The Hillbilly Stereotype and the Modern Ozarker

2008 Old Farm Machinery - Jill HendersonFor many years I have written about the Ozarks.  Most of the time I write about the natural landscape and the plants and creatures that inhabit it.  But that’s not where my love for this place ends.  For what is a place without its people, its culture and how it sees itself compared to the rest of the world and how the rest of the world sees them?  Ask anyone who doesn’t live here about the Ozarks and most will eventually use the word hillbilly in some shape or form.

For generations, Ozarkers have been degraded by historic myths, television sit-coms and modern movies that perpetually portray them as outlaws, meth-heads, backwards clans and simple-minded idjits.  Of course all of this simply adds up to being a hillbilly.  You would think this would upset Ozarkers, but it doesn’t.  That’s because they have a way of turning something bad into something good.  Call them what you like, but Ozarkers are among the most misrepresented cultures I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.

Of all the characteristics I love most about Ozarkers is their laid back, self-deprecating humor.  They know how to laugh and make light of troublesome things.  In that way, Ozarkers have embraced the hillbilly moniker and turned it on its head.  To them, a hillbilly doesn’t represent a toothless overall-wearing barefooted whisky runner with a banjo on his knee, nor does it hint of an uneducated backwoods people with no class or character.  Rather, a hillbilly is someone with rugged tenacity and common sense; someone who can live on the land and provide for themselves.   A hillbilly is someone who can make something out of nothing and laugh when all else fails.

When the term hillbilly was coined, Ozarkers were probably just as educated as any other primarily rural population in America at that time.  However, Ozarkers seem to have been  unjustly singled-out because of the peculiarities unique to their immigrant-oriented social structure.   Ozarkers were so isolated for so long – alone in their rugged hills – that when the “modern” world finally began to seep in, their vocabulary actually consisted of words and phrases that harkened back to the Old World origins from which they came. To outsiders, this language was barely intelligible and a sure sign of ignorance.

Even today, a litany of old-fashioned sayings littering the vernacular Ozark landscape. It’s not uncommon to hear people say, “of an evening”, “over yonder” and “you’uns”. Some folks still say “crick” for creek and “holler” for hollow. Some of the older natives still respectfully refer to unrelated elders as “Auntie” or “Uncle” – a clear sign of their cultural roots.

2002 Country Cafe - Jill HendersonWhile many residents of the Ozarks are not exceptionally wealthy in a monetary sense and have at times been socially misunderstood, they are often rich in faith, family and a deep sense of cultural heritage.  They love to spin a good yarn, or pull a leg when they get the chance, and they do it as often as possible.

When you take away the stereotypes of rural Ozarkers you will find a courteous and thoughtful people who have a profound connection to the land.  Ozarkers are by nature an incredibly resilient and industrious lot with a long history of not trusting outsiders, know-it-alls and big-city slickers. Prizing their individualist bents, it is still common to know a person for years without them ever having asked what it is that you do for a living. Of course, you may offer that kind of information, but asking for it is considered to be just a little on the rude side.  What is important is who you are as a human being.

At times, it does feel like the Ozarks are a place lost in time.  Here, folks still sit out on their porches in the evening, wave at passersby along the highway and politely honk their horns when arriving at a rural homestead so as not to catch anyone by surprise.  It is a place where country cafés hum with people gathering around a table to share a home-cooked meal and good ol’ boys drink coffee and talk about the weather and farm prices.

2002 Ozark Barn - Jill HendersonOf course, modern times have not left the Ozarks untouched.  Like many once-rural areas of the country, the Ozarks is growing in population bringing with it all  manner of new ideas and ways of doing things.  Today’s Ozarkers come in all shapes and forms, from the ultra modern to the backwoods recluse.  And while the amalgamation of old and new makes the Ozarks so surprising and wonderful to newcomers, it is definitely the old that makes them feel like they are home.

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and the editor of Show Me Oz
© 2012  Jill Henderson

Excerpted from
A Journey of Seasons
A Year in the Ozarks High Country

A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted story of life on a rural Missouri homestead. Based on the changing landscape of the seasons and filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of hillbilly humor, noted author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson, spins a story of delight and enchantment. This is one journey you don’t want to miss!

Paperback: $18.00
E-books: $5.99
Amazon/Kindle: $18.00 & $5.99

…and don’t forget to tell your friends you got it from

8 responses to “The Hillbilly Stereotype and the Modern Ozarker

  1. Thanks for this essay, Jill. I have lived in the Ozarks by choice for over 20 years – first in NW AR and now in Stone Co MO. It was the landscape that I first fell in love with – the hills, steep ridges and ‘hollers’. But as I met and became friends with native Ozarkers, the more I admired these formidable people. The culture is unusual in this day and age, but still rich in tradition and history. K

    • Thanks, Kathleen, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! My husband and I have travelled the world and lived in several states and some of the most fascinating people I have ever met are Ozarkers! There’s a gem in every holler!

  2. Fred R. Pfister

    A good, short essay about an interesting (and touchy) subject of the “hillbilly.” For some, the term is a “fighin’ word,” and for others, it’s a term they either shrug off or accept the “good” aspects connected to the stereotype. I’ve always liked insisted that “a hillbilly is someone who can make a livin’ on land that would starve a goat.” I’ll have to direct some folks to your site!

    • Thank you, Fred. While not an Ozarker by birth, I have spent the last decade studying and admiring the cultural history of a culturally misunderstood people. After all of these years, my proudest moment came when I offered spring turnips to a neighbor of ours, who happened to be a multi-generational Ozarker. I didn’t know it then, but in the old days turnips were strictly a fall crop for winter storage. Our neighbor turned to us and said “Y’all have turnips already?! You’re more hillbilly ‘n we are!”

  3. Great article! I’m a lifelong residents of the Ozarks, and I embrace the term hillbilly. The only thing I would have to argue with would be the term Ozarker. I consider myself an Ozarkian. An Ozarker is somebody from that town south of Springfield that is the seat of Christian County. Or the town in northwest Arkansas just north of the Arkansas River.

    • Hi, Larry. I’m glad you liked the article and that you are among those who understand and embrace the true meaning of ‘hillbilly’. I respect your knowledge on Ozark history and enjoy reading your blog. I began using the term Ozarker many, many years ago because that’s what my elder neighbors called themselves, and I guess I’ve just stuck with it. Thanks for pointing out the difference.

  4. Remember driving south down scenic Hwy. 7 after visiting Eureka Springs & in the early 90’s & seeing a sign on the side of the road that said ” Honk & Holler, pop. 7″. There was one tiny tiny metal shack on the east side of the road nothing else. What ever became of that town, can’t find any mention of it anywhere?

    • Hi, Hans. I used to live very close to Eureka Springs and drove around much of that area, but I never saw or heard of the “town” of Honk and Holler”. The Ozarks are filled with funny town names, like Barkshed, Blue Ball, Hogeye, Greasy Corner, Tightwad, Bacon and many, many others. Some of these villages weren’t ever much bigger than a few families and more than we can ever count have been lost to time. I love the name, though, and next time I’m over that way, I’ll be sure and keep my eyes peeled! And if you do manage to locate it, I’d love to hear about it!

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