Redneck Chic and the Return of Gretchen Wilson

I think I am only slightly exaggerating when I say that being a redneck is sort of fashionable right now. Ever since the white working class proved decisive in the 2016 presidential election, both major parties are re-evaluating their relationship with an “embarrassing” voting bloc they believed they could ignore with impunity.  However, over a year ago, even before Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination, yours truly cautioned against writing off blue-collar voters. In my article, “An Academic Redneck for Trump,” I said the following: “Just as it was foolish for pundits to have dismissed Trump in the primaries, it would be equally unwise to dismiss his supporters. We’re not stupid…even if we are rednecks.”

Without question, there’s been a renewed interest in lower-middle-class white Americans as a political constituency and topic for serious study. Two books published last year, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, and White Trash, by Nancy Isenberg, make bold assertions about folks in flyover country. However, writers of such books often indulge in pity, caricature, or derision. They are often people who “escaped” the culture and have no desire to return. Or, in the case of Isenberg, they are outsiders who write about rural Americans as though they are monkeys in a zoo. Kevin Williamson of National Review, who himself has argued that it would be a blessing if small-town America would just die out, criticizes White Trash:

Isenberg teaches at Louisiana State, having studied at Rutgers and the University of Wisconsin. Her book inevitably will be compared—poorly—with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy…There is no sense of knowing this culture and its people. By her own telling, her interest in the subject is rooted in To Kill a Mockingbird (the film, not the book), and her work is full of such information as can be had from Google or in a classroom in Madison. As for the people, they’re mainly just evidence to be mustered against the Great Satan that is American capitalism, or else, like Sarah Palin, characters in Isenberg’s white-minstrel show version of history.  There may come a time when the members of the white underclass decide that they do not want or need nice liberal ladies, who get so much wrong speaking about them, to speak for them.

Although I’ve often disagreed with Williamson, he is correct in this instance. In fact, perhaps it’s time to stop trying to speak for lower-middle-class Americans and let them speak for themselves–if and when they choose to speak–without judging them.

Vance’s book is supposedly an “elegy” to a dying culture. However, his requiem is premature. The white working class is not dying. In fact, the common folk are alive and well and just helped their preferred candidate take the White House. They wield tremendous power when they unite as a political force.

Granted, the social problems within the community— alcohol and drug abuse, general dissipation—are significant impediments to upward mobility, but these days, I suspect the lower-middle class is no more prone to poor lifestyle choices than many white-collar professionals who may have the means to hide their difficulties—at least temporarily. Suburbanites may not be patronizing payday loan businesses, but many are still maxing out their credit cards and taking out second mortgages to keep themselves and their college-graduate children one step ahead of bankruptcy.  In addition, the dramatic increase in suicide and substance abuse among teens born into semi-affluent families suggests that America’s “poor white trash” aren’t the only ones struggling with demons. Actually, accustomed as they are to more limited resources, the have-nots may be better suited to coping with hard times than the haves.

As I write this, I am in Alabama, sitting with my mother at the nursing home.  I am watching one of her caregivers—a friendly, big-boned woman with a distinctive southern hillbilly accent—use a lift to move Mother from her wheelchair to the bathroom. Without even breaking a sweat, Melissa, the caregiver, will clean Mother after she uses the toilet and then move her back into her wheelchair. Despite all my advanced education, I am helpless to provide such intimate care to my own parent and am extremely grateful that someone else possesses the physical and emotional stamina to work in such a demanding, stressful job.

About two hours to the south of here, Booker T. Washington founded Tuskegee Institute over a hundred years ago and once said, “There is just as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” Twenty-five years ago, when I was in the early stages of my career, I bristled at the suggestion (and many of my academic colleagues still do), but now I know Washington was on to something. We’ve devalued people who do “menial” work for far too long. 

Many people would call Melissa a “low-skilled” worker, but I take issue this characterization. It takes tremendous grit and presence of mind to be able to calm an elderly woman whose fragile, stroke-twisted limbs feel serious pain every time she moves. Melissa is sensitive to this and jokes with Mother to take her mind off the “ride” from the bathroom back to the wheelchair. Once the ordeal is over, Mother stares up at Melissa with relief and childlike affection. Melissa seems impressed when Mother tells her (for the fifth time) that I am a college teacher, but I almost feel I should be expressing my esteem for Mother’s professional helper. She pats Mother’s hand and smiles at me when I offer a humble “thank you” as she heads off to help another elderly patient with toileting.

Melissa’s  dignified demeanor and pride in her work remind me how appropriate it is that country music singer Gretchen Wilson is making a comeback in this era of Trump populism. Wilson became a country superstar in 2004, when her hit single “Redneck Woman,” an anthem celebrating practical, lower-middle-class gals, hit the charts. She grew up in Pocahontas, a small town in southern Illinois. Like Butcher Holler, Kentucky, Loretta Lynn’s hometown, Pocahontas is the sort of hardscrabble proving ground where bona fide country music legends are born. Moreover, no one since Loretta Lynn has given voice to the concerns of working-class women more effectively than Wilson has in recent years.

Wilson’s mother was sixteen when she was born and drank heavily during her daughter’s formative years. Her father abandoned the family when Wilson was about two years old.  Wilson dropped out of school in the ninth grade and began tending bar full-time to earn a living. At an early age, she learned to be tough and take care of herself. In 1996, she packed up and moved to Nashville, working as a bartender and singing in local clubs before her big break came in 2004. “Redneck Woman” was the first major hit from her Here for the Party album.

The music video for “Redneck Woman” opens with Wilson’s joyride through the mud on a four-wheeler. Right before the vocals begin, Wilson stops, swings one leg over the ATV, looks confidently into the camera, and sings, “Well, I ain’t never…been the Barbie doll type.” A few lines later, she says, “Some people look down on me, but I don’t give a rip. I’ll stand barefooted in my own front yard, with a baby on my hip.” This line—a clever play on the “barefoot and pregnant” pejorative critique of “unliberated” women at the mercy of the patriarchy—suggests that blue-collar women’s views about motherhood differ dramatically from many of their white collar professional sisters. They don’t necessarily see children as an inconvenient impediment to their lives. Wilson emphasizes that she is standing in her “own front yard,” suggesting that she’s minding her own business, living her life and not presuming to tell others how to live, even though self-righteous busybodies might “look down” on her for her own choices.

Other issues Wilson takes on directly are pretentiousness and cookie-cutter standards of beauty. In verse two of the song, she sings,

Victoria’s Secret
That stuff’s real nice
But I can buy the same damned thing on the Walmart shelf half price
And still look sexy, just as sexy, as those models on t.v.
I don’t need no designer tag to make my man want me.

Wilson’s “redneck woman” exudes confidence and knows who she is. She is comfortable with her sexuality and understands the value of a dollar. Similarly, in her song “California Girls,” she challenges the Beach Boys’ old assumption that the California blond is the ideal standard of beauty:

Ain’t you glad we ain’t all California girls?
Ain’t you glad there’s still a few us left
who know how to rock your world?
Ain’t afraid to eat fried chicken
And dirty dance to Merle
Ain’t you glad we ain’t all California girls.

Wilson looks fit, chiseled, and sexy in this video as she “dirty dances” and good-naturedly mocks prissy Paris Hilton-types who carry their dogs in their handbags. However, her critique is not mean-spirited. At the end of the video, Wilson picks up the Paris Hilton character’s chihuahua and appears to befriend her blond nemesis. The Paris Hilton character follows Wilson and her friends down the California beach. In this instance, the redneck is the trendsetter.

Wilson’s music style is kick-ass country, but she can also belt out a rock tune. Her version of  Heart’s “Barracuda” (when she teamed up with Nancy Wilson and Alice in Chains ) is almost better than Ann Wilson’s own rendition of the song. Her cover of Bob Seger’s “Her Strut” is also gritty and impressive.

One of the most admirable things about Wilson is she acknowledges both luck and hard work played a major role in her success. She realizes that many talented musicians dream of landing a recording contract but never make it big. Even though she dropped out of school in ninth grade, she always understood that education is extremely important.  At the height of her career, she studied and earned her GED because she wanted to be a good role model for her daughter, who is now sixteen and wants to attend college at NYU. Wilson has joked that her daughter’s expensive college choice is one of the reasons she’s going back on tour to earn more money. Wilson has even testified before Congress on the importance of funding adult education.

She hopes one day to earn a college degree herself, but that will have to wait for a few years at least, because her latest album Rowdy was released earlier this month (the single “Rowdy” hit the airwaves back in December), and she’s touring again.  The new album concentrates on some of  the same themes as her early work: the hard-working, hard-playing people she knows firsthand. However,  the album is also about her comeback and creative presence: “They say lightning won’t strike in the same place twice, but let me get behind this guitar…Whatever everybody’s doin’ just don’t feel right. Let me show how we do it on a Saturday night.” Indeed, while the industry may favor younger doppelgangers like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, Wilson’s unique sound sets her apart.

Incidentally, today is Wilson’s 44th birthday. May she have a long career as an authentic, sassy representative for working-class Americans.