State of the Arts: Cultural double talk

Posted by | July 15, 2014

The following article by Kyle Sherard ran July 14 in the Mountain Xpress. It is reposted here with permission.


Southern Appalachia can thank any number of movies and TV shows for flagrantly misconstruing us as a bunch of lawless, illiterate hicks and hillbillies.

Such characters have softened and intoxicated our sheriffs, put moonshine stills in all of our kitchens and rendered snakes as common as hymnals in our churches. And docudramas such as Moonshiners and movies including Deliverance have made overalls our de facto dress code in the same way that our rivers will permanently call to mind the twang of “Dueling Banjos.”

"Broadway Street Asheville, N.C., 1992," by Ralph Burns

“Broadway Street Asheville, N.C., 1992,” by Ralph Burns

The history and cultural persistence of these and other insulting-yet-laughable regional stereotypes make up the meat and bones of Hillbilly Land: Myth and Reality of Appalachian Culture, a contemplative and text-heavy new exhibition, curated by author and UNC Asheville history professor Dan Pierce, currently on view at the Smith-McDowell House Museum.

Hillbilly Land weaves through five major pillars of southern Appalachian cultural identity: religion, art and craft, music, moonshine and isolation. Each forms a literal and fantasized foundation of daily mountain life, both historical and contemporary.

The show features a series of information panels that hang in the south side of the museum’s ground floor. These are illustrated by photos from the likes of Tim Barnwell, Doris Ulman, Ralph Burns and Ron Amberg, along with several installation pieces ranging from a banjo, fiddle and a spinning wheel to a copper-topped still and a wooden toy set of a farm, complete with a barn, little chickens and a baby-wielding mother.

Ulman’s photographs depict mountain life, circa the 1930s. The grainy black-and-white stills show artisans crafting chairs and sitting on porches. Others play banjo or work on quilts. They portray the isolated and slowed-down lifestyle that was, and still is, associated with homesteading and remote mountain living. That very isolation is the proposed source of our cultural and social delinquency, and thus the basis for such easy stereotyping.

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