch, too. You redneck on somebody, you just straight told the law what people was doing. Rednecking gets you beat the fuck up.
You got these yuppie rednecks who got these big fancy trucks and ain't never hit a mudhole in their lives, ain't never worked a day in their lives, don't even know how to shoot a gun. My dad's a yuppie. He's a straight-up city boy. But he was raised on a dairy farm right up the road here.
How would you describe "redneck" to someone who has never heard the term? I'd think I'd have to say, "Go back to the city."
Colby, 27, from New Haven, West Virginia
People abuse the term "redneck" to the point where I don't like it.
The modern redneck is a yuppie. You see rebel flags with "redneck" on them, but you don't see anything about "hillbilly pride" because nobody really... I don't know. To me, a real hillbilly is someone who lives for the hills, who really does care for their fellow man and their land.
I like hillbillies. I feel like I'm a hillbilly. I might not dress like one, but you can tell by my accent—anywhere I go, people say, "You're from West Virginia, aren't you?"
I grew up in a holler. I didn't know anyone who skateboarded; I got insanely interested in paved concrete because I was never around paved concrete. It takes like half an hour to get to a paved road. When I moved here, I was just struck by the concrete. Hillbillies know life is pain, and what's so cool about skateboarding is you can have fun, experience pain, and be creative, all at the same time. That's why I hate it when people say skateboarding is a sport, because it's a whole 'nother world.
A redneck is like the people who hang out in the Walmart parking lot, spend all their money on, like, upgrading their trucks, buying stupid Garth Brooks CDs. A hillbilly is like my grandpa—he never had a bank account in his life, he lived off the land as much as he could, he was poor as shit, but he was happy as shit. To me that's a hillbilly, people who don't judge people.
Joe Ford, 60, Mayor of Ieager, West Virginia
My dad was in coal. He was a strict union man. If you heard about John Henry the Steel-Driving Man, he was known around here as something like that. He could dig a lot of coal with a pick and shovel. My grandfather came out from South Carolina to work. He came to a little town not far from here called Capels. I never seen him or my grandmother, they passed before I was born.
There were 13 kids in the family. We lived off one meal a day sometimes. We struggled a little bit, but everything worked out real good for us. My father worked in the mines, but he didn't want any of us to go into the mines. At the time, coal was still going, but in this area, jobs weren't available in money-making positions to minorities. So a lot of people went to Detroit, went to other parts of the country.
When I first went to school, I went to an all-black school, in Davey I think. We played together, the white kids and me, and we wondered why we had to go to different schools.
I was the first [black police officer] in this town. There couldn't have been more than one or two in the county at the time. I started out as a regular patrolman. Then I moved up the ranks to the lieutenant, then chief of police.
I think a lot of the time we just look at ourselves as West Virginians. I look at myself as a West Virginian, not black or white or any other color. I surprise people when I go and play music because I do country. I surprise white, and I surprise black—I surprise both sides with what I do.
When guys say they're redneck they do things wildly, freely, but not try to harm anyone with it. They have a good little time with it. "Hillbilly" means from the hills, the mountains of Appalachia. What history focuses on a lot of times is the Hatfields and McCoys and the feuding, but at the same time, there were unions striking.
And there was a different mix of races involved in that: Irish, black, people from China, Italians, Greeks, Germans... This place was a real melting pot. People would come here from all over the world to work in the mines. That's how the music, bluegrass, came about. People from the South came up—and the banjo is an African instrument, they brought that—and their music mixed with the mountain music, fiddles from Ireland, and so on. When I perform, some people say, "Why are you singing bluegrass?" But if you look at history, the banjo's an African instrument. And if it weren't for the coal, you wouldn't have the music.
People looking in just see the most publicized parts [of West Virginia and Appalachia], the Hatfield-McCoys and the feuding—they weren't seeing the black performers out here, the singers and the struggles. White and black, we live all together. My daddy worked in the mines, and we'd play together with the [white] kids next door. We didn't know no hate or anything like that. All kids see is playing and fun. Only time we'd know a difference is when an older person would blast out something that had that racial whatever. But kids still didn't know what was going on.
Throughout the years, I've seen whites call other whites white trash, and I've seen dark-skinned blacks say something about lighter-skinned blacks, "You high yellow," something like that. Everyone always wants to be a little higher class than somebody else. That's just the way it is.
Donna, 57, from Mount Sterling, Ohio, but recently moved with her family to the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee
I grew up with no bathtub or nothing in the house—we'd take baths in the washtub, and we had an outdoor toilet. When we got a bath for the house, we tied the thing to my dad's truck, he drove down the mountain, and it fell off, and he didn't notice. That's a redneck.
My mother is a hillbilly, My mother told me she walked barefoot every day, even in the snow, just to go to school.
My momma's from Ashland, Kentucky, and she knows how to do tobacco and stuff like that. When she grew up, they were allowed to get married at 14. Nowadays you're not allowed. They were allowed to do a lot of things back then like we can't do now. That's because this generation can't keep the guns away or anything like that. Instead of fist-fighting, like we did, they think, We gotta get a gun out and shoot somebody, or, We lost our job, let's go kill 'em up. Back in my day, we got whippings, we got switched, but we grew up.
I remember being five years old and having to do dishes and cleaning and stuff like that because my mother said that's how we learned things. Nowadays kids don't have to do that. My mom and dad didn't have a lot of money, but they made sure we had things, even if we had feed-sack dresses. My mom put linings inside them because they'd itch. My grandmother made most of my outfits. There were six of us, three girls and three boys, and we'd pass clothes down.
Back in the day—you know how'd you go down the side roads, and you'd see people just rockin' away, and they got the shotguns out there. Hillbillies, they got their own kind of living. Hillbillies like raising a garden, fixing the corn, and doing the moonshine.
My family, we [went viral] on Facebook because we went and got brand-new mattresses, we had four, and we stacked 'em on top of our little Durango. This guy took a picture and said, "If that's not a redneck, we don't know what is." Hey, you do it the best way you know how!
That don't make me a racist person just because I'm a redneck. Hell, I like everybody. When I see people who walk down the street and don't have anything, I'll give 'em money. I have nothing against people. I have a good life now. I have fun. Go rednecks! Go hillbillies too!
Scott McClanahan, 37, from Beckley, West Virginia
When I think of "redneck," I think of bad country music. You could live in Atlanta and be a redneck. You could live Michigan, or Illinois or Indiana—it's not a term that's geographically located. I think there's a political angle to it as well, there's definitely right-wing politics attached to it, and a big pickup, a certain element of machismo. But then you have girls who consider themselves rednecks—I'll have female students who will wear shirts with "redneck" on them.
It's like "punk"; I went to this store in New York, like a punk store, and they're selling all these T-shirts, and everyone's getting all these tattoos. That's not very punk! Everyone's wearing the same T-shirts, and they all have the same uniform on. The redneck thing is maybe similar to that. It's commodified and commercialized now. And people do it because they think it's rebellious or different, when it reality it's just another bullshit word.
A "hillbilly" is just someone who lives in the hills. But there's something about the hillbilly... There's an innocence to it, maybe, but a quick flip into violence. Like the guys from Deliverance, you'd probably consider them to be hillbillies more so than rednecks. "Redneck" feels more modern to me. "Hillbilly" has a longer history—in order to be a hillbilly, you have to be from a particular region. Like, I don't think a Kid Rock fan in Michigan who lives in a trailer would consider himself a hillbilly.
I've always heard the term "hillbilly" used my whole life. My family uses it. My grandma one time, I asked "What'd you and grandpa do on your first date?" And she said, "We probably just sat around and listened to hillbilly records." It would be disparaging if someone from outside called you a hillbilly. It's weird too how these terms are tied up in class. When it was used it my house, we knew it was negative, the way people viewed us, but yet you kind of celebrate the term, the same way hip-hop uses the N-word. That's the old Lenny Bruce thing, you use the word enough you change the meaning.
I don't think I consider myself a hillbilly. I mean in some ways I do, but I don't think I am that, or not just that. There's still like a wildness about the word, like being yourself, who you are, whoever that self is. I went to kindergarten orientation today, and there wasn't one person who was being themselves—you put on all these societal masks.
My Uncle Wesley, he goes off to work at General Motors. He leaves a country boy and comes back with pimp chains and rings on every finger, and he's married a Michigan girl we'd probably call "white trash"—which is a completely different thing—and he has this weird man-perm. He looks ridiculous, but he's being who he is. They can sit around and watch Steven Segal's movies without irony.
There's something very middle class about people considering themselves a redneck. I went to law school with plenty of guys who considered themselves rednecks. Second Amendment shit is always tied into being a redneck. A hillbilly would have a weapon, but they would have already fired off all their shells.
The hillbilly likes Johnny Cash gospel albums. The hillbilly likes Johnny Cash's "Ragged Old Flag." You ever heard that song? It's a beautiful song—patriotic and jingoistic and ridiculous. But it's beautiful because it's sincere. The reason Mick Jagger is a bad singer when he's doing a country song is because he's doing the accent, and he's trying to sound country. The hillbilly would never think about trying to sound a different way. They just sing the way they sing.
After we talked, Scott emailed me to say:
Redneck is a state of action. You do things to be a redneck. Shoot guns, drink domestic beer, support right-wing politics. White trash, hick, etc. are states of being. You are these things because of what you are. Class, worldview, etc. Hillbilly is a state of mind, though. It's metaphysical and ephemeral and contradictory.
A version of the interview with Patrick appeared in the Australian magazine Smith Journal.