Well, anyone can see, it’s been home to better than me,
so I guess I’d better watch what I say.
But what am I supposed to do, the one thing I know is true:
the only time I like it, is when I’m far away.
-Nine Pound Hammer, Outta the Way, Pigfuckers
In a recent conversation, a friend was trying to understand my musical preferences. I don’t share a lot of the same musical touchstones of most folks my age. I said it was probably because I had listened to roots music before I ever heard any punk rock. Guess that’s why I got along with Mike Mariconda; we were both on the same page. Musically, anyway.
My friend wondered how the hell that was possible, since Mariconda is several years older than I am. Maybe it made sense for the Raunch Hands to be mixing punk with roots elements, but what was my excuse? Probably, I responded, because I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and was at least two decades (if not more) behind the rest of the world in most areas. I recently had to return there, due to some events which conspired to keep me from my blogging duties (my old man was laid up, and I had to go visit the folks). My memory now refreshed, perhaps I can better describe the area, that you may understand. Your pal Schooley hails from a strange and exotic locale rarely examined in literature, cinema, or popular song.
I grew up in southwest Missouri, the “Ozarks,” an area of the country that is hard to explain. Missouri is a weird state, with arbitrary borders that make little geographic, economic, or sociocultural sense. The northwest half of the state is the Midwest – think Nebraska and Iowa, cornfields and more cornfields, surrounded by additional cornfields. St. Louis dominates the northeastern section, which, despite being the “Gateway to the West,” is more northeastern rust belt.
The southwest corner, where I grew up, is like West Virginia without the coalmines. It has more in common with northern Arkansas than with the larger cities or plains to the north, though some degree of regional antipathy exists across the arbitrary state border. It is a blend of the South, the Midwest, and Appalachia, seldom depicted in American popular culture.
The popular mythology about the early Ozarkers would have them a suspicious lot (never trust a stranger), fiercely independent (never beholden to any man), and cherishing their solitude (why else would anyone choose to live miles from the nearest neighbor?). These characteristics are, I believe, generally true of Ozarkers, both of today and of the past.
– Robert K. Gilmore, Ozark Baptizings, Hangings, and Other Diversions (this explains a lot, actually…)
If I were to recommend some books that would help you understand the area, pickin’s are slim. How to convey the feel of the place? Twain wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn one hundred and twenty-eight years ago, and things have changed a mite since the most famous book to ever mention the state of Missouri appeared. Perhaps some more contemporary sources will help.
To understand the Ozarks in 2012, I would recommend two books, neither specifically about the region. First up, Richard Longworth’s Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism. Maybe a strange choice, since the author claims the book is specifically about the Midwest, and carefully explains why the southern half of Missouri ain’t it, while the northern half is. Nevertheless, the problems Longworth describes in small towns in Iowa or Illinois are felt just as strongly where I grew up. In addition to having an excellent porn star name, the author is one of the few writers I’ve seen refer to the “rural slums,” a term as appropriate as it is seldom invoked. “The rural Midwest resembles nothing so much as the black ghettos of Midwestern cities,” he writes. Pretty much, yeah. But you rarely hear anybody actually say it.
Next, I would suggest Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting With Jesus. Bageant addresses many of the themes touched on in that favorite lefty tome, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? However, instead of the underlying disdain for his subjects you may detect in Frank’s writing, Joe writes with a combination of affection for his people, and loathing for what they have become.
Bageant, who sadly died last year, was himself a redneck who overcame a poor upbringing, got educated, and escaped the rural ghetto. He was from Appalachia rather than the Ozarks, but the similarities outweigh the differences. An entertaining scribe, Bageant brings a sense of humor as well as a sense of outrage to the Deer Hunting with Jesus. I was fortunate to get to talk to Joe once, and he was as funny and wise as he comes across on the printed page, with a dose of southern charm. I had every intention of having a conversation about politics, ideas, and the world with this writer whose book I admired, but we just ended up talking about playing guitar instead. Such is life.
Even though I kept my recommendation list short, I know full well that few reading this will actually read TWO WHOLE BOOKS, so how about some movies instead?
This is easier said than done. Few movies have ever been set in, or shot in, any part of Missouri or Arkansas, much less the Ozarks specifically. What few films that have, tended to use the area as a generic stand-in for somewhere else. There just aren’t a whole lot of options for movies that will give you a glimpse of this area of the country. When President Clinton once asked movie mogul Lou Wasserman what could be done to get more movies made in Arkansas, Wasserman’s reply was short and to the point:
Within these limited options, I would first suggest checking out White Lightning, filmed in Arkansas around the year of my birth. Unlike the hokey mess of the sequel, Gator, White Lightning is actually a good movie. Instead of the cackling buffoon that would later become his onscreen persona, Burt Reynolds turns in a quality performance. There are also car chases.
I’m not recommending you watch it because I had so many run-ins with the revenuers when I was younger, you understand. I’m suggesting you watch it because it was filmed entirely on location. This was the closest Hollywood had gotten to the Ozarks since the Beverly Hillbillies went to Silver Dollar City.
In addition to being the best example of the 70’s “rednecks and cars” genre, White Lightning is rare in that it was shot around Benton, Arkansas. No films crew would get this close to the Ozarks for decades, and the movie provides some great local color. The film allows you to see what a small community in the area looked like before air conditioning (everybody sweats profusely – I grew up without a/c, too), Wal-Mart (check out the shots inside the country store, garage, bar, and other businesses), high fructose corn syrup (the kids you see are all skinny), and crystal meth. This is half of the Ozarks I grew up in.
The next time a movie crew dared venture anywhere near the Ozarks was almost 40 years later, and you can see the changes meth and high fructose corn syrup have wrought. What became of where I grew up can be seen in 2010’s Winter’s Bone, or, as I like to call it, Precious for Hillbillies.
I’m not recommending it for the acting or the plot, but because it is a nice bookend to White Lightning. Winter’s Bone is about the only cinematic depiction of the post-meth/Wal-Mart Ozarks. These two movies show, in turn, what it was like when I got there, and what it has become. Winters Bone was also shot on location, this time in Christian county, Missouri, which borders the county where I grew up. From the sticky, humid summer seen in White Lightning, we go to cold winter nights, from moonshine to meth. We also go from poverty and scarcity, to poverty with tons of plastic crap made in China strewn across the yard. I may not buy Jennifer Lawrence or her accent, but at least the set designers and location scouts got the look right.
If you want to make it a triple-feature, Jesus Camp features a lot of footage filmed in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. Let me state right up front, Lee’s Summit is not in the Ozarks, it is a suburb of Kansas City. But again, the Ozarks are underrepresented in cinema, so we gotta take what we can get, and the film serves as a depiction of the kind of religious fundamentalism you can find plenty of in the area. If you think that the church in this movie is scary, consider this: Lee’s Summit would be considered “the big city” compared to where I grew up.
So, that’s about it for contemporary literature and cinema. Short list, but it hits the highlights: rural isolation, economic decline, rednecks, Wal-Mart, fundamentalist religion, and methamphetamine.
Next time, we’ll turn to music.