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Hillbilly Stereotypes in Media and Performance: Home

An exploration of the use of the hillbilly/rural stereotype for laughs or to sell products.

Mountain Dew Beverage

During the mid-20th century several soft drinks, or soda pops if your prefer, were branded using a moonshine-hillbilly theme.  This is an early television advertisement for the beverage Mountain Dew.  Mountain Dew is the best known and survived the longest.  It was especially popular during the 1960s, during the same period as the Beverly Hillbilly's television show and Hillbilly Bread brand.  Later, during the 1980s, Mountain Dew was re-branded to appeal to active teenage boys.  Although, several "throwback" ad campaigns have briefly revived its hillbilly brand imagery. 

JIm Varney's Characters, especially Ernest P Worrell

Jim Varney was a classically trained actor from Lexington, Kentucky. His most famous character is Ernest P Worrell.  Ernest displays a distinctive accent and style that might seem to indicate that he is from Appalachia.  The character was crafted by Varney and Nashville advertising executive, John Cherry, as a universal everyman to serve many different advertisers. Earnest was featured in local and national ads for car companies, milk brands, and many others.  Varney's Ernest was such a success in advertising, he became the basis for a series of successful movies in the 1980s. 

Ernest P Worrell displays many of the same characteristics of "Jack" of the Appalachian Jack tales.  He wanders through life getting into many situations.  Through it all, he has a good heart, but appears to lack intelligence.  Yet, his heart and deep wisdom always seem to carry him through and even benefit others.  

Varney grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, and made it his home his entire life.  Varney's character-based comedy drew from this own identity and his observations of people around Lexington, a locale near Appalachia.  His characters blended stereotypes of rural people, Kentuckians, and Appalachians.   Below is one of Varney's early standup routines from 1979. 

"The Beverly Hillbillies" Television Show

The Winston Cigarette Company paid for advertising from multiple different television shows during the 1960s. The most famous example of this was the first two seasons of The Flintstones, which featured an ad for the cigarettes in the opening credits. Here, the Beverly Hillbillies are portrayed with the cigarettes. Interestingly, R J Reynolds was from Patrick, Virginia and founded Winston Cigarettes in Winston Salem, North Carolina, both of which are in Appalachia. 

Ma and Pa Kettle

Ma and Pa Kettle are a fictional couple that first appeared in "The Egg and I," a novel by Betty MacDonald. When Universal films created a film based on the book, audiences, especially those in small towns, loved the couple so much that Universal created a series of movies from the couple. Small town viewers especially connected with the quasi wisdom the couple seemed to possess. Ma and Pa Kettle live a charmed life. Though they are not well educated, things just sort of work out for them because of their wholesome qualities. The characters Ma and Pa are from the Ozarks. The Ozark and Appalachian hillbilly stereotypes mirror each other, both emerging as people from a highland region interact with a surrounding dominant culture. At times in the media the two regional stereotypes merge and blend. 

Hillbilly Bread

Hillbilly Bread was created by Robert  L Roush, the founder of Roush Bakery Products. Roush Bakery Products sold commercial bakery mixes and licensed associated trademarks to regional bakeries.  In 1963, Roush named his newest commercial bread mix "Hillbilly." According to his accounts, the name was partly inspired by the popular Beverly Hillbillies TV show but also because he thought "Hillbilly," despite its negative connotations, brought to mind wholesome food.  Many local/regional bakeries bought the bakery mix and sold it under the "Hilllbilly" label.  Examples are known from such varied of locations as Washington State, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Southern California, and Louisiana   Even in the year 2020 it is still being sold in a few parts of the country.  These commercials were produced for WFAB in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, around 1965 and central Ohio in 1978.

Minnie Pearl

Minnie Pearl was a character created by Sarah Colley. Sarah Colley was classically trained at Belmont College in Nashville, Tennessee. Minnie Pearl became famous appearing on the Grand Ole Opry. The character hailed from Grinder's Switch, Tennessee, a small town. Grinder's Switch is a real town near Centerville, Tennessee.

Toby's Mattress

This advertisement is for a mattress store in Western, North Carolina. It was one of the most recent videos featured in this guide. The lady in this video could be mimicking Minnie Pearl.

John Boy and Billy Big Show

The John Boy and Billy Big Show is a radio show recorded in Charlotte, North Carolina. Most of their bits concern how unintelligent John Boy is, as well as rural life. The radio show is broadcast nationwide.

James Gregory

James Gregory's comedy concerns rural American life. He grew up in a rural area outside of Atlanta, Georgia, which puts him close to Appalachia. Much of his comedy concerns his crazy relatives, a topic, which while universal, is often associated with the stereotype of the Appalachians.

Donnie Baker

Donnie Baker is a ruccuring character on the Bob and Tom show. He is a crass fellow, and is often trying to sell a boat. He speaks in a thick accent which seems to be southern in origin.

Jiggle Belly

Jiggle Belly is a doll on the Cartoon Network television show "Aqua Teen Hunger Force." He displays many of the hillbilly stereotype attributes, including a jug with XXX on it and a gun. Another doll in the show refers to him as a "backwoods retard."

Comments from Curator

This guide is an exploration into the hillbilly stereotype as found on YouTube. A few years ago, Student Curatorial Associate Travis Rigg said: "If it ever appeared on film or tape, someone has put it on YouTube."  We decided to spend a few days mining YouTube for videos related to the Appalachian hillbilly stereotype.  This virtual exhibit presents the results of that search and attempts to contextualize the clips we found.

The Appalachian Hillbilly Stereotype

In recent years, Appalachian Studies scholars have done considerable work with the hillbilly stereotype.  They have exposed some of its roots, developed typography, and delved into the universals of social psychology that underlay stereotyping. The hillbilly stereotype is rooted in the more general rural, "bumpkin," "redneck," or "rube" stereotypes.  These predate  the Appalachian region.  One can also subdivide the hillbilly stereotype into variants such Ozark, Appalachian, and the Western "mountain man."  At times they are distinct but often in media they blend and merge.  Beyond America, there appears to to be a generalized highlander stereotype found in many other places in the world where a mountain subcultures exists in relationship to a more dominant culture.  For example, in Ukraine and Poland, the "Hutsul" group label can function much like "Hillbilly" in America. 

The Appalachian stereotype is also complex with built-in tensions.  It often displays both backwardness AND nostalgia, ignorance AND earthy wisdom, and laziness AND hard work.  Stubbornness is at times a weakness and at other times a strength.

See also our virtual exhibit on hillbilly stereotype artifacts.

About This Guide

This guide was produced by the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College. Student Curatorial Associate Travis Rigg researched the context, selected the videos, and edited this guide in 2013. Student Curatorial Associate Shadia Prater did additional technical work in 2015.

From the Library Catalogue