Nothing is more powerful than a cliché whose time has come. Again.
So it hats off to Gretchen Wilson and her platinum-powerful breakthrough single, “Redneck Woman.” Country music sorely needed the jolt this song has given it. May there be more of them.
But let’s admit it, “Redneck Woman” doesn’t exactly plow any new ground. The conflicts it depicts between country and city dwellers, between poor folk and rich, between simple and fastidious tastes, between instinct and analysis and between know-nothings and know-it-alls have raged throughout recorded history.
Rednecks as a class have been around a lot longer than you might think — and the first ones didn’t get that name from the hazard attendant to working outdoors in the sun. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known printed reference to “rednecks” in America occurred in 1830. It came in a three-volume travel narrative called Mrs. Royal’s Southern Tour. In it, the author defined the term as “a name bestowed upon the Presbyterians in Fayetteville” (presumably North Carolina).
“Red neck” was applied specifically to Presbyterians, one scholar explains, because, in the early 1640s, some members of that group signed their names in blood to documents declaring their separation from the Church of England. They signified their strong opposition to the Church, so the story goes, by wearing red pieces of cloth around their necks. Many of their descendants later immigrated to America and settled in the South. The name eventually faded, however. In the 1954 edition of the massive Webster’s New International Dictionary Unabridged, it doesn’t even show up as a noun.
The wily yokel who outwits the city slicker is a staple of Americana — from the Li’l Abner comic strip to the Lum & Abner radio show to the Ma and Pa Kettle movies to the Beverly Hillbillies TV series. And remember that the “Opry” in Grand Ole Opry was a hillbilly smack at grand opera formality. In the 1940s, Irving Berlin and other pop songwriters celebrated the triumph of rural simplicity in such songs as “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” and “Feudin’, Fussin’ and Fightin’.” Back then, this same virtue was also heralded in country music through sentimental effusions like Bradley Kincaid’s “Just Plain Folks” and Little Jimmy Dickens’ “Country Boy.”
The conflict between the working class and the leisure class turned vicious in the 1960s, when workers clashed — both literally and figuratively — with college students protesting the Vietnam War, deriding them as “pot-smoking hippies.” Symbolizing that division was the 1969 movie, Easy Rider, in which pickup-driving Southerners blow away the drug-dealing, free-spirited “heroes.” (It’s interesting to note that Charlie Daniels, who would later become their patron saint, poked fun at rednecks in his first chart hit, “Uneasy Rider,” in 1973.)
Rednecks blossomed into full bloom in the 1970s. America was still in a cultural war between “hippies” and “straights,” and the rednecks were caught somewhere in the middle. They were more politically conservative than the “longhairs,” but more impulsive and pleasure-seeking than the “suits.” Depending on who was doing the singing, rednecks were either a breath of fresh air or a dark presence. But everyone agreed that they were basically creatures of action, not contemplation.
In August 1973, Johnny Russell made his biggest ever assault on the country charts with “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer.” The people he toasted didn’t “fit in with the white-collar crowd” because they were “a little too rowdy and a little too loud.” Still, they were portrayed as a generally amiable bunch. A month later, Jackson Browne hit the pop charts with the equally easygoing “Redneck Friend.” This was also the year that Ray Wylie Hubbard released his first recording of the soon-to-be-classic, “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.” In 1974, Randy Newman unleashed the savagely sarcastic “Rednecks” on his Good Old Boys album. David Allan Coe did a bit of cultural bridging in 1975 via “Longhaired Redneck” (although his redneck side wins in the end).
Then came the deluge: Vernon Oxford’s “Redneck! (The Redneck National Anthem)” and Bill Black’s Combo’s “Redneck Rock” (1976); Bobby Bare’s “Red-Neck Hippie Romance” and Jerry Reed’s “(I’m Just a) Redneck in a Rock and Roll Bar” (1977); Glen Sutton’s “Red Neck Disco” (1979); the Bellamy Brothers’ “Redneck Girl” and Conway Twitty’s “Red Neckin’ Love Makin’ Night” (1982); Alan Jackson’s “Blue Blooded Woman (And a Redneck Man) (1989); Charlie Daniels’ “(What This World Needs Is) A Few More Rednecks” (1990); George Jones’ “High-Tech Redneck” and Jeff Foxworthy’s “You Might Be a Redneck If …” (1993); Joe Diffie’s “Leroy the Redneck Reindeer” (1995); David Lee Murphy’s “Genuine Rednecks” (1997); Cledus T. Judd’s “First Redneck on the Internet” (1998); and Alan Jackson’s “It’s Alright to Be a Redneck” (2001). This list only skims the surface.
Look into BMI’s Web site, and you’ll find more than 200 songs whose titles begin with the word “redneck,” and there are plenty more that have “redneck” elsewhere in the name. Among those you may never have heard — but which are out there waiting to become hits — are “Redneck Aphrodisiac,” “Redneck Gigolo” “Redneck Golfer” “Redneck Limousine,” “Redneck Rapper” and “Redneck Martians Stole My Baby.”
That so many redneck songs have made the charts for so long demonstrates their enduring appeal. But there is also a downside. Their lyrics tend to perpetuate the stereotype that country music is for and about people who can’t quite make it out of the crippling conditions they were born into — and, what’s worse, that they’re deliriously happy about it.
But you go, Gretchen! Keep those cameras flashing and the money rolling in. Just don’t get above your raisin’. That wouldn’t be redneck.