Media review | May 1, 2017

A hillbilly way of living

Courtesy of Jeremy Ashworth

My wife and I have lived and ministered in three regions of the United States: The Midwest, the Northwest, and the Southwest. These are deeply different contexts and cultures, characterized by cornfields, Cascadia, and cactus. But we’ve been surprised to find a common thread among them. I call it the “Hillbilly Diaspora.”

By “diaspora” I mean a smattering and scattering of people from another place, folks who are not natives in any sense. And I don’t use “Hillbilly” as a dirty word. I mean it as a genuine description of an actual culture: white people of largely Scots-Irish descent who moved from the hills of Appalachia to the factories of the Midwest, and who now find themselves struggling in the post-industrial rust belt. Growing up in the farm-and-factory country of southern Ohio, these hillbillies are, in a sense, my people.

Like Brother Jeremy, I grew up in Appalachia—specifically, the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. My “hillbilly” roots run back a few generations, too: My maternal grandparents grew up in eastern Kentucky coal country; my dad’s mom spent most of her childhood in Virginia after being born in southern Ohio.

Holler-born and mountain-bred, my people are redneck through and through. Legend has it that four of my grandpa’s cousins were killed in separate, mysterious, moonshine-related accidents. If that’s not redneck street cred, I don’t know what is.

Jeremy: In my West Coast sojourns, I have been surprised, even alarmed, to find that displaced hillbillies disguise themselves as locals. The nature-loving, high-tech banker in Seattle? Hillbilly. The white protester in Portland, Ore.? Hillbilly.

I met a friendly, flamboyant, overly accessorized male peacock in Los Angeles. He had appeared on reality TV and was a living caricature of southern California. Not only was he a hillbilly from the same part of the country as me, he knew a thing or two about the Church of the Brethren (“I’m from Ohio, after all,” he said).

These and many more grew up within an hour’s drive of my childhood home. My new neighbors out west were actually my old neighbors back east; I just didn’t know it.

So a guy named J. D. Vance wrote a book called Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. My wife bought me this book in part because Vance fits my description of a displaced hillbilly. In many ways he embodies a bicultural reality: He grew up in Middletown, Ohio, and is now a high-powered West Coast lawyer.

Dana: I’ve lived in the deep South, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest. That probably means I’m part of the hillbilly diaspora that Vance describes so vividly. But I live in North Carolina, now, as close to home as I’ve come in my adult life. The return has been a relief. Finally, here I am back in the midst of not only the topography and twang but also the slower pace and the unspoken codes of honor and integrity that signal “home” and “safety” to my spirit and psyche.

Jeremy: This sounds like a tangent but it’s not: Years ago I had a life-changing experience with Ruby Payne’s book A Framework for Understanding Poverty. My takeaway from Payne’s work is that social class is not just about how much money you have, it’s also about the kind of culture you belong to. The lower, middle, and upper classes don’t just have different amounts of money, they live in different worlds with different codes of conduct and different unwritten rules. Hillbillies don’t golf.

So if Payne’s book lays out a framework for understanding, Vance’s book is a first-person account from inside that framework. He recognizes rural-to-rust belt Appalachian poverty as a culture, a way of living in the world.

Dana: Reading Vance’s memoir about the hillbilly way of living in the world struck immediate chords of recognition for me. I recognized the arc of my life in the arc of his: School took him away from home and life carried him ever farther; school also carried me across the state and life took me around the continent. I recognized my family in his family: He calls his grandmother “Mamaw”; I call my grandmother “Mamaw.”

Jeremy: I should clarify that I do not have the hillbilly pedigree that Vance does. Plenty of German Brethren and English Quakers contribute to my cultural origin, and I offer with genuine empathy that Vance’s violent upbringing could have benefited from a little peacemaking.

My own idyllic childhood was infinitely happier and healthier than what Vance describes, thank God, and thanks to my parents and extended family, including my “Mamaw.” But when a New York Times bestseller so accurately describes the actual locations, idioms, unconscious mindsets, and social scenarios I grew up around, it’s more than informative, it’s a little unnerving.

Dana: Hillbilly Elegy has been touted as one of the Best Books To read To Understand People Who Voted Differently Than You in the 2016 election. That list also includes White Trash: The 400 Year Untold Story of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir of growing up black in America, Between the World and Me.

Vance’s book is described as a representative, palatable summary of the mindset of all those white Appalachian Americans that many of my non-Appalachian American friends have fretted over, insulted, blamed, and condemned since November.

To be fair, Vance’s characterization of the stubborn, loyal, hardy, closed-mouth, and myopic Scots-Irish Appalachian perspective felt, at times, exactly right to me. As he wrote about his family and his hometown, I heard—actually heard, echoing around in my head—the voices of my great aunts in Pikeville, Ky., and Columbus, Ohio. I remembered the people of my home church in Roanoke, Va. Several kids that went to elementary school with me in Botetourt, Va., flashed through my mind. If you’re reading the book in order to encounter a perspective you never even knew existed, you’ll get a decent overview.

Still, the memoir left me not just dissatisfied, but actively angry. Vance, like me, left Appalachia. And, moreover, he left for an Ivy League education, a top-grossing career, and a house on the West Coast, as far from home as he could get. When he wrote the book, he was still a member of the hillbilly diaspora, attempting to step into the national discourse in the role of translator, interpreter, a bona fide rags-to-riches success story, here in his khakis and boat shoes, to tell us how it really is in fly-over country.

Jeremy: I’m not suggesting that Vance’s book is gospel. I am saying that I had an unexpected personal response to his personal story. I wasn’t comforted; I was a little bit rattled. Because at least in a regional sense, Vance was my neighbor. And I didn’t know it.

Dana: Maybe interpreters and translators are what we need, these days, to help us hear one another across so many lines that divide us. Maybe having someone remind us who our neighbors are—or were—is just the push we need. But I wish that those lists of books to read if you’re trying to understand had included a memoir written by one of my Appalachian kin immersed in the present-day realities of Appalachia.

I wish that I lived in a country full of people willing to listen to the unedited, unrefined integrity of those hillbillies without an Ivy League education or a spate of New York Times editorials to their name. I wish that we could somehow muster the compassion to listen and believe even those people who seem as far removed from us as J. D. Vance was from his roots.

Interestingly, on the morning I sat down to write this review, the New York Times published another op-ed by Vance. It turns out, he is moving home to Ohio. He is tired, it seems, of working as a translator from afar.

In his own words: “[T]he more difficult truth is that people naturally trust the people they know—their friend sharing a story on Facebook—more than strangers who work for faraway institutions. And when we’re surrounded by polarized, ideologically homogeneous crowds, whether online or off, it becomes easier to believe bizarre things about them.”

Jeremy: Now I know that hillbillies are everywhere. I was reading Vance’s book in my kitchen as the refrigerator repairman was fixing our icemaker. Out of nowhere, he shared that he moved to Phoenix from Dayton, Ohio, years ago. Before that, his family lived in Kentucky.

I have a friend who is the pastor of a dynamic, multiethnic church in the Seattle area. He’s a hillbilly from Marietta, Ohio. You can catch him on the Trinity Broadcast Network. He speaks English and fluent Spanish with a justnorth- of-Kentucky twang.

I know another pastor of one of the hippest churches in the heart of Hollywood. He hails from the same hillbilly country of southern Ohio.

I find myself part of an odd, invisible tribe that extends even to my own congregation, Circle of Peace Church of the Brethren in suburban Phoenix. One family in the church, of Scots-Irish descent, also grew up in southern Ohio. They moved to Phoenix years ago because one of them had a nasty lung disease, and they thought the warm weather might help. I have family members, still in Ohio, with the same lung disease.

Dana: I agree with Vance on this count: It is easy to believe bizarre things about the people we do not know. His book, and Brother Jeremy’s reflections, remind me that it’s possible to be deeply connected to people we’d never suspect to have anything in common with.

Still, I wonder how we might forgo those dual-culture translators and begin listening with humility directly to the people we can’t seem to understand. Instead of relying on an Appalachian transplant to interpret Appalachia for us, perhaps we might choose to listen and believe those people living as hillbillies right here and right now.

This principle might serve us well across the board, really. Instead of trusting the news or social media to shape our opinions of conservatives or liberals, refugees, or gun-owners, perhaps we might seek out an actual, living, breathing human being who fits into one of those categories in real time and learn to know them.

Jeremy: It’s a strange and wonderful time to be alive, and to be in Christian ministry. As a believer and a husband and a father and a pastor (and a displaced hillbilly) in a diverse suburban context, I know that part of my ministry is to recognize and respect differences without being held captive by them.

I am not always sure how best to love and serve faithfully in the mist of fragile, hostile, and polarizing times. But I do know this, beautifully summarized by Derek Webb, “The gospel has no target demographic.”

Jeremy Ashworth is pastor of Circle of Peace Church of the Brethren in Peoria, Arizona.

Dana Cassell is pastor of Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren in Durham, North Carolina. She also writes at