Gatlinburg – The Hillbilly getaway in the Smokies. It’s an odd mixture of fake Tudor houses, pretend Swiss chalets, log cabins, and tacky tourist attractions with fake blue water. Now, I am not trying to use the term “hillbilly” to denigrate Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg has done this to itself. Although, I suppose I should be careful not too offend people who consider themselves hillbillies by equating their culture with Gatlinburg’s take on it. Gatlinburg contains all things hillbilly from your Hillbilly Wedding (does this come complete with Pa in the back of the chapel with a shotgun –I don’t know) to Hillbilly Golf (historically great golfers, those hillbillies) to Hillbilly Harleys (do moonshine and motorcycles mix?). What is being offered to the tourist by the word hillbilly? The Wikipedia entry states that the “origins of the term "hillbilly" are obscure. According to Anthony Harkins in Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, the term first appeared in print in a 1900 New York Journal article, with the definition: ‘a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.’" I have to admit to growing up on a small piece of property in the foothills of Tennessee with goats, chickens, pigs and cows. We were not hillbillies by the historical definition however, and probably would have been offended at being called such. So the whole concept of celebrating the hillbilly has never had much appeal to me.
Not too long ago, I was staying in a pretend four story Tudor (the Tudor part was pretend…it actually had four stories) in Gatlinburg, placed implausibly at the bottom of an incredibly steep hill. Pulling into the drive at the top of the hill and driving down into the parking lot required holding my breath and letting the car ease down what appeared to be a cliff on a slope so steep that once I committed, I couldn’t see over the edge. Unfortunately, the trash dumpster was at the top of this hill and so taking the trash up the hill required an alpine hike. While schlepping bags of trash up and down this mountainous slope, I happened to look through an opening in the kudzu that hung from the trees beside the drive. And I think I found the real essence of hillbilly. I looked over an old wooden fence into a yard with an old overstuffed armchair sitting a few feet from a screened in wooden porch with a fridge. The small yard had been mowed at some point, the grass surrounding the dirt and gravel car park was only ankle high. There were two cars in different states of disrepair parked at odd angles to one another, almost randomly - one had a large cloth draped over the passenger side mirror that first made me think it was a drunk leaning over into the window; the other car was an old, eighties orange sedan. An old open shed with a tin roof sat at the back, with a few rusty tools and a wooden bench. Three blue and silver beer cans were scattered in the grass, buried too deep to be last night’s beer, too shiny to be too old, suggesting that the residents occasionally picked up their beer cans but didn’t get overly anxious about it. A few daisies had congenially planted themselves along with an orange daylily or two in the corners. Two big old trees casually covered the yard with big leafy arms and a cool, shady indifference to the strange hot little town around them. I thought about sinking into that chair with a beer in hand, facing the daisies and the daylily and the birds that casually happened by, refrigerator close at hand watching the cars slowly rust, and for a brief moment it seemed kinda like heaven. Doing what you please…, sitting around watching the grass grow…as untrammeled as the citizen of Alabama mentioned in the original definition. I could probably do without the whiskey and the revolver, but maybe a little bit of hillbilly now and then might do a body good.