August 9, 2017
I was a music major in college. I studied trumpet from the age of about 10 and played in bands from the age of 12. My bandmates were mostly from rural farms or mountain homes. We also sang in church choirs. If you came to our houses during the week you would hear Blue Grass or Country on the radio, and white Gospel music–quartets–before church on Sunday morning. This was what I now know as part of white southern culture. Until I cropped tobacco on my grandfather’s farm, and worked alongside African-American farm laborers, I knew little of other cultures. I actually like Blue Grass and Country Western music, and have a real appreciation for Doc Watson (I also like Black Gospel Music).
It would be the time of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in the 1980’s before academia would appreciate this traditional music. I would later learn that my ancestor Henry Nathan Keller (with wife Emma Beggs), for whom I was named, started Shaped Note music schools in Southern Illinois. I married Vickie at 19, and whose father had a country band called the Carolina Hilltoppers. (He is second from the left, below.) My father had a booming baritone voice for gospel and spiritual solos, accompanied by my mother on piano. In the blood and marriage.
Unfortunately, I was encouraged to look down on this music during college. It was thought to be unrefined, twangy, out-of-tune and said to belong to uneducated people. Many referred to the uneducated as Rednecks (really farmers whose necks were burned red from working long in the sun and who often shared conservative political and religious views), Hillbillies (Scots Irish mountain folks) and White Trash (poor whites with lazy and bad behavior). This was further pushed in my seminary music training as not the highest form of music to worship God. This was not overt, and I do appreciate my advanced musical training, with many fine professors who I am sure did have an appreciation for Blue Grass and Country. But there was definitely no appreciation for Bobby Bares’ Dropkick Me Jesus Through the Goal Posts of Life, or the old spiritual song Ain’t No Flies on Jesus.
Last year, I hired contractors to put on a new roof and front porch. ‘Hammer’ the roofing contractor introduced himself.
I asked, “What’s your story Hammer?”
“Well, Mr. Corbitt (he was respectful) I stopped going to school in the 8th grade to work in my father’s roofing business. I was good at math, and that helps in roofing with all the angles. I own the business now, but I give 50% of the profits to take care of my widowed mother (he cares for family).
“You know,” he cocked his head and gave a grin, “We’re just a bunch of rednecks that work mighty hard.” Sure enough, one of his crew proudly wore a hoodie that brandished ‘Redneck of the Year” across the front.  The crew was respectful, polite, and helpful.
And they did work hard. They ripped the old roof off, instead of laying it over the old roof with the purlins from 1829, replaced rotted wood and installed new rafters over the kitchen and bathroom at back of main cabin.  In the process they blew out the years of rat and possum nests that lay between the old roof and ceiling–including old skeletons. [6 and 7] No wonder my Indigo black snake friend spent so much time up there. Then we insulated and covered every gap we could find. Keep the critters out!
I actually came to Hammer through Kurtis Ledford who owns Home Sweet Home.  He is a gentle, honest, soft spoken and creative fellow, who is meticulous–he is not in a hurry and I am okay with that. He also enjoys a good conversation and often brings his wife to help out and give ideas.
Kurtis helped with two aspects of the project. One, he built the front porch to spec from the architect; and two, installed egress windows replacing rotting boards with cedar lap siding. The only issue was a 20 year-old leak at the kitchen chimney. Took several tries, but all good.
So, I am good with rednecks–I get it, it is a pejorative term loaded with all kinds of negative stereotypes–and I may avoid certain people because of their behavior. But, I felt at home with these guys–just like the old carpenters and farmers who used to attend my father’s church who sang with a twang in quartets and played guitars, and worked very hard every day–but Sunday.
Some books to check out:
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance
The Liberal Redneck Manifesto: Draggin’ Dixie Outta the Dark
by Trae Crowder, Corey Ryan Forrester, Drew Morgan
Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in African American Music by Christopher Small