I've spent more than forty Thanksgivings with at least parts of my hillbilly tribe. The numbers are down these days. As older generations have been dying away the younger generations have been moving away, leaving the tables less crowded than I recall from when I was young. Conventional wisdom seems to be that the dying and the moving both show that these are hard times for hillbillies.
Exploding meth labs have burned down houses in town. There's the prescription painkillers and now even heroin people are hooked on. Everyone has a cousin who's been roughed up or worse by someone in the business of providing a supply to meet the demand. Everyone has an aunt worried about what her son's gotten mixed up in or what her daughter is doing to get a fix. Jobs are mostly of the minimum wage variety, except for a few school teachers and police officers. There's the divorce, so much divorce, and the resulting complicated family trees that I can't keep straight.
These are hard times for hillbillies. Suspicions are high that these are the problems of the The City, come to settle into the hills and hollows. There's less consensus about the solution than there is about the problem, but most reckon that if the problem came from someplace else the solution involves sending the contagion back to where it came from.
I'm enough of a traitor to have left the hills, but not enough of a traitor to have gone very far. I've maintained my interest from just barely off the scene. I don't know that my thinking holds much sway in the hills anymore, but I've sat around the table enough years to have spotted a pattern.
All times are hard for hillbillies.
I remember uncles leaving town forty years ago, some never to return, looking for a job or a better life or a chance to get away from an ex-wife's vindictive family. I've seen family members do hard time that started before I was born. When I was a kid, you couldn't buy meth in town, but you could buy cocaine. One enterprising hillbilly I knew trespassed on Forestry Service land to grow marijuana. Farms were failing, business were closing, and young people--myself included--were moving away. Those were hard times for hillbillies.
Twenty and thirty and forty years ago, my kin blamed the hard times on the problems of The City reaching out into the countryside. In 4-H, I heard a kid give a speech about the evils of vegetarianism and how animal rights activists from far away were going to destroy our family farms; thirty years later, we still enjoy the meat but those family farms have been largely destroyed, so I suspect his anger would have been better directed elsewhere. I suspect that anger at The City and everything it represented could have been better directed elsewhere.
Times are always hard for hillbillies. People didn't move to the hills because their circumstances were good. Folks with even a little means settled to farm better land than the hills. The hills were for folks running from something. My family tree swells with people running from the law or debts or family or modernity.
Most of the descendants of folks who ran to the hills were and still are good people, people just trying to live in the only home they've ever known. This year a few less of them gathered around the table with their clan than in prior decades, but this year they once again complained about how hard times are for hillbillies. They can complain, we can complain, because times still are hard for hillbillies.
People came to the hills because times were hard for them. They brought the hard times with them. The old-timers are long gone now, but the hard times have stayed.