[18 May 2009]
The ‘60s saw a host of rural themed programs hit CBS, including The Andy Griffith Show, Hee Haw and of course, The Beverly Hillbillies. Interestingly enough for the most part, these shows boasted a wide audience (the Hillbillies pilot drew an estimated 50 percent of television viewers and was the highest rated show on television two years in a row, for example), suggesting that cornpone humor either has mass appeal, or that there was something else enticing viewers. Why were urban and suburban Americans inspired to watch these rural shows?
Personally, I think it was due to the anxieties raised by the urban migration some two decades earlier. During the late ‘30s and the war years of the ‘40s, approximately 3.3 million rural southerners -—nearly 20 percent of the South’s population—moved into cities both North and South in search of better employment. Bill, Charlie, and Birch Monroe were three of these millions, moving to Chicago for factory work and eventually getting their first taste of country music stardom there, playing square dances for other Southern transplants.
W.J. Cash wrote in The Mind of the South that the South is a foreign land, separated from the rest of America and also displaying a “remarkable homogeneity” within itself. And much like the Okie Migration of the Great Depression made famous in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, these Southern and Appalachian migrants were as a whole unwanted by their new urban neighbors, right down to the job listings which stated “No Southerners Need Apply”.
So what does all this have to do with the rural-themed sitcoms of the ‘60s, and more importantly, country music? All of these shows included popular country and bluegrass artists as recurring guest stars. Andy Griffith often featured The Dillards performing as family band The Darling Boys. The music the Darlings played tied them to the rich world of Appalachian tradition, but on the show, they were sheer comic fodder. Unless they were singing, a Darling never made a sound, responding to Sheriff Taylor’s questions with blank, open-mouthed stares. They sang songs like “Never Hit Your Grandma with a Great Big Stick”.
The Beverly Hillbillies featured the composers of their theme song, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, on seven episodes during the sitcom’s nine season run. In their suits and Stetsons, Flatt and Scruggs weren’t yokels with savant-like musical skills like the Darling Boys, but were instead the biggest celebrities of bluegrass music during the ‘60s, actually having their own show sponsored by Martha White Flour. Nevertheless, they too jumped right in to the show’s cornpone humor.
The hillbilly musicians of these shows were comical, nothing like the dangerous, moonshine drinkin’, slightly deranged mountain man stereotype that was prominent just a few decades earlier. Instead, characters like the Clampetts were merely out of their element, backwoods and scrappy despite their newfound wealth and location. If rural themed comedies were a way for urban and suburbanites to deal with their new, southern neighbors, then the wacky hijinks of the multigeneration Clampett Family reassured them that the influx of southerners was nothing to feel threatened about.
After the ‘60s, these country comedies were put out to pasture. The so-called “Rural Purge” of 1971 saw Hee Haw, The Beverly Hillbillies, and several others wiped from television (The Andy Griffith Show had been cancelled two years earlier. Pat Buttram, better known as Mr. Haney on Green Acres is rumored to have described the Rural Purge as such: “It was the year CBS cancelled everything with a tree—including Lassie.” In search of a younger, hipper demographic, all traces of rural life and rural people were removed from the lineup, replaced with programs like M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
By the early ‘70s the Urban Migration was over, and with issues like the Vietnam War and, um, everything Nixon was doing, Americans quite frankly had more important things to worry about than southerners encroaching on urban jobs. Thus, rural comedies had no place in the American conscious. Hee Haw would air in syndication for the next 20 years, and the other sitcoms have never been fully removed from television, living on in re-run form, but the golden age of rural television was over…for the next 30-some years, anyway.
Country star and former mandolin picker for Lester Flatt Marty Stuart has recently completed the taping of the first season of his own show for agricultural channel, RFD-TV (in addition to being available in rural areas, urbanites can get it on satellite television). Stuart’s show and Hee Haw reruns anchor the RFD-TV Saturday night lineup. Like predecessors The Porter Wagoner Show and The Flatt & Scruggs Show, Stuart features popular country singers singing their biggest hits; the closest thing to hillbilly humor is oldtimey banjo picker and modern day Uncle Dave Macon, Leroy Troy.
With this Saturday night lineup, not to mention reruns of other classic country music and comedy shows, it seems as though rural themed programming might be making a comeback—and not only among country folk, thanks to the aforementioned satellite. Could this resurgence be due to economic worries and a desire for a seemingly simpler lifestyle? What better way to soothe modern worries than by taking in classic country music with a side of hillbilly humor?
Whatever the reason, it means I get to see Marty Stuart and his mullet (oh, and his band The Fabulous Superlatives) every week. While the impersonal city and all its trappings rage on outside my window, I’m right at home with good music and lighthearted comedy. And isn’t that what country music—and country television—should be about?