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Louisa-Lawrence Co, KY

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April 9, 2018


John C.C. Mayo play at the MAC and Hillbilly Days

Guest column

by John Butch Preston

Author John Butch Preston at Mayo MansionAuthor John Butch Preston at Mayo Mansion


April is the cruelest month, says the great Geoffrey Chaucer. But American poet Robert Frost puts it this way: Winter is only playing possum in April. Nevertheless, two upcoming area events should more than compensate us for April’s so-called wrath, as well as encourage us to better understand and appreciate who we are here in the mountains: The John C. C. Mayo play at the Mountain Arts Center on the 13th and 14th, and of course the annual Hillbilly Days in downtown Pikeville from the 19th to the 24th.

By spotlighting the specific category of people living in eastern Kentucky, Hillbilly Days has grown from a simple charitable event to the biggest yearly festival in the entire region. But just what does the concept hillbilly actually mean?

Hillbilly Elegy and J.D. VanceHillbilly Elegy and J.D. VanceOne of this year’s best-selling books, Hillbilly Elegy, by J. D. Vance seeks to define us in some way but in the end only succeeds in finding little to admire in us. We already know that poverty and hardship are things to be endured! J. D. Vance reminds me of the type of person who moves away and becomes a little condescending, whose likes are hardly welcomed back at family reunions. Those behind the scenes say his book is chiefly a means of clearing his closet of skeletons for his future political aspirations. Although I can’t agree with all his views, I will give him credit for honoring his grandparents, who were true, dyed in the wool, pistol-packing hillbillies.

But true, bona fide hillbillies are few and far between nowadays, as scarce as hen’s teeth, much like our dying-out WW II veterans.

It can be noted that just to be born here makes you an apparent or natural hillbilly, and to move here and stay allows you to eventually become a naturalized one—but a true hillbilly is a horse of a different color. These are the people who actually personify the hillbilly stereotype, the ones who plowed with a mule and killed and dressed their own hogs, activities and life experiences to now be quite proud of. To run out and use an outdoor toilet on a cold frosty morning was not a pleasant experience, but in the words of philosopher Fredric Nietzsche: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Indeed, hardiness is a virtue—something difficult to come by in today’s computerized world.

But all in all, perhaps the freedom of Hillbilly Days has allowed us to go a few steps further in making the best of our nationwide image. We have now incorporated the hillbilly stereotype into American Capitalism. Kentucky and West Virginia are now exploiting the Hatfield/McCoy Feud to attract tourism, and it’s working. And now we’re installing a moonshine still in downtown Pikeville—sure to bring an ironic grin to the faces some old timers, who had to build theirs on the sly. So, the tide seems to have turned; we are at last embracing our hillbilly ways. Something true hillbillies have done all along.

It is all these old-time characteristics that Hillbilly Days purports to celebrate, in its usual and most cheerful manner. So, while watching all the costumed ersatz hillbillies you see during the Pikeville festival, you may perhaps overlook someone who knows what it’s really like to be a real one—one who knows the difference between a sourwood tree and a sassafras without even thinking.

Author John Butch Preston's bio of John C.C. Mayo Author John Butch Preston's bio of John C.C. Mayo Of course, change is inevitable. It’s not hard to imagine a true hillbilly sitting in a fast-food joint at any of the East Kentucky malls, looking out the window at all the other joints and sudden exclaiming: Look out yonder! We could be anywhere! And that same person may now have quit calling the four-lane (U. S. 23) the new road.

But let us not forget our famous hillbilly country music stars named along the four-lane, aptly called The Country Music Highway.

However, there are other mountain individuals who have also achieved international fame, and actually broken the stereotype, although in other fields, such as politics and economics. Fred M. Vinson of Louisa was a veritable genius when it came to world affairs. He organized the World Bank after WWII, thrusting him into national prominence as presidential hopeful, then went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—just a few of his many accomplishments. There is a museum dedicated to him in Louisa.

Then there was John Paul Riddle of Pikeville, an aeronautical pioneer whose airline company helped ready the U. S. and British Air Forces for WWII and is accredited with starting American Airlines. He hobnobbed with English royalty, and once flew a biplane underneath Pikeville’s old middle bridge, a daring feat indeed, with only thirty feet of airspace between the river and the bridge.

The other internationally known figure from our area is the boy who stayed home and changed the face of eastern Kentucky, John C. C. Mayo, whose name is synonymous with our most valuable asset: hard, black, crystallized carbon. You will find out just who he was and what all he did to effect and transform our entire economic culture, if you attend the play, Kentucky’s Richest Man, coming soon to the MAC in Prestonsburg.

All in all, Hillbillies are a great bunch of people; no longer should we feel maligned. We should consider ourselves lucky to be living our lives in beautiful eastern Kentucky. So let’s give April a chance to show her true colors. For to be sure and above all, to be born into these mountains, is to be born into the shelter of a Third Parent.


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