Monday, November 17, 2014

An Interview with Hillbilly Jim

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014.
Interview with Hillbilly Jim.


Hillbilly Jim has so many insights to share, so I just had to allow everyone to be a listener for our interview (despite the fact that I can't stand the sound of my own voice).  Although listening to Hillbilly Jim is better than reading his words, if I had to take out his main points, this is what I would come up with (enjoy!):

Staying in character inside and outside the ring is obviously important for fostering the suspension of disbelief for fans.  How does retirement affect kayfabe, and if it doesn’t affect it, how do you feel about being known as “Hillbilly Jim?”
It wasn’t really a stretch on me to play [Hillbilly Jim]… I didn’t really have any dramatic change to go through… Some guys get gimmicks they have to portray that are pretty extreme, and it’s hard to continue, and a lot of them think that they have to be in character all the time…  With the Hillbilly Jim thing, it was just a happy-kinda-country-kinda-boy…  Now in retirement, most people call me Hillbilly now anyways… and I don’t mind it at all because a lot of the guys in the wrestling business pick up little names and tags, and it follows them throughout their lives, so that’s just part of the business that continues on with you… [People] identify better with the Hillbilly thing than they would “Jim…”  It’s been an easy transition for me into not being in the ring…

How do you imagine retirement would have been if your character had been a heel?
Could have been different, but it’s not as big a deal in 2014 as it would’ve been in the 70s or 60s… [things have changed a lot since then...]  made our guys kinda like celebrities, so a lot of the fans moving forward pretty much think of the people like you would think of an actor… It’s looked upon kinda like Hollywood… it’s easier nowadays being heels than it was back in those days [the 50s, 60s, 70s]…

 Looking back, we can see that the WWE had several eras; there was the Golden Age, the New Generation, and the Attitude Era.  If you could put a name to the current era, what would you call it? 
I’d say this era here is the Transition Era… I’ve noticed that it has a cycle up in peaks and valleys... there are times when it flattens out and becomes a little bit stale, and a little bit stagnant, if you will, then there are times when it just takes off again.  I think now this era now is a transition era because you don’t hear people talking about wrestling as they did.  There was a time when that’s all people talked about…. There are so many things to distract people now, and so many areas that entertainment is provided... right now I think the wrestling business is kinda down now… a little bit of a lull… It’s not nearly as hot as it was when I was there…  We’ve broken it down so that there’s only one or two companies in the entire country that people watch…  A lot of smaller companies folded, and that was great for us... but for future wrestlers, it depleted the business, because there’s no spawning ground… the talent they send up there is not really proven talent that you see at the WWE now because these guys haven’t had years to get better… You don't really learn about the wrestling business until you've wrestled in front of a group of people...  Guys that got over in the 80s were woven into the fabric of society... a lot of these kids coming up now, people don't even remember who they were now...  Right now, it's a little bit down, but eventually, there will be something that will bring the people back in again.

(Tangent) In my day, the interview was a big part of what put butts in the seats... we knew how to handle the mic... kids nowadays, it's disconnected now... they have the unheard of-- writers...  it's changed a lot... That's why the Rock was so good... his wrestling was okay, but his promos is really what people came to see... We laid the foundation for these guys to do what they're doing now, and I'm glad for it...  Back in my day, it was good vs. evil, but now it's all just kinda gray...  There was just something about those guys in the 80s that just got us remembered through all of time... I think wrestling is still good, they put on a good show... it's just very different now.

From what I’ve seen and heard, wrestling storylines tend to be reflections of real world issues.  For example, post-WWII many heels were considered heels simply because they were playing a German character.  Would you agree with that?  If so, what major cultural themes can you see from the years that you wrestled with WWE?
The Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkov in my day were very hated because there was always something going on with Iran and Russia.  Obviously, they're going to get heat...  They're always going to try to find somebody that's a part of a controversy.... nowadays they're trying to find people to make a heel of... it's better if there's something that everybody can get behind... Nowadays, you can’t tell who’s who now, and once the match begins, sometimes they all start doing the same thing and moves.  In my day I only had certain moves that Hillbilly Jim would do in the ring, that were my own thing that a country boy would do.  It wouldn’t make sense for a guy named “Hillbilly Jim” to get in there and start flying around like Rey Mysterio…  Now when a match begins, they all start doing the same moves and you can’t tell who’s who…  When you have things that you do, you're able to keep people interested...  People can figure out the storylines so quick now.  Used to be, they would cook it... A WWE show now, they'll start a storyline at the beginning of a show, then by the end 2 hours later, they've already resolved it.  It's too quick.  They need to cook it a little while.  If you cook anything, it will become hotter...

Every week during RAW, some WWE hashtag will trend on Twitter.  Fans utilize social media to voice their opinions in the hopes of influencing the action.  Do you think the WWE shows produced each week have been made more interactive through social media, or is it just an illusion of control— a way for fans to feel heard?
I'm not really the guy to talk to about that, I have a website-- Hillbillyjim.com-- but I don't even have a computer.  If I get an email, I have somebody call and deliver it by phone... I wouldn't even have a cell phone if somebody hadn't given it to me...  I don't really understand what they're doing, but obviously it must not be working if it's supposed to be so much better, but things are so much worse...
I talked to a class at Western Kentucky University a few years ago, and I told them "Listen, friends, we live in the greatest time ever for technology, but you've got to remember this: technology is here to help your life, not be your life..."  If you use this stuff properly, it'll be fantastic.  You have more information available to you than ever in your life.  But it's not here to be your life, it's here to help your life... They have really pulled out all the stops at on this technology thing at the WWE.  I think it's helped in some ways, in other ways it hasn't proven anything...  I can't make it stop, so it's gonna be what it's gonna be...
I've had friends say to me, "Jim if you had email, we could every day."  To which I said to them, "brother, I don’t want to talk to you every day!"  Why would you want to talk to me every day?  It's better when you give me a few days, I might have something to say!... People have abused technology... it's good if you use it right, but you can't just be a vegetable... it's so sad in restaurants when a family, instead of talking to each other, everybody's looking at their hand...  I'm not saying technology is bad, I'm just saying it's abused, and I think the WWE has abused it a little bit...  Going to the WWE now is just a totally different universe...  It was as good as it ever was in my day, and I'm happy to have been there...

I heard that you started a radio show on Sirius Radio...
I've been doing that for about 9 years now.  It's called Hillbilly Jim's Moonshine Matinee, it's an outlaw country show-- they wouldn't let me do nothin' cool, you know a hillbilly would have to do some kind of a country show...  It comes on on Saturday mornings at 9 AM, it's a four hour show, stays on until 1 o'clock central time, it's on Outlaw Country 60.  And then the show comes on again on Sunday from 1 until 5 standard time... I've had a whole lot of great guests to come on over the years... I talk about my world-- wrestling fans and the world from which I come-- but I also play lots of music... it's a real good fit for me, and I can't believe I'm looking down the road at ten years doing it...  it's keeps me from being bored-- not that I'd ever be bored, I always have something to do-- but it's kinda fun...  I have wrestling buddies on from time to time, and we talk... Sirius radio is pretty neat because you can listen to it all across the country.

That's all the formal questions that I have; is there anything else that you'd like to add?
I am very surprised and honored that they would even have a class at WKU about this business that I was in, and it just shows you what an impact that we made, and I feel very honored and fortunate to be one of those guys that they kinda remembered... it just blows my mind that you would be involved in a class about the world of professional wrestling, and the history of it.  It's pretty cool.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Trujillo and his co-researcher's piece, "A Night with The Narcissist and the Nasty Boys: Interpreting the World Wrestling Federation," was incredibly fascinating. Not only because there were multiple researchers, each one giving their own unique point of view, but also because of the ideas they developed. I continue to be intrigued by the amount of people who think that wrestling fans are all uneducated and lower class, particularly fitting this "white trash" persona. While I am lower class (starving college student life, hey!), I am not uneducated. Not to toot my own horn, but I'm pretty intelligent. And I think a lot of wrestling fans are. Atticus has introduced me to many other fellow wrestling fans and they're all quite intelligent. (I follow some of their blogs and keep up with them on Facebook and they all tend to be really amazing writers.) And looking at many wrestling fan sites and forums, there are a lot of creative people who are amazing writers and give very intellectual critiques of the shows. Now, I'm not saying that there are no wrestling fans that are a bit on the...uneducated/bigoted/offensive side (because there definitely are), but I think people tend to overlook the fact that there is a lot of intelligent discussion to be had in regards to the wrestling universe. And I think, in their piece, the researchers all came to understand that in the end.

Homage to Sam



Since this is our last blog, how could I not pay homage to our professor by mentioning his own in-depth ethnographical work, Pinning Down Fan Involvement: An Examination of the Multiple Modes of Engagement for Professional Wrestling Fans. You fill the exact niche in the void of scholarly work of fan involvement, that is to say, looking at fan engagement through the eyes of the fans. 

I have not seen a body of work like this previously. You were able to identify five ways in which fans interact with pro wrestling, as spectators, critics, performers, community members, and theorists. To my knowledge, no one has ever done this before. Your work brings a unique clarity of the “fan culture/group,” thereby labeling five subgroups. I enjoyed the demographic breakdown you presented also, such as the amount of factory workers, skilled or retail, students, housewives, etc.

What I found really interesting (and humorous by way of actual fan responses) was your observations and conclusions of the five types: Fans as Spectators—your basic passive fan who comes to the show to be surprised. Fans as critics—fans who need a little more than the spectator fan, wants a performance to be executed well and focuses on the artistry of the performance. Fans as Performers—a more active and vocal process of engagement with the wrestlers, a vital part in wrestling culture. Fans as Community—fans who come for the social interaction with other fans as they have gathered at events over a period of time. While this type of fan still exists, I believe the “Community Fan” was far more in existence pre-McMahon, when wrestling was still not only regional, but local. This local level provided the true Community Fan in abundance. I loved your phenomenon of “fan of fans,” that particular sub, sub group where fans would come to watch how other active fans would behave as things unfolded. This group reminds me of Hatpin Mary and her fan following in the old days. Fans as Theorists—fans who explain why they or other fans engage the way they do, mainly by social or psychological reasons. Of course, this is for the benefit of those who do not know it is fake.

All in all, this is really a great piece of work, and *really* explains the fan base as it should heretofore have been explored, through the fans themselves.

Playing the "Fan" Role

I really enjoyed reading Sam's piece on the fans of wrestling (if I say it was my favorite, will I get extra credit?).  In the "Fans as Community" section,
I found it amusing that many of the fans felt that they needed to play their role in the performance for the benefit of those "true believers" in the audience, especially when all who were interviewed believed the show was not a true sporting event.  I suppose, though, that if there were smaller children in the audience, the argument could be more valid because children are more likely to believe what they see is real, or at least seem to need protection for their beliefs (like how parents seem to perpetuate the existence of Santa Claus for their kids, even after the kids probably realize that a jolly fan man doesn't sneak into their homes every year to deliver presents).  After all, all the participants in the survey were over the age of eighteen.

I wish that the author (heh) had gone into more detail about what happens when the fans don't cooperate.  This is a pretty good article about what happened the Monday night after Wrestlemania on April 9th, 2013...  Granted, that show hadn't happened yet when Sam Ford did his study in 2007.  I would be interested to see a "second edition" of sorts emerge from this preexisting research to incorporate more of what can go wrong when fans go off script.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Wrestling Fans and Intelligence

In reading "Pinning Down Fan Involvement: An Examination of the Multiple Modes of Engagement for Professional Wrestling Fans," I was really surprised at the difference between fan representation in the article as compared to the fan representation in Wrestling with Manhood and Wrestling with Shadows. Obviously there was some bias in the depiction of the fans in the documentaries, because they were both using fans to further the agenda of the documentary (fans as anti-Canadian and fans as bullying, base devil-spawn), but I really expected there to be at least one or two total dullards picked out of the crowd. While it was interesting that all fans perceived at least some of the other fans as thinking wrestling was a shoot, none of them had any illusions of it themselves. They also are able to engage with the wrestling text on several different levels, four out of the five pretty cerebral.
Most importantly, in the continuing to tie what we're reading into the problems with wrestling we've been grappling (wrestling humor) with over the past few weeks, none of the wrestling fans interviewed responded that they enjoyed professional wrestling because of the promotion of bullying, misogyny, bigotry, or violence (outside of a cathartic sense). They frequently referred to it as theater or feats of athleticism, and these responses really speak to the shortcomings of the writers who are analyzing wrestling without taking into account the sensibilities of the fan. I was pretty convinced that despite all the wrestling fans I know being pretty intelligent people, the average fan would be a few wrestlers short of a royal rumble, if you know what I mean. However, this study points towards a more intelligent and discerning "average" wrestling fan. At the same time, I think it may be the norm to assume that the fans around you are less intelligent, as evidenced by many participants in the survey saying they participate in the action so that the audience members that do believe wrestling is real will persist in this illusion. One respondent likened it to Santa Claus, likening wrestling fans to the mental status of children, believing in the fantastic despite common sense.
If the fans have such a low opinion of each other, it's small wonder that non-fans are so quick to question the intelligence of a wrestling enthusiast. Despite the prevalence of wrestling culture for decades, despite the blatant absurdities of the attitude era, despite Vince McMahon testifying in court that wrestling was a work, fans are still asked if they believe wrestling is real. How is this the case? Is the belief held by non-wrestling fans that fans think wrestling is real, and the subsequent shaming of fans by non-fans and accompanied guilt, perpetuated by those fans who justify their fandom to the effect of "Well, most fans think it's real, but I know it's fake."? As someone who has had to answer this question of their friends, roommates, and even parents, it needs to be established somehow that everyone who has ever heard of professional wrestling knows it is written and choreographed, regardless of interest. It would let the air out of a lot of the arguments presented against professional wrestling as a corruptive influence, help dispel the stereotype that wrestling fans are of an intelligence level that necessitates censorship, and help non-fans to look past the "well it's fake" excuse for not giving it a proper chance. It's 2014; vaccinations are not bad for you, eating before you swim won't give you cramps, wrestling is predetermined. And it rules.

Last Blog Post

Throughout this semester, we have discussed a variety of topics about Professional Wrestling. Almost all of these things were brand new to me. One key aspect that we discussed throughout the entire semester was the role of the fan. In any type of show, the plan pays an important part. Loyal fans who consistently watch the show is what enables the show to continue. That's no different in wrestling. However, in wrestling the fan plays an even bigger role. They are part of the show. As Sam Ford points out in "Pinning Down Fan Involvement," fans are able to interact with the wrestlers and to become part of the show. We discussed several scenarios within the semester about certain fans who become a big part of the show. One that I can always remember is "Hat Pin Marry." Ford points out that many fans see wrestling as an off stage soap opera. This thoroughly surprised me because I couldn't believe that loyal wrestling fans would compare their sport to a soap opera. However, the comparison is very accurate. Both are scripted and dramatic.

I must say that I was confused about how fan engagement worked. It didn't really make sense to me how fans could be apart of the show. That confusion ended when we took our field trip to a WWE match. During the match, there were specific chants that the fans just knew and yelled. It made the whole dynamic of the arena so much more exciting. And the wrestlers reacted to the chants. Unlike other sports, they interact with the fans. While I never shouted out, it was really interesting to see how the major wrestling fans (even my classmates) acted within the arena.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Reading through Wrestling with Theory, Grappling with Politics by Henry Jenkins III, I was struck by the part (referring to Mazer's essay): "...these fans, who come to ringside in costume, mimic the catchphrases, waving signs they hope will get camera, might see themselves as part of the performance, enacting spoofing, taking pleasure in the imaginary roles and fantasy values on offer" (300). For a while now, I've tried to decipher what it is exactly that attracts me so strongly to wrestling, particularly live events. There is a certain high obtained from watching a pro wrestling event live and in-person. It is a very different sensation than going to a play or going to a concert, both very fun events in themselves. But wrestling is different. And for a while, I just chalked it up to the fact that I'm seeing these celebrities in person, I see the things that happen during commercial breaks, I'm bonding with fellow fans. But I knew it was more than that. It had to be. I mean, I see plays and concerts and don't get nearly the rush I do at a wrestling show. And it's for this exact reason--I feel a part of the performance. I don't feel like a spectator. I feel like another character in this grand spectacle. As I've stated in an early blog post, I can shout at a play and that will have no effect on the plot. But if I shout at a wrestling match, I matter. My words are acknowledged. When the crowd is chanting and cheering for a specific wrestler loud enough, and for long enough, eventually that wrestler will be pushed.

It's also interesting to note that Jenkins critiques Jhally and Katz for not recognizing this. I hated that they made some legitimate points because they made me feel like I shouldn't like wrestling, that I shouldn't support it. But reading Jenkins' critique of their critique, it's clear that they don't understand the population they're trying to critique. It's impossible to evaluate wrestling culture through the lens of mainstream culture because it is simply not mainstream culture. We must acknowledge the application of cultural relativism if we are to study wrestling. Does the wrestling subculture say something about the greater culture it exists within? Yes. But we must look at wrestling through the eyes of a wrestling fan if we are ever to attempt to truly understand it.

Outside the Demographic

I really enjoyed "Growing up and Growing More Risqué by Henry Jenkins IV in Steel Chair to the Head this weekend.  It proposed the very interesting concept that the WWF "grew up" alongside its once young Hulkamaniacs.  I think Jenkins is completely right in his assessment, but I question the business side of Vince's methods.

Is that really a sustainable business model?  If wrestling only catered to a single generation, "growing up" with the fans, the WWF would be out of a program within a single lifetime.  I guess wrestling could evolve into a cyclic existence: kids' program to teenage risqué to grownup entertainment to elderly programming (which is almost back to kids' tv), and repeat.  Even then, though, wouldn't following a generation of people throughout their lives financially exhaust their wrestling budget?  There are only so many wrestling shirts you can buy, after all (though I have friends who would beg to differ), and an individual is only going to make a single subscription to the network of $9.99/month.  Wouldn't it be more financially prudent to try to program either for multiple age groups simultaneously or to focus on an age group with a constant influx of new faces?  If you watched wrestling as a kid, you might want your kids to watch it too (but not if you watched in the 50s-60s, and you're letting your kids watch in the 90s...  And if you were a fan in the 90s, you shouldn't want your kids to watch that...).  What about [potential] fans of the same generation who were just a few years outside Vince's intended audience (e.g. the little brother of the teenaged fan)?  Arguably, we (meaning me... Born in the 90s) missed Vince's interest group.  The Attitude Era of wrestling didn't align with our teenage years, and the focus now seems to be mostly to a younger or older people group (the Family Model).  We shouldn't like wrestling; it hasn't been catered to us.  Maybe that means that Vince's model is not as flawed as I think, or maybe it means that The WWE is moving away from such a focused demographic.  Either way, the product has somehow captured our attention, and we continue to feed the business with our T-shirt obsessions.  And fake championship belts.  Those are cool.

The Future of Wrestling

In the afterword of Steel Chair to the Head, Henry Jenkins IV discusses the evolution of the WWE from the standpoint of a lifelong fan, himself. He closes the book by looking towards the future of wrestling, which he anticipated becoming more adult to coincide with the aging of the original fan base of Hulk Hogan and friends back in the '80s. I think it can be agreed that wrestling definitely has moved away from the risqué content and into an era of relative "adulthood." This begs the question, especially with oft-repeated axiom "wrestling is cyclical:" where will wrestling go from here? A new generation, the children of the Hulkamaniacs, is already being raised on John Cena's Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect. When they reach a certain age, will the WWE try and again kick off an attitude era of rebellion against their old fans? Would having another attitude era even be effective when the previous generation has seen it all before? Because of my recent post about the future of WWE, I find the possibility pretty compelling that the WWE could start walking children through the more or less same growing-up process as their parents.
If the WWE would adopt more socially progressive archetypes for their characters, the WWE could be a cool way for kids to learn about diversity and American culture through bodyslams and cartoonish cooperation, then transition to risqué, but still socially liberal storylines. After going through so many years of pro wrestling, it's bizarre to think that today's matches are the culmination of almost a century's worth of thought. How can you possibly up the ante on the extravagance that was the attitude era? We live in an exciting time to be a wrestling fan, because in the next few years (provided the cyclical theme holds up) we will get to see an era that tops even the attitude era, which will surely be so crude and so base that it will burn out the eyes of the PTC and curdle milk.

Generational Perspective



It was an interesting read of Henry Jenkins IV, Afterword, Part II, as it took us into wrestling through a different perspective, as seen through an adolescent young man who grew up in the WWF era. He opens with the “merch” he used, from vitamins, to cookies, least we not forget the marketing penetration wrestling had in our everyday lives.

He also tied into the Internet and how he used this to further explore the wrestling culture and more importantly gather and share information, as opposed to his father who became out of touch with wrestling. He mentions how he has seen wrestling change and grow, but what I found most interesting was his perspective on what wrestling had to do in order to appeal to an adult audience; that is to kill wrestling’s moralistic code in favor of nihilism.  He gives examples, such as the popularity of Steve Austin for going after the establishment’s Vince McMahon, and an example of Stephanie.  

I agree with Jenkin’s take on the wrestling interview, changing from a local venue to be structured nationally in scope, but yet allowing the characters to maintain a real world appearance with interviews at local outside venues. This is definitely more modern. Today, we see this when they fight it out in a garage or parking lot.

He used Shawn Michael’s collapse and the concern it caused thereafter as a point in time for WWF’s evolution from fantasy to “structured reality.” Another example would be Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler’s “fight” on the Letterman show. This blending of reality and fiction was the shift of the WWF along with a change in its characters that were portrayed.

Jenkin’s finalizes his article with what wrestling stopped doing, which is dropping the political satires and archetypes of the 80s, and moving into the next generation’s mood and artistic trends. I thought this was a very good insight and perspective from a unique generational aspect.