The Thread Count: A Fashionable History of Wrestling Hillbillies

Welcome to the inaugural post of The Thread Count. Each week, we here at With Spandex will take a look at the fashionable side of wrestling; be it how wrestling legends evolved their looks over the course of their careers, the effect it’s had on their receptions, or the impact of a wrestling gimmick and how that look echoes through other promotions over the years that followed.

This week, I examine the influences of some of wrestling’s most notable Hillbillies. Now, it’s important to note that by no means is this a comprehensive list. It’s also important that we differentiate between what we’re deeming as “hillbilly” fashion, and what could be referred to as a “redneck” aesthetic or gimmick. As a Canadian girl from the east coast, my authority on these differences is minimal at best. My origins are country as heck, but while one can infer that my ancestors were a bunch of backwoods hicks (they were!), there’s a particular cultural hallmark of the American hillbilly that prevents me from truly identifying with them.

Working with our dear editor here at With Spandex, Official Southerner Brandon Stroud, we’ve categorized it as someone who is less of a stereotype that covers a swath of the United States, and moreso someone of an isolated ilk. The Wyatts and their creepy swamp cult, the farmer/bumpkin persona who never gets on the wagon and goes to town. The sort you’d find in a movie about West Virginia camping trips that get super murder-y, but not the type you’ll see on, say, a CMT reality show.

As always, like this on Facebook, tweet the link, and leave us your thoughts on who you connect with the most, who you think we missed, or how you differentiate between gimmicks that draw from the southern culture.

Haystacks Calhoun

Haystacks Calhoun can be hailed as one of the true originators of the big man hoss types we know and love today. Standing at 6’4, but weighing over 600 pounds, Calhoun was a big ‘ol country boy. Born in Collin County, TX, legend has it that he was discovered by traveling promoters as he was spotted picking up and carrying full-grown cows across a field. That is all sorts of magical, and I wish wrestling origins stories still had that air of legend. “I got hurt playing football in college so I couldn’t go pro so wrestling’s a thing I do now” just doesn’t conjure the same kind of feeling.

Haystacks was a trendsetter in more than just inspiring the uniform of the hillbilly wrestler. Much like Hogan bodyslamming a 7,000-pound Andre the Giant [Hogan citation needed], lifting Haystacks Calhoun was seminal in establishing the strength of all-time great Bruno Sammartino.

Giant Haystacks

Giant Haystacks was The Renegade to Haystacks Calhoun’s Ultimate Warrior. The European non-union equivalent of the big man dressed more like the Friendly Giant, but who knows? Maybe overalls and horseshoe necklaces just aren’t done across the Atlantic.

Haystacks Muldoon

When Charles Caleb Colton said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, he had no idea that he would inspire generations of wrestling promoters to share and share alike in other people’s gimmicks. Haystacks Muldoon was Jack Pfiefer’s, we’ll say, interpretation of Calhoun. Muldoon interpreted the Haystacks persona in the northeast territory much more liberally than his British counterpart. He had the overalls and the horseshoe on a necklace, but also introduced a straw hat and soon to be de riguer cutoff flannel shirt.

Hillbilly Jim

Hillbilly Jim is probably the first person who jumps to mind when you think of a wrestling hillbilly. He continues the overalls trend, but rarely paired them with a shirt, opting for an occasional denim jacket instead. Spoiler alert: that dude is jacked. The real calling card that sets him apart from any other shmoe in overalls is his headsuit. The wild bushy mane shoved under a leather bucket hat is hard to imitate, but totally iconic.

Uncle Elmer

An injury to Hillbilly Jim led WWF to bring in a supporting cast led by Uncle Elmer. Elmer was already an established hillbilly gimmick, previously being known as Pascagoula Plowboy, Plowboy Frazier, Farmboy Frazier, and Giant Hillbilly to name a few. While he remained in the overalls-flannel aesthetic, he also donned an Appalachian-style felt slouch, or “that thing the Scarecrow wore in the Wizard of Oz.” The hats are created by wetting a circular piece of felt and stretching it over a a large rock or broom handle or even your fist. Similarly, you could take an existing felt hat (like a men’s fedora), wet it down, and distort its shape in the same way. Red Skelton used this method in the sixties to for various tramp and redneck-type characters.

Haystacks Calhoun is from Texas, The Wyatts are swampy Bayou boys, and Jim, Elmer and their cousins in the Hillbillies stable itself adopt the affectations of the Appalachian Mountain range. Manager Uncle Cletus wore a Confederate gray kepi, speaking volumes about the kind of character he was without speaking a word.Differentiation is important to not only shaping the character, but how we react to it as well. We’re not going to look at Jay Briscoe and think oh yeah, that jerkoff grew up on Walton’s Mountain. It seems like such a simple thing, but the fashion origins and methods are important in establishing the kind of socio-economic and geographical background these wrestlers are supposed to be portraying.

The Godwinns

The Godwinns were hog farmers, initially managed by Hillbilly Jim, then later by Uncle Cletus. They borrowed heavily from hillbilly wrestlers before them, but also became a hybrid of what we know to be both hillbilly and redneck style. The cutoff flannel and trucker hats feature heavily on guys like Scott Dawson, or the Killbillies (who we’ll see later in the article). It further brings the hillbilly look into the modern era. Of course, I’m one of those people who still thinks you mean the nineties when you say “the previous decade,” but still. Notice the Haystacks Calhoun horseshoe on a chain in the video below. It’s a clear evolution from what was to what is, but with more slop buckets than you usually see in fashion.

Also important in that video: BABY TAJIRI.

The Scufflin’ Hillbillies

Of course, none of this precedent could have been set without the 1960’s tag team, The Scufflin’ Hillbillies. The original gun-toting, moonshine jug-swilling Hillbillies contributed heavily to the look we most associate with the hillbillies of the WWF/E. These hillbillies were also popular enough that they created a secondary tag team under the same name, switching out Freebird Rules-style.

Rocky Mt. Thunder

Oh my god, Rocky Mt. Thunder. I wouldn’t really include him on the list as he didn’t really have much of a personality, but I am utterly fascinated by maybe one of the worst wrestlers ever. The character was supposedly meant for someone else (a football player named Greg Boyd), but when he didn’t show, a California indie wrestler took the helm, and went on to live in infamy as the least-searchable motherf-cker of all time. What he should actually be known for, besides maybe nearly killing his opponents by putting the gory in Gory Neckbreaker, is playing a pivotal role in ending the run of Curt Hennig in the AWA. This allowed Hennig to go on two WWE to become Mr. Perfect, one of my very favourite wrestlers, and basically the opposite of Thunder.

I am including him, however, because if you happen to see him on ESPN Classic AWA reruns, his look is glorious. Black tank top, okay. Flowing, shaggy mullet? Beautiful. Greasy mustache to rival AWA Scott Hall’s? Incredible. His pants were held up by a rope and he carried a sack on a chain to the ring and it is everrrythiiiiing.

Now for Brandon to take over, because again, The South, and because nobody loves G.L.O.W. more than Brandon.

Babe The Farmer’s Daughter (And The Farmer’s Other Daughters)

And now, the concept of the “lady hillbilly.”

The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling were into drawing very thick, black lines around its characters; this lady is an evil Russian, this lady is a nerd, this lady loves America, and so on. It was the 1980s so it HAD to have a hillbilly, but there weren’t any big fat dudes missing teeth to put in overalls and Country Bears hats.

Via The Beverly Hillbillies came the Ellie May Clampett stereotype, the idea that while the iconic male hillbilly is a bumbling yokel, the iconic female hillbilly is the “mountain beauty with the body of a pinup girl and the soul of a tomboy.” You may also know it as the Daisy Duke look. Short, cutoff jean shorts, a flannel shirt tied up just below the boobs, maybe pigtails. It maintains the important “these people don’t have culture” touchstone without the troublesome, hard-to-wank-to “these people don’t know how to read.”

Babe and her partner Tulsa (like the city in … oh you get it) had a recurring segment where they’d discuss their opponents and/or boys with that charming Hee Haw ignorance and inability to understand basic words or phrases you need from your hillbilly lady. The fashion difference between Babe and Tulsa was shirt ruffles. It was like Dolly Parton got split into Dolly Parton Red and Dolly Parton Blue.

Babe was “my” Farmer’s Daughter — they’re like The Doctor, basically — but there were two others: Sally and Amy.

Maybe GLOW should’ve given one of them a fez.

The Briscoe Brothers

The Briscoes are…problematic. It’s really easy to look at Ring of Honor and pick out all of the horrible things about it: the misogyny, the racism, the homophobia – and those are just the faces. Big picture it’s really just kind of a miserable cesspool of negativity and things that are the opposite of what I enjoy in a wrestling promotion. Jay’s constant (and sometimes violent) anti-LGBTQ sentiments on Twitter are sad and embarrassing as a representative of wrestling. Despite all of this, I would be remiss if I skipped over the Briscoes in this feature.

The Briscoes kind of straddle the line discussed in the beginning. While not completely isolated from the rest of the world (though their conservative views make you wonder), at the end of the day Dem Boys are chicken farmers from Slower Lower, their wrestling bred in a backyard, their bodies clad in more Confederate flags and camo than a truck I saw once saw in Kentucky near the Creation Museum. It took a long time to understand the appeal of the Briscoes, given that the “Man Up” attitude and (what a polite person would refer to as) “authenticity” their personas carry is very much not for me. Cosby Sweater Mark Briscoe trying to sell his teeth made it a little clearer. Cutoff t-shirt Mark Briscoe doing the weather and struggling to pronounce the word “lightenening” constantly makes me wish that authenticity wasn’t just “conservative redneck asshole.”

The only time something feels forced or put upon are those pictures of them in full-on Confederate gear (pictured above). The rest of them time, what is, in fact, completely effortless, is what speaks volumes about who they are as people, but to the extension of their full-blown wrestling personas as well. For instance, Winter-variant Briscoes:

Mark’s beard and shaggy hair combo make him look like a confused gibbon, but also make him an absolute joy to screencap. Off the rails, sent home to the chicken farm, Adam Cole-hating Jay Briscoe? Maybe less-so:

The important takeaway from this is that after being stripped of the his ROH World Title, Mark went kind of crazy and decided to make his own belt, seeing as he was the true champion because he had never been defeated. Unlike Jeff Hardy’s terrifying TNA belts that maybe also look like off-brand Diva’s titles, this is about as Briscoe a belt can get without becoming sentient and threatening to murder people who teach that being gay is okay.

The less important takeaway is that authenticity also leads to me spending too much time trying to get a screenshot that doesn’t include a great big pile of chicken carcasses. I wonder how they feel about vegan bloggers…

The Killbillies

The Killbillies wrestle out of CWF Mid-Atlantic, which you may know as any one of the following:

– The place with all the flags
– Where Trevor Lee and his weirdo beard wrestle
– The place Chiva Kid wrestled before he took off his mask and everybody stopped caring
Where hating Cookout gets you the most heat ever

If the Briscoes straddle it, the Killbillies fall strictly on the other side of that line. If their name didn’t contain -illbillies, they would have been deemed rednecks and tossed into a future column with the barbecue sauce guy from NXT and Stone Cold or whomever. The funny thing about the Killbilies is that where the Briscoes can wear flannel and cutoff everythings and it appears effortless, the sleeveless flannel and worn-in trucker hats seems much more contrived – an affectation of the gimmick rather than someone whose shirt has 100% come into contact with chicken poop. But, while I feel they’d be more likely to run me over with a pickup truck on a run for more PBR than kidnap me away into a creepy backwoods murder cult, the flannel and ball chain necklaces fit the bill.

The Wyatt Family

Speaking of cults, bringing us fully into the modern era is the look that launched a thousand cosplays. Bray Wyatt’s now iconic white slacks/Hawaiian-print shirt/hat combo rates pretty high on the scale of wrestling cosplay comfort (we’ll say that scale is ROH Liger Guy to, I dunno, Nailz I guess).

The great thing about this look is that it conjures up everything we’re supposed to feel when we think of Wyatt, especially in those first promos. You know, the ones where you could practically feel the kind of inescapable southern humidity that makes everything stick to your skin, and makes you feel like you’re walking around underwater. The printed shirt that should be a a tacky souvenir tucked away in someone’s closet, or on someone’s embarrassingly corny dad, but rather feels…thrifted. Something of another’s origins; just not quite right. The Wyatts live in that vein that runs through popular culture focused on the deep, deep south – True Detective, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the opening to True Blood (which is infinitely better than the show could ever really be). It’s dark and creepy, something born in swamplands and snake oil preacher tents. It’s the Bayou’s old world magic in a new world’s body, like Bray’s demon possessing the shell of Husky Harris.

Were one to stumble upon the look without the character, they could assume that he was the most innocuous of them all. Just a schlumpy dude who’d probably tip his hat at you from the friend zone but never tip his waitress. What takes it over the top, however, is the butcher’s apron. The apron is…well, it’s creepy as f-ck, to be honest. When it debuted, he referred to it (and the accompanying mask) as the “new face of fear,” and going “back to his human roots.” You can’t hurt him, for he’s already dead. Jeez.When you swap out the shirt for the apron, it goes from Malibu Barbie to the Barbie that would definitely dismember your body in a West Virginia cabin. Obviously she never made it past the prototype stage.

Luke Harper, another modern disciple of the cutoff flannel set, keeps it simple by never changing his clothes ever. To me, the flannel (or grey camo vest) is just as effective as entrance attire as a flashy robe. The beauty of the Luke Harper lies in his simplicity, his only accessories an unkempt beard and crazy eyes. I’m pretty sure that’s the same tank top I saw him murderkill Fire Ant that one time back in Chikara in 2012. But again, it works. It’s sweaty and dirty, but in a way that makes you slightly uncomfortable moreso than scuzzed out. It makes you wonder what he did to get it so dirty, and not man, that dude needs Jesus and maybe also some Tide.

I’ve always felt that the cutoff coveralls were the least successful of the Wyatt looks, but I guess the same thing could be said for Rowan himself. While the coveralls are a vast improvement over his FCW tights that just said NORSE across his dick, what makes Rowan an integral part of the Wyatt fashion machine is the sheep mask. Cheaper versions are sold by the WWE, but his original, more detailed sheep mask is on the level of Bray’s butcher apron. There’s a really great dissonance created by what should be a fun and lighthearted children’s item placed on a grown man with a pickax. It’s old, the paint is chipping, and again, it’s something that clearly was once owned and loved by someone else but has been co-opted for a much more sinister purpose.

When Daniel Bryan joined the Wyatt Family, he too adopted the coveralls, but it didn’t look right. Sure, he had the wild beard and the long hair, but the things that make the Wyatt looks work so well never touched him. The arms on his coveralls weren’t torn and frayed, they were freshly sewn. His hair wasn’t wild and greasy, it looked downright downy soft. He didn’t have that borrowed look, or that sheen of filth and indoctrination. His coveralls were like the WWE Shop masks, just an inauthentic version of something that looks like it’s supposed to belong, but doesn’t. Just like Daniel Bryan in the Wyatt family, I suppose.

The Wyatts are proof of just how important a look can be to a gimmick. There’s a thoughtfulness about them that is more than putting #CULTBROS on their butts and expecting us to get it. It adds further nuance to characters that are already deeply layered, which is illustrated by the ideological uniformity in the three very different looks.

Wrestling fashion is important, kids.