A Journey into the Redneck State of Mind
On a remote East Texas ranch, surrounded by thousands of rowdy Southern whites, many drinking heavily and driving all-terrain vehicles at eye-popping speeds, the young German confronted images of mayhem and depravity. Flula Borg, a tall, curly haired musician, was an accidental visitor to the Texas Redneck Games outside Athens in early August. He came as part of a Los Angeles film crew keen on recording a bit of the backwoods revelry.
The 26-year-old Borg's only preparation for the resulting cultural collision had come in Germany, first from watching popular American shows like the "The Dukes of Hazzard" as a child, later from grown-up movies that cast rural Southern whites in a far harsher light.
With a goodly number of Confederate flags flying, crude signs asking women to disrobe, and the occasional "White Pride" tattoo on a sallow chest, the event's early signs were unsettling. "They seem friendly. I was a little scared. You see movies. You think they'll be loud, throwing people around," Borg said shortly after arriving, still feeling conspicuous as a foreigner. Having a tall, black cameraman with flowing dreadlocks in his group only added to Borg's anxiety.
"I was worried they'd be racist. I'm worried because I don't have tattoos and everyone else is wearing wife-beaters," he confided early that Saturday morning. Hours later, after viewing various gross and silly contests, including some that resemble ancient rites of public humiliation, and competing in the mattress chunk (taking third place), Borg had relaxed.
"Wow, it's crazy. It feels a little like a movie. I don't know anything like this in Germany," he said with open amazement.
As midnight approached that roasting Saturday, the fourth annual edition of the games staggered toward a rowdy, wasted crescendo. Half-clothed women screamed and threw panties at Kevin Fowler and his band on stage while sunburned, mud-flecked men, buoyed on beer and carnal impulses, bellowed out indelicate propositions.
Lost in the roiling, fetid scrum were the guys in black T-shirts from "Girls Gone Wild," who had spent much of the day recording half-drunk blondes in unclothed poses.
"It was a mob. Lots of beer-drinking. Lots of hell-raising. Girls on guy's shoulders, lots of them without shirts. I saw a couple of naked women driving ATVs. It was better than a titty bar," laughed Patrick Holt, 40, a Fort Worth computer programmer with deep redneck roots.
With his head wrapped in a Confederate-flag bandana and wearing a shirt that read, "Loud Pipes, Longnecks and Loose Women. Everything Else is Just Bullshit," Holt could have written the game's dress code. While many of the thousands at the four-day event on a sprawling 3,000-acre ranch came to race ATVs on the backwoods trails, others wanted the chance to turn loose their inner redneck animal.
"As long as we're out of harm's way, we're not hurting anyone, and we're having fun. Life is short," Holt said later. "I didn't see too much bad stuff. There was one guy who got way too drunk, fell off his ATV, and gashed his head open. When people tried to help him, he freaked out and started swinging. When security came, he ran, and they had to tackle him."
Beyond the gimme caps, heavy drinking, and blue-collar rowdiness, exactly what makes a redneck in this enlightened age?
"It's hard to explain. It's like the opposite of an Aggie," said Mike Maxwell, a welder from Longview who spent the lost weekend in Athens throwing strings of cheap beads at passing women.
While the etymology of the word redneck is not clear--it stems either from the sunburned necks of hardworking Southern whites or, more remotely, from red scarves worn centuries ago by rebel Scots unwilling to accept the Anglican Church--until recently it held little ambiguity. Redneck meant lowdown, poor, shifty, ignorant, bigoted, and hopelessly sorry.
In 1974, Larry L. King wrote a lengthy piece for Texas Monthly reliving his harsh, redneck upbringing in rural Texas and disabusing anyone of the notion there was anything remotely attractive or glamorous about any of it.
"Of late, the Redneck has been wildly romanticized; somehow he threatens to become a cultural hero," wrote King, who grew up hard-working poor in Eastland County and then moved to Midland to continue as working poor.
"Perhaps this is because heroes are in short supply in these Watergate years, or maybe it's a manifestation of our urge to return to simpler times," he mused, harking back to a bygone time free of computers, crooked politicians, and urban tangle. Then he rejected the popular concept.
"Attempts to deify the Redneck, to represent his lifestyle as close to that of the noble savage, are, at best, unreal and naÃƒÂ¯ve," he wrote, going on to analyze the redneck as a hapless creature worthy only of pity and avoidance.
A decade and a half later, the unsavory image held, as songwriter Randy Newman sold a bunch of copies of an album titled "Good Old Boys." It included the song "Rednecks," which had memorable verses, including:
"We talk real funny down here. / We drink too much and we laugh too loud. / We're too dumb to make it in no Northern town. / Keepin' the niggers down."
For many Northerners and liberals, at least, that pretty much captured it. But time works cultural miracles. Somehow, menacing Bull Connor of Birmingham has become lovable Larry the Cable Guy.
As one certified redneckologist explained it, the term that was once a crushing insult is now worn by many as a badge of cultural pride.
"It used to be America's most respectable ethnic slur. You could say anything about Southern whites, and it was resented only by Southern whites," said James Cobb, author, college professor, and self-pronounced redneck.
"It's gone through this metamorphosis to where it's become more acceptable for Southern whites to call themselves rednecks. It's an aspect of the growing assimilation of the South into the rest of the country and the greater confidence of the Southern white male," said Cobb, who teaches history at the University of Georgia and writes books about Southern culture.
Nowadays, he said, redneck also implies certain attractive countercultural qualities, including self-reliance and a willingness to buck mainstream convention. "In a way, the rednecks are the hippies of the 1990s and early 21st century, sort of the dropouts from conventional society without a lot of the ideological trappings," he said. "A redneck does his own thing, regardless of what any bluenose, middle-class person thinks about it, living in his mobile home, with cars that don't run anymore up on blocks."
Pretenders are quick to latch onto a lifestyle once it becomes faddish, Cobb agreed. Some of today's rednecks, with their cubicle jobs and 401(k)s, would never have rated the slur decades ago. "Of course most people are playing games. It's a fairly convenient and cheap additional identity you can take on, and Jeff Foxworthy has made millions doing it," he said.
It was a bit over a decade ago that the original Redneck Games appeared as a spoof in Georgia during the same year the Olympics came to Atlanta. The Texas games started in 2003. Now even Canada has its own, somewhat misplaced version. All three summer events poke harmless fun at the stereotype of the lower-class, rural, white male who muddles through modern life, making do as best he can.
Being a redneck has become so popular there is even a Redneck World Magazine, published in Jacksonville, Florida, and claiming to sell about 220,000 issues a quarter. A recent edition featured the usual lame jokes about drunk rednecks, an article by Earl Pitts titled "White Trash and Rednecks Ain't the Same," and a lengthy rant against illegal immigrants.
Another Southern academic, Lana Wachniak, an associate dean at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, said the growing popularity of the games illustrates how the once-negative redneck stereotype has lifted.
"These games are more a caricature of the Southern Buffoon, if you will. They are analogous to St. Patrick's Day festivities, when we all become Irish. We can all reinvent ourselves. If you want to become Bubba, its OK," she said. "By donning this redneck hat, you can get out there and talk to people, have a good time, and feel you are connecting."
As a promoter, Oscar Still knows that redneck sells. With such crowd-pleasing gross-outs as the competitive Spam and jalapeno eating contest and the redneck fear factor, in which contestants dip for animal parts in a trough of red soup, the Texas games were geared toward R-rated entertainment.
"The wet T-shirt contest is probably the biggest redneck game of all," said Still, 54, of Kilgore, and the man responsible for bringing the games to Athens. "Of course I take advantage of it. People like to be called redneck. I've got a doctor and a lawyer friend who will tell you in a minute they are rednecks. It's a heritage, cultural thing."
The games offered a "Daisy Dukes Showoff" featuring women strutting around onstage in cutoff shorts, as well as a coeducational butt-crack contest, not for the faint of heart. It all added up to a large, private adult party in the woods, with something for just about everyone. For the women, outnumbered 10-to-1, a lifetime worth of male attention was available in one weekend.
Not just white people attended, Still pointed out. "A lot of people used to associate the name redneck with racism, but that's not true. You can be a redneck and be a different color. You don't have to be a white boy to be a redneck, and your neck doesn't have to be red," he said.
A handful of African-Americans and at least one guy of color who spoke English with a mild Spanish accent were spotted at the Athens games. While most of the blacks were part of an Austin sound crew, a couple of others attended for the same reasons as everyone else: Beer, girls, and ATVs.
"The Confederate Flag doesn't bother me at all. There's no feelings to it. I'm just here to have a good time, to see some women," said Nolan Jackson, a skinny, 23-year-old black kid from nearby Canton. "I'll tell you what's redneck--a stripper pole on a trailer. They had one last night down by the pond."
Until the redneck games came along, Athens was best known as the "Black Eyed Pea Capital of the World," a tribute to J.B. Henry, the local farmer who a century ago figured out how to process the peas for human consumption. From its birth, city fathers have tried to promote a respectable image. History books tell us that it was not by chance it bears the same name as the seat of ancient Greek culture.
A neat and industrious, blue-collar town of about 13,000 people, it has a beautifully maintained courthouse on the square, a nice downtown business district, and some two dozen churches. There are no bars or package sales of alcohol, and the only drinks served come with food in restaurants.
When Still brought his ocean of beer, bare-chested women, and legions of crude-mouthed drunks to Athens, it did not go down well with everyone. In particular, the other local branch of the so-called redneck family, the one that goes to church, keeps its clothes on and speaks civilly to unattended females, was somewhat frosted.
"There was a lot of nudity, rowdiness, intoxication, people running wild on four-wheelers, underage drinking, and there was some assaults and fighting and serious injuries," said Lt. Pat McWilliams of the Henderson County Sheriff's Department.
"I'm from East Texas, and I know rednecks. Personally, I'm having trouble distinguishing the rednecks from the white trash," he said.
Part of the law's beef with Still was the size of the crowd, which was three to four times what Still had promised. It caused a crushing gridlock on the grounds, creating difficulties for police and medical personnel. By state law, any organized public gathering of over 2,500 people must have a permit that includes county oversight.
"We feel he lied to us. We know he did. He assured us there would be no more than 2,000, possibly 2,500 people there, and we realized quite soon that wasn't the case," McWilliams said.
So while the band dodged undergarments on stage that Saturday night, a far different scene was unfolding just outside the ranch gates as troopers and sheriff's deputies threw up a dragnet. Inside the festival grounds, state alcoholic beverage agents trolled for underage drinkers.
By weekend's end, more than 300 warnings were handed out, and nearly 100 people had been arrested or given citations for offenses ranging from driving while intoxicated to possession of marijuana to driving without insurance. Two people were ticketed for illegal dumping.
Sunday morning, as a paralyzing hangover gripped the ranch grounds, deputies with a search warrant seized Still's attendance records. "We're ready to go to court, showing 6,000, and we're still counting. It could go as high as 8,000," McWilliams said of festival attendance.
Dismissing the wholesale traffic stops and citations as "major overkill," by police, Still also took issue with the remark about "white trash."
"That's definitely an insult to the rednecks. White trash is basically the criminal and drug aspect," he said.
Still said he might try to hold the games again in Athens next year, despite a pending misdeamenor criminal charge against him and rumors that a civil suit will soon be filed to block him.
Legal issues aside, it's clear that being a redneck ain't hardly what it used to be, and that the Texas games are here to stay. After all, this year, around 7,000 self-described rednecks were willing to travel and spend a lot of money for the experience.
"If I stop drinking, this shoulder is gonna start killing me," said Stuart Fulton, 36, an offshore oil-field worker from New Orleans who earlier had nailed a stout tree with his Honda ATV.
"It's the freedom. A lot of these people work 60 hours a week, and all they have off is the weekend," he said. "You've got thousands of people out here. There's no fighting. There's no littering. There's just a bunch of people having a good time."