The Annals Of Southern Culture #1: Jeff Foxworthy
My father, God bless him, was not pleased that I moved out of his hometown of Chicago to the faraway land of Decatur Georgia about two years ago. This dissatisfaction manifests itself in a characterization of the South that is, to put it mildly, less than flattering.
On more than one occasion, he has asked me a question along the lines of, “So, is there a lot of racism and bigotry there, a lot of ignorance? Are a lot of the people their rednecks? Is it super-rednecky?” I don’t really know how to respond because Chicago, where he lives, and I lived for a very long time, has a pretty shameful history of horrific systematic and personal racism that stretches unmistakably into the present and looms ominously over the future.
But The Annals Of Southern Culture is not about how racism poisons every facet of American life. No, it’s a fun column about me exploring some of the kitschier pop culture artifacts of the American South, where I moved about two years ago after 39 years as a stubborn, died-in-the-wool Midwesterner.
Because heaven knows my father is not alone in imagining that everyone south of the Mason-Dixon line belongs to the Ku Klux Klan, owns and operates a moonshine still and has a Confederate flag both hanging from the gun rack of their pick-up truck and tattooed across their beer belly.
Heck, before I relocated to the South, a lot of my own preconceptions were pop-culture-derived, most notably the early docu-series Dukes Of Hazzard, which pioneered non-fiction narrative storytelling through its groundbreaking cinema verite-style exploration of a pair of good old boys who, while never meaning no harm, alas, end up making their way, the only way they know how, which, also, turns out to be a little bit more than the law would allow.
In one of the many Frederick Wiseman-like details that make the pioneering reality show so powerful and enduring, the character of “Daisy Dukes” is so heartbreakingly poor that she can only afford the tiniest amount of denim fabric for her shorts. So I think my dad got a lot of ideas about what life is like from Dukes Of Hazzard and its ilk but that’s not the South of today. So I have decided to immerse myself in the sacred new testaments of the South for The Annals Of Southern Culture.
First up is Jeff Foxworthy’s You Might Be A Redneck If… and Crank It Up: The Music Album. How popular was Foxworthy at the height of his fame? He was successful enough that on 1996’s Crank It Up: The Music Album, luminaries like Alan Jackson collaborated not with Foxworthy himself, who was apparently too busy to go into the studio and cut new tracks for the album, but rather with a CD of his old material, since Crank It Up: The Music Album is largely devoted to transforming Foxworthy’s old material (which can be found on his blockbuster previous albums) into what can only be called songs in the most charitable possible way.
How half-assed is Crank It Up: The Music Album? They didn’t even bother to remove the laughter and applause of the crowd from these cynically remixed tracks, though it could be argued that Foxworthy had, or rather, has such an explosive, even sexual bond with his audience, a sort of orgasmic mutual obsession, that it could be argued that to take away the laughter of the audience—his audience—would be the professional equivalent of shearing off Samson’s hair.
People lost their shit over Jeff Foxworthy during this period. He made women faint and men question their sexuality.The paparazzi stalked him. Supermodels threw themselves at him. With a trio of fellow working-class comic revolutionaries known professionally as Larry the Cable Guy, Ron White and Bill Engvall, he changed comedy in ways Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Nichols & May, Lorne Michaels, Bill Hicks, Mitch Hedberg, The Marx Brothers, Monty Python, Joan Rivers, Tina Fey, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Terry Southern and Chris Rock could only dream about, both separately and combined. .
And for good reason: Foxworthy is a solid comic craftsman with an appealingly old-school delivery and a way of leaning into punchlines that’s corny but enormously ingratiating. He lucked into a silly but enormously popular and weirdly enduring gimmick early on in the form of his “You might be a redneck” bit and has ridden it farther than anyone could have imagined.
But Foxworthy rose to huge heights (four of the singles from his silly novelty made the country charts) for reasons beyond his relatively solid and relatable material and confident delivery. Like Garth Brooks, Foxworthy embodied a strange new 1990s cultural archetype: the country superstar you can easily imagine managing a Home Depot in suburban Dallas or Atlanta.
Brooks and Foxworthy both took art forms that could be raw and unruly, brazenly uncivilized and filled with underclass anger—country music and Southern comedy—and made them palatable to the widest possible audience. They shaved off the rough edges and produced something made to be enjoyed by people driving SUVs to their mini-mansions who still identified strongly as “country.”
Foxworthy’s goofy embrace of redneck culture allowed fans (who I’m guessing fell overwhelmingly on the white and Christian side) to own their whiteness in a self-deprecating and tongue-in-cheek way that nevertheless afforded them the sneaky privilege of claiming a designation that has historically been associated with harmless Southern shenanigans, sure, but also, you know, horrific racism, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, and a whole bunch of other things that so are not cool.
Needless to say, Foxworthy’s rednecks are very different than, say, Randy Newman’s rednecks. They’re not strongly identified with racism here because in these albums black people don’t really exist, so rednecks aren’t white people prone to racism and ignorance but rather lovable goofs whose drunken hillbilly shenanigans only hurt themselves.
Foxworthy made calling yourself a hillbilly safe because Foxworthy chronicled the idiosyncrasies of “rednecks” in a genial fashion that reveled in white Southernness while nevertheless conveying that for the multi-media superstar slickly delivering his “You might be a redneck” jokes to enormous crowds, his days of being any kind of redneck were in the increasingly distant past. Foxworthy cannily emerged as the respectable face of redneckdom, which means he’s no kind of real redneck at all, which is also a huge part of his mainstream appeal.
Listening to these albums I was pleasantly surprised by his Southern-fried affability (take away the thickness of his Southern drawl and his jokes only work half as well) as well as the surprising strength of some of his material, although my newly Southern brain processed some of it in a weird, weirdly defensive way.
The song “Redneck Games” for example, tries to transform an extended riff about how the inexorable hillbillyness of the entire state of Georgia was going to humiliate our country when Atlanta hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics into a loping, wry country song. Foxworthy so exaggerates the ignorance of the fine people people of Georgia that I wanted to yell at my Disc-Man, “Despite your comic depiction of my home state as some manner of ignorant backwoods rife with knuckle-dragging dullards, Atlanta is actually a thriving and international metropolis. Also, the international Olympics committee would, as always, be in charge of running and executing the games themselves, not a stereotypical group of ignorant hillbillies from the region hosting the games.”
On You Might Be A Redneck… and Crank It Up, Foxworthy is not quite a Mark Twain American raconteur but he does, at the very least have a bit of a Tom Bodett quality about him that serves him well in his observational material about drinking and partying and marriage and sex and, above all, of course, The South.
“You might be a redneck if” made Foxworthy a star and I would be lying if many of those jokes haven’t lodged themselves permanently in my mind. So while I would have a hard time telling you the name of even a single high school or college teacher (I vaguely recall one of them being called Mr. Holland’s Opus, but that may be a fake, or at least confused, memory), I would have no problem instantly demarcating all of the following:
*Going to the family reunion to meet women
*Being accused of lying through your tooth
*Taking your child to first grade on account you being in the same grade
as three sure-fire, Jeff Foxworthy-approved ways of telling whether or not you qualify as a redneck. Oh sure, I could claim that the enjoyment I have derived from “You might be a redneck” through the decades is ironic and tongue-in-check but at my age, you take pleasure from whatever you can get, guilty, ironic, campy or otherwise. I’m pleasantly surprised to say that the first journey I took for this new series was a surprisingly smooth ride.
Totally arbitrary Southern Culture scale: 3 Mint Juleps, five bags of boiled peanuts and one of the replacement Duke cousins
Whether you qualify as a redneck or not, you can support Nathan Rabin's Happy Place over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace