Southern Journal: The Vanishing Redneck

Let us raise a red Solo cup to the men who wear a Caterpillar hat without a trace of irony.
Article: Rick Bragg

Many years ago, I walked up to the desk of my editor and said, "Hey. Have I got a story for you. I want to write about the vanishing redneck."

He looked me up and down. "We still got plenty."

But now, a quarter-century later, I know I was right. The genuine redneck is about to vanish off the Earth without so much as a feeble "soo-EEE!" No one will miss him because of the fake rednecks that have risen in his place, masquerading in camouflage and John Deere hats, when you know good and well they ain't been nowhere near a tractor.

I know this to be true because of a trip I made with my wife several years ago on Interstate 40, on a glorious fall day. Outside Nashville, I was passed by a brand-new, lustrous black four-wheel-drive extended-cab truck, moving so fast I felt it pull at me as it went by, like I was a moon. Inside, it looked like a Bass Pro Shop had blown up and covered the men in designer camouflage. They all had stockbroker hair and looked like they jogged, and were smoking big victory cigars. New country poured from the windows. I think it was Carrie Underwood.

Hooked to the back of the $70,000 truck was a trailer loaded with massive lockboxes, a cooler big enough to hide several bodies, two four-wheelers, enough klieg lights to light up Middle Tennessee, and one tiny, spindly doe.

"Lord," I said.

My uncle Charlie was a deer slayer. He used a 45-pound-pull Ben Pearson bow, with arrowheads so sharp you could shave with them. He told me stories of good dogs. I am glad he did not live to see this.

I moped on down the highway. But like there was the hand of God in it, five minutes later I passed a faded, ancient Subaru station wagon lumbering in the slow lane, loaded down with fat men and iron. They were jammed tight in that little car, cigarettes in their lips, garbed in what seemed to be raggedy fatigue jackets from a war they might actually have served in. While I did not hear it, I am sure they were listening to George Jones or Martina McBride. Tied to the roof was a magnificent buck, and though I did not have time to count its points before we left them behind, it was a trophy. I don't hunt much anymore, for fear of hitting a subdivision, but if you are going to take a deer, at least take one like these men had done. And I felt something close to joy, knowing the fake rednecks had to drive past them too.

I hear there is something out there now called a hipster, who likes to wear a Caterpillar hat with his skinny jeans. I wonder what the real rednecks think of this, the ones who could fight a whole army with a tire tool, who have never in their lives stood helpless beside a broke-down car. The ones I grew up with would no more have exited their driveway without a battered toolbox than their trousers. They can change a fuse without burning down the house—in the car they just wrap it in foil from a stick of Juicy Fruit. They dig up busted water lines at 2 a.m., in February, so there will be water by breakfast, which will only make them happy if there is, somewhere in it, some canned biscuits and fried bologna.

I may not be much account, these days, by the gold standards of redneckedness, but I try. When my car breaks down I get out and jiggle a random wire, which I know is pronounced "WAAR," until a better man comes along and jiggles the right one.