A History of Hillbillies

Award-Winning Doc on the Appalachian People

BY: Claire Connors

Two years after the release of author J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, which landed at the top of the New York Times Best Seller List, twice, comes the award-winning documentary on the same topic. hillbilly, written, directed, and produced by former Kentucky resident, Ashley York (along with Sally Rubin and Silas House), is a deep dive into the historical meaning behind the word hillbilly in both the media and our culture, the history of the now-poverty-stricken coal-mining areas along the Appalachian Mountains, and the saga of its residents, past, present, and future.

Filmed in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia, Ohio, and Tennessee, we meet the folks AKA “white trash,” who represent the hillbilly stereotypes we’ve come to know in movies like 1972’s action thriller, Deliverance. The filmmakers even track down the actors from that famous “Dueling Banjos” scene, Ronny Cox and Billy Redden, a real hillbilly local they found during filming. It’s a bittersweet recollection by Redden of his experience making the film.

We also get to know up-and-coming Appalachian communities of artists, feminists, poets, queers, activists, and an unexpected but much welcome fraction called Affrilachians, a group of black artists and writers who live and thrive in their rural hamlets and hollers. As diverse and politically left-leaning as these groups are, they still refer to themselves as hillbillies.

We first meet York as she’s returning home to dig up her own hillbilly roots a few months before the Presidential election. There she finds her family and the rest of the community wearing MAGA hats and chanting “lock her up.” The filming goes through to the end of the election with York’s family feeling very optimistic about their new President’s support of coal. We’d be very curious to hear what they think of his promises now.

hillbilly is currently in theaters.