Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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We 'hillbillies' shouldn't take media slights so seriously
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   08/30/2002)

Pick up the pig, Mamaw. Lock up the still, Grandpa, it's time for Big Arnge football. Yee-doggies. We'll bag up some possum grits and poke-salat, have Junior bring down the jug (hear tell there might be a tailgate party), hook up old Nellie and trundle on over to Nashville for the Why-omen game. I'll bring along the flintlock in case we run into any of them thar revenuers or ESPN commentators.

Seriously folks, did you see the big headline on Wednesday's front page: "ESPN drops ad mocking UT devotees?"

Seems some in the University of Tennessee athletics department got a little touchy about a TV spot that showed an overweight lady in curlers holding a pig named "Rocky Top."

It has become conventional wisdom that the only people still safe to stereotype are mountain folks--hillbillies in the vernacular.

Blacks, Jews, Poles, Hispanics, Native Americans and Chinese were by and large off-limits by the 1960s. Still, you had "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Gomer Pyle," "The Dukes of Hazard," "L'il Abner," "Tobacco Row" and the infamous "Deliverance" all flowing through the media pipeline.

I grew up with a chip on my shoulder when it came to my mountain heritage. It took years of paying attention to something other than TV to figure out what a great part of the country this is.

Develop a healthy self-regard, and it doesn't much matter what others think.

If just a few of our dedicated teachers would set aside a week from math, science, history or English to tell our kids how lucky they are to be here, it could make a big difference in how we see ourselves.

For instance, I wish someone had mentioned that country music, bluegrass, rock, gospel and jazz all owe something to this region, and that the Beatles, in particular, were influenced by the harmonizing techniques of Knoxville's Everly Brothers.

I wish someone had told me early on about James Agee and Thomas Wolfe and Robert Penn Warren and Eudora Welty and Caroline Gordon and Jesse Stuart and other wonderful writers of the region who influenced world culture.

I wish they'd mentioned that most East Tennessens were pro-Union and anti-slavery during the Civil War, and that we therefore came down on the winning side of that conflict. Maybe we'd see fewer Confederate flags on pickup trucks around here.

I wish someone had taken the time to tell me the epic story of Sam Houston, one of the great men of this nation, who lived with the Cherokee Indians down around Kingston for a few years and later taught school in Blount County. His is one of the most heroic stories you'll ever read--about one man rising from the ashes of defeat again and again to ever greater triumphs, and who championed losing causes from time to time just because they were right.

Speaking of the Cherokee, no one in East Tennessee should have to learn about Sequoyah--creator of an entire written language--on their own time. His story should be taught. And I wish someone had told me the Cherokee story of creation, a poetic account that celebrates these mountains and waterways and variety of life.

I wish I'd been taught the dramatic stories of the Cross Mountain and Fraterville mine disasters and the Coal Creek coal mine rebellion.

Or about the battles between those competing vigilante groups, the White Caps and Bluebills, and the heroic campaigns of Sevier County's Tom Davis and Doc Henderson to track down the worst of the outlaws and restore order. Like Sam Houston's story this is one of the most dramatic and heroic true stories you'll ever come across, and it's mostly been suppressed.

I wish somebody had bothered to tell us that we have more varieties of plant and animal life here than on 95 percent of the planet. If they had, maybe we wouldn't be in such a hurry to sell it all out and blacktop it under, but that's another story.

There are literally hundreds of stories about East Tennessee statesmen, actors, writers, warriors, artists, athletes, institutions and natural wonders of which we should all be proud--stories that too few kids grow up hearing.

When you realize what a dramatic and interesting place we live in it's easy to laugh at and with ESPN. Shucks, folks, they're just making a funny. It's been my experience that people who try to bring you down can only succeed if you allow ignorance of your own self-worth to let them get to you.

Go Vols.