The term “hillbilly” is widely considered an offensive way to describe a poor, uneducated person from a rural area, but the residents of Pike County, Kentucky, have found a novel way to co-opt the term in order to poke fun at themselves and raise money for a good cause in the process.
April 19 marks the start of Pikesville’s 36th annual Hillbilly Days Festival, a three-day long celebration of Appalachian culture that benefits the Shriner’s Children’s Hospital in nearby Lexington. The event was co-founded by Howard “Dirty Ear” Stratton and Grady “Shady” Kinney in 1977 and has gradually evolved into a major event that draws a host of nationally known musicians and over 100,000 festival goers.
The term hillbilly apparently dates back to Appalachia’s deep Scotch-Irish roots but it gained popularity along with a band called The Hill Billies in the 1920’s. The Hill Billies, who got their start playing in a barbershop – now a museum – in Galax, Virginia, on The Crooked Road (see photo), became popular enough that what we now call country music was called hillbilly music. By the 50’s, hillbilly music was re-branded as Country & Western.
Participants at Hillbilly Days dress up in bib overalls and don straw hats, display Confederate flags, drive pimped-out hillbilly limos and eat traditional hillbilly foods. Pike County is also the former stomping grounds of the legendary Hatfields and McCoys, whose infamous feud in the 1880’s resulted in 13 fatalities. Pike County has a Hatfield and McCoy driving tour and a museum for those who want to learn more about this bloody chapter in Appalachian history.
We spoke to Jimmy Kinney, Grady Shady’s son, to find out more about this intriguing cultural event.How did this get started?
My dad and his friend, Dirty Ear Stratton got together and decided they wanted to have a parade. They went to a hillbilly parade in Ohio and got the idea to have one here. It was to make money for the Shriners Children’s Hospital in Lexington. It just took off; it grew from a small festival to well over 100,000 people now.
At one time, the term ‘hillbilly’ wasn’t considered insulting. How do you think the phrase has evolved?
It’s gone in different directions. We’re just having some fun and making fun of ourselves. But there’s a fine line. We’ve gotten some criticism about it, but I ask them to think about the good cause we’re raising money for. We can make fun of each other but we don’t let other people make fun of us.
How do people dress up for this?
Bib overalls, old straw hats – you’ll see just about everything.
I understand there’s also a special hillbilly breakfast available at the festival?
Yeah, it’s biscuits and gravy, fried apples, cornbread – all kinds of stuff.
What about hillbilly drinks like moonshine?
Can’t have that now; it’s against that law. When we first got Hillbilly Days going, we did have a member who brewed 114 quarts of moonshine. He was in our city park selling it for $10 per quart. The city police chief came by and told him he couldn’t sell it. So he says, ‘I’m not sellin’ it. I’m givin’ it away for a $10 donation.’
What goes on at Hillbilly Days?
Great music, five different stages. In the city park, we have old time and traditional bluegrass music. You’ll also hear country music and rock too. We have a big parade on Saturday with lots of hillbilly vehicles. You see vehicles that you wouldn’t even think could run, but they do.
Right. People are very proud of them. People build them. They work on them in their garages all year to bring them here. You’ll see cars you’ve never seen before.
I noticed on the website that some participants were flying Confederate flags in previous years. Is the Southern heritage a big part of this event?
We get people from South Carolina and Georgia and around the South for it. But we also get people from all over – New York, Michigan, Canada.
Is it hard to get a hotel room in Pikesville during this event?
Very hard. If you can’t find a room in Pikesville, you might find one in Prestonsburg, which is about 20 miles away.
What is a hillbilly?
A hillbilly is a really fine person. It’s people from this area. Laid back people. People from this part of the country are super. The whole community is great – I can’t imagine a place with better hospitality than Pikeville, Kentucky.