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Is the term ‘redneck’ a slur, a historical description or just a mindset these days?

I was listening to ‘The Bobby Bones Show’ recently and the guys on the show got into a discussion about the term ‘redneck’ and whether it was inappropriate to describe another person as that nowadays in 2022. It got me thinking.

We live in culturally sensitive times and many of the terms and phrases that were part of people’s lexicons back in the 60s, 70s and 80s and have now been deemed inappropriate or offensive. Society, be it something you agree with or disagree with, has looked at films, books, TV programs and song lyrics through the same lens, so songs like the Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Fairytale of New York’ by the Pogues are now considered to be politically incorrect. I wonder where that leaves ‘Indian Outlaw’ by Tim McGraw, a song that never seems to be mentioned in the same sentences as those oft quoted ones above?

For the Country music world, the two biggest ‘hot take’ terms have to be ‘hillbilly’ and ‘redneck’. Both those terms can be found in copious amounts of Country music songs over the decades and they are both part of modern parlance and in constant use, but is that right? Do the negative connotations that both words have mean that they should be retired now and consigned to history in the same way that certain statues and flags have been?

The fabulous ‘Country Music’ documentary that Ken Burns produced back in 2019 stated that before the term ‘Country music’ was used, that sound that we know and love, and the stories passed down through the hills of Tennessee by generations of working class Irish and Scottish immigrants was once known as ‘hillbilly music’.

‘Redneck’, meanwhile, has cloudier origins, a more checkered history that touches upon class, race and prejudice. Many musical artists who throw the term around at the drop of a hat as they sing about trucks, fishing, girls and beers see it as an expression of pride, of belonging and something to aspire to. But not everyone agrees.

Pastor R.L. Gundy was quoted in back in 2015 as saying “I see the bombing of four little girls, the turning of dogs on people, the beating of people and the blocking of people going to college. That’s what the word means to me.”

The origin of the word ‘redneck’ is disputed. Some people believe that the word began to creep into usage sometime around the 1880s, starting as a derogatory term to describe lower class white farm workers and the red necks that they would have from working the land in the hot sun all day. It has gone on to be used to describe any poor Southern white people, farmers, white Presbyterians in North Carolina, white coal miners and even communists! Other historians believe the term had a more political origin, being used to represent groups of workers who unionised around the turn of the twentieth century and who wore red neckties or kerchiefs as a way of bonding themselves together and making a statement.

By 1900, ‘rednecks’ was in common use to designate the political factions inside the Democratic Party comprising poor white farmers in the South. The same group was also often called the “wool hat boys” (for they opposed the rich men, who wore expensive silk hats). A newspaper notice in Mississippi in August 1891 called on rednecks to rally at the polls at the upcoming primary election:

‘Primary on the 25th.
And the ‘rednecks’ will be there.
And the ‘Yaller-heels’ will be there, also.
And the ‘hayseeds’ and ‘gray dillers’, they’ll be there, too’.

In his fascinating work from 1995, ‘A Short History of ‘Redneck’: The Fashioning of a Southern White Masculine Identity’ Patrick Huber stated, ‘For approximately the last 100 years, the pejorative term ‘redneck’ has chiefly slurred the poor, white man of the American south and particularly one who holds conservative, racist or reactionary views.’ He goes on to list nearly 20 other pejorative terms that have all been used to belittle or degrade poor, white Southerners.It’s interesting to note that the term, ‘cracker’ was first used way back in the 1760s so some of these slurs have been around for a very long time!

Where does that leave us with ‘hillbilly’ and ‘redneck’, then, in 2022? It’s clear that terms like those and other labels, like ‘white trash’ have been reappropriated by the very people they were meant to tarnish, in the same way that other communities and ethnicities have adopted slurs that were designed to ridicule or offend them. Artists like Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves built their careers on being ‘white trash’ or ‘trailer trash’ and were proud of the connotations that came with it.

Some publications have tried to even draw parallels with the use of ‘redneck’ and the ‘N’ word. That is not the focus of this piece, although it is worth thinking about and like everything in our modern world, needs addressing with nuance and care, there are no simple black and white answers anymore!

The conclusion that ‘The Bobby Bones Show’ came to, with Bobby leading the way as a native of Arkansas, was that it would be OK for another person who came from Arkansas, or one of the other similar Southern states to call Bobby a ‘redneck’ but if it was someone from New York or California doing it, he would be offended. Dolly Parton, perhaps the person best served to have a say in this in the world of Country music, said this about use of the word ‘hillbilly’:

“It doesn’t offend us hillbillies, it’s our music, but if you’re an outsider and you’re sayin’ it’s hillbilly music because you don’t know any music, it’s almost like a racist remark. If we’re hillbillies, we’re proud of it, but you’re not allowed to say it if you don’t really know what you’re talkin’ about.” 

The Cambridge Dictionary definition of ‘redneck’ states: ‘A poor, white person without education, esp. one living in the countryside in the southern US, who is believed to have prejudiced ideas and beliefs’. That description comes with a whole bunch of stereotypical assumptions and it feels wrong to be throwing that term around, now, in this day and age. Country musicians don’t help themselves a great deal with their prodigious, disposable use of the word and it’s ‘badge of honour’ connotations and it also doesn’t help that many of the artists currently using the term ‘redneck’ have appropriated it for commercial purposes, even though if you looked into some of their family backgrounds they would be about as far away from being a ‘redneck’ as it’s probably as possible to be!

The simple conclusion, which many people on social media struggle to understand, is that there is no right or wrong answer. To some, ‘redneck’ is a slur, to others, not so much. As Morgan Wallen found out when he was caught on camera using the ‘N’ word back in early 2021, it all depends on who is using the word, why and in what context. From one southerner to another, it might well be a term of affection but used by those of us in other countries or communities it might well be seen as, at best clumsy or inappropriate and at worst, offensive. Use with care and know your crowd.

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