Bubba Goes to Hollywood 

A local documentarian stirs national debate with a reality TV show about hillbillies

A local documentarian stirs national debate with a reality TV show about hillbillies

Those in civilized society bristle at the kind of racial and ethnic epithets that now pepper only the most impolite or private conversations. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Italians, Jews—you name it—appropriately are no longer fair game for public disparagement in the parlance of the streets.

But there seems to be no shame in using the words that describe rural whites—hicks, rednecks, mullet heads, white trash, bubbas, coonasses. It’s the one social group for whom there has been no public outcry against degenerate language, whose exploitation doesn’t register with the PC police.

Which is why chardonnay-sipping CBS executives in New York and California seem to have little fear of inciting controversy over their newest reality TV concept, based on the bygone Beverly Hillbillies. The idea, co-conceived by Nashvillian Dub Cornett, is to find a backwoods family, plop them in a Beverly Hills mansion and turn on the cameras. It’s C-SPAN on the West Coast, only with different outfits, conversation that will probably sound odd to city folks and gaudy home finishings on which to hang overalls. Think Jed Clampett and family, only real.

Of course, the tentatively titled Real Beverly Hillbillies is the latest in the several-years-long inter-network reality TV bonanza—which, it should be noted, could not be less real. And it doesn’t sit well with, well, hillbilly defenders. (Yes, they do exist.) Critics of this kind of potentially mocking television say the poor white Southerner is the last group society finds acceptable for comic commodification, so to speak.

“What’s happening is that Appalachia is being mined for another resource—like coal, like timber,” says Christopher Rice, research director for the University of Kentucky’s Appalachian Center. Speaking on his own behalf, and not for the center institutionally, Rice compares this new hillbilly TV pitch to E! network’s painful-to-watch series on the life of Anna Nicole Smith. It bears mentioning, Rice says, that Smith is “a relatively low-educated, white Southern woman. What you see is a lot of making fun of her.

“Reality TV is quickly running out of ideas. They’re looking for anything they can find that is 'weird and icky’ and will get people’s attention, and this is the last group that they can exploit and not get into trouble with the PC police of New York and California.”

Even the talking heads on CNN’s Crossfire jumped into the fray last week to weigh in on the issue, culminating in Democratic political operative and self-described coonass James Carville’s parting shot: “Do you know what the difference is between Beverly Hills and where we come from in the South? In Beverly Hills, the jewelry is real and the people are fake. Where we come from, the jewelry is fake and the people are real.”

Enter an insistent Dub Cornett, Nashville musician, documentarian and—not least important—product of Appalachia, Va. Cornett, who was involved in producing the music that accompanied the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, conceived the TV idea with fellow producer Jim Jones (who’s originally from Mississippi). Cornett, a self-described “Appalachian American,” claims that critics have it all wrong, that CBS executives may think they’re getting something exploitive, but that he’s trying to pull the wool over their eyes.

“I’ve had people call and say, 'You guys are assholes for doing this.’ But the real attempt here is to try to fool everybody, and it’s pure hubris on my part,” Cornett says, mumbling that he guesses the only reason he’s saying this out loud is because “I’m talking to the Scene,” as opposed to Variety or something.

“I haven’t been as candid with [CBS] as I am right now,” he says. “I think they have a different agenda, although they’ve said they want it to be compassionate.”

If Cornett’s spinning, then he ought to see about working for the front-runner in the next presidential election. Because the guy can dodge some criticism. He says he and Jones had been complaining “about what we thought was wrong with reality television, that it wasn’t very real at all. We thought we could trick the network into thinking that we were going to do something like The Osbornes, but do a really even-handed documentarian kind of approach.”

But Rice, of UK’s Appalachian Center, isn’t buying it. “Let’s face it,” he says, “reality TV is not documentarian in nature. I would have to say they’re being disingenuous.”

Cornett, though, promises to approach the project with care. “I’ll sink this ship in a heartbeat if this gets ugly or mean,” he says. “I’m totally fascinated with reality TV. It’s sort of gotten a bad name. But how can we think it’s bad, then turn over and watch the stuff that’s scripted?”

Cornett and his partners have already begun lining up casting professionals, who will be based out of Nashville, Arkansas and North Carolina. “Let’s face it, we’re probably not going to find a family out of Chicago,” he says.

Interestingly enough, though, Cornett doesn’t necessarily associate hillbillies with the South. “Whether it’s Dolly or the Dalai Lama, we’re both hillbillies,” he says. “There’s as much ignorance in Brooklyn, N.Y., or Los Angeles as there is in the hills. The modern media has said, 'Well, if you’re not like this, then you’re nobody.’ When you’re really secure and know who you are, you don’t really care what people think about you.”

Finally, to hammer the point home that Cornett is a man who prides himself on his hillbilly roots, he quotes (more or less) a line from the 1941 biopic Sergeant York: “You know, I’ve always found it funny that the people down in the valley look down on the people in the hills.”

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