By Josh Howard
This past week, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) announced their next inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame – Hillbilly Jim, a 1980s and early 1990s television mainstay that most fans, judging from Reddit and Twitter reactions, thought had been inducted years ago. Needless to say, Jim is deserving of the honor. He seems excited too: “Really I wasn’t expecting it, it hit me from the clear blue and it’s beyond belief to think that this has happened to me. It’s like the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae, man, that’s as good as I could ever hope for.” With Hillbilly Jim going into the Hall of Fame in just a few weeks, now is as good a time as any to think about Jim’s hillbilly character, its cultural importance, and how the WWE – an ostensibly Northern company in the 1980s – represented Southern mountain characters.
Billed from Mudlick, a real town within south-central Kentucky near Bowling Green, Hillbilly Jim represented a simple, rural Everyman during professional wrestling’s “Rock and Roll” era. Often lining up with or against more famous celebrity wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, and Andre the Giant, Jim’s floppy hat, red bandana, and blue jean bib overalls actually caused him to stand out. He was also a large man among large men, measuring around 6’7″, which made him roughly on par with other giants (except for Andre of course). Jim also had a remarkable degree of charisma that can only be described through watching professional wrestling – or the first season of Legends’ House.
Depending on who was doing the talking, Jim could be a “slack-jawed yokel,” “dumb hick,” “tough country boy,” or “mountaineer,” but during the 1980s, WWE programming represented Hillbilly Jim in two ways – a tough man from rural Kentucky, as demonstrated by his theme song “Don’t Go Messin’ with a County Boy,” or commentator Bobby Heenan’s favorite descriptor “The Big Dumb Hick from Mud Lick.” The commonality between the two was that Jim was ultimately a fun-loving man more likely to dance his way to the ring and appear in vignettes with his country momma (in her rocking chair) than find himself in a blood feud. In this way, Hillbilly Jim was different than other Southern characters at the time. Jim was fun, honorable, and nice. Others, like Ric Flair or the Fabulous Freebirds, were conniving cheaters and brawlers, natural descendants of a very specific type of professional wrestling culture. Ringside commentators regularly poked fun at Hillbilly Jim’s antics in the ring, but rarely did such comments, except for those by Heenan, cross any lines into outright hostility or mockery.
This brings us to the man in charge – Vince McMahon. Since at least the early 1980s, McMahon’s television programming notoriously caricatured and stereotyped virtually every slice of society. Stereotyping followed a relatively basic pattern of exaggerating basic traits such as nationality, as with the patriotic American “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan or dastardly Soviet Nikolai Volkoff, or class, best exemplified by evil millionaire Ted Dibiase and relatable common man Dusty Rhodes. Wrestlers commonly adopted troubling personas that were particularly vicious even during their time —Adrian Adonis (effeminate hairdresser), Cryme Tyme (African American “thugs”), and Saba Simba (a dancing African warrior) all spring to mind. Such characters regularly see outside criticism, especially as professional wrestling moves in a more inclusive direction. Southerners also occupy prime space in McMahon’s programming. Long-time employee Michael P.S. Hayes, who regularly wore a sequined Confederate flag cape to the ring as recently as 2001, and Ric Flair are probably the most visible historically. As an aside, the WWE produced a spoof comedy series on a fictional 1980s-era Southern wrestling federation that is actually very funny and worth a watch.
According to wrestling lore and gossip, McMahon intended to use Jim as a top-tier star just behind Hulk Hogan in the pecking order. A “dumb hick” would hardly be considered for such status. Unfortunately for Jim, a leg injury derailed McMahon’s plans. Returning to the ring after McMahon signed his newest mega-star in Randy Savage, Jim settled into a regular role in the middle of the card. For the next few years Jim clearly settled into a family friendly role by commonly inviting fans, usually children, into the ring to dance. He also competed in a series of comedy-driven tuxedo matches (where the goal is to disrobe and thus embarrass one’s opponent) against Mr. Fuji, who himself was in reality also an Appalachian resident living in Knoxville. Wrestling fans typically remember Jim for this family-friendly comedy persona and his regular partnering with Hulk Hogan.
Early in Hillbilly Jim’s run, the WWE brought in three other “hillbilly” wrestlers to partner with Jim – Uncle Elmer, Cousin Junior, and Cousin Luke (only one of whom was actually from the mountains). Unlike Jim, these less charismatic hillbilly relatives often appeared on the butt end of McMahon’s jokes. The infamous Uncle Elmer wedding skit, airing October 5, 1985, is a perfect example. A lengthy, 20+-minute long skit essentially served to deride the hillbillies as simple folk, what with pigs on the loose at their reception and open disdain from Roddy Piper. Ultimately the real butt of the joke was future Minnesota governor and flashy playboy Jesse Ventura. His poem read, in part:
“I’ve seen your dance, and I’ve seen your song / But I must tell you that this is wrong / That wrestling is a deadly dance and is no partner to romance / And shame on those who ever did mix wrestling and romance / Just for these hicks!”
At that point, Hillbilly Jim threw Jesse Ventura into the wedding cake. And everyone laughed.
It’s worth considering too that Jim was never a villain and never adopted a racist or Confederate-sympathizing Southern character as did so many others. The character came close once as the manager of the 1990s tag team The Godwinns, a pair of Arkansan hog farmers. The Godwinns initially debuted with Hillbilly Jim as fun loving Southerners who, much like Jim, danced in bib overalls before transforming into villains, abandoning Jim as a manager, and trading in their John Deere camo ballcaps for Confederate flag t-shirts. Hillbilly Jim retreated to a backstage role until the early 2000s before leaving the industry and has hosted “Moonshine Matinee,” a popular southern rock show on SiriusXM radio, since 2005.
So why was Hillbilly Jim and his “relatives” generally exempt from the typical Vince McMahon’s vicious stereotyping? I think there are two reasons for this. First, separate from the hillbilly gimmick, Jim Morris seems to be a genuinely nice person who was (and is) beloved by the so-called “right people” in professional wrestling. Also, his physical stature was exactly what McMahon looked for in a superstar. The other, more nuanced explanation is that McMahon’s WWE essentially contains at least two parallel cultures: wrestlers, both good and bad guys, who conform to McMahon’s vision of hypermasculinity, and then everyone else. To gain approval in McMahon’s 1980s world, a wrestler needed to be physically fit, imposing, express a willingness to fight, and charismatic, just to name a few. At the center of this definition was Hulk Hogan, the masculine white man for all to follow, with others like Hillbilly Jim performing their own twists – but not twisted so as to diverge from McMahon’s version of “Reagan masculinity” (think Rambo and Robocop).
Returning to Uncle Elmer’s wedding, a surprisingly complex engagement with inclusion and McMahon masculinity emerges. Hulk Hogan’s only direct comments comes when he celebrated the union as “a beautiful wedding, a little different, and just might be the type of thing Uncle Elmer needs, a positive type of energy.” Other wrestlers from all walks of life reached out to the hillbillies in a rare moment of tolerance not usually seen in the WWE. Hillbilly Jim represented McMahon’s idea of a diverse wrestling roster — a little different and just the type of thing to give the organization a positive type of energy. Obviously, diversity is not inclusion and McMahon has yet to demonstrate a tolerant bone in his body, but I was surprised to find McMahon actually had some quality moments. When I first wanted to write about Hillbilly Jim, I expected to find dozens of examples of outright hostility toward Southern or Appalachian mountaineers. Instead, I only found a few, and those came from the expected “bad guy” voices who always received a quick comeuppance a la Jesse Ventura above. Here’s to Hillbilly Jim, WWE’s version of Hulk Hogan with a beard, a drawl, and a pig farm.
Note: Succinct wrestling history is complex for many reasons, but primarily because of the ever-shifting companies and inseparability of wrestlers’ gimmicks from company, in-ring performer, and individual. In the case of 1980s and 1990s WWE, authors and journalists generally make the case that Vince McMahon retained full creative control, so he alone retains final claim for all praise and scorn.
Josh Howard is a public historian with Passel Historical Consultants based in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.