One morning last summer, Dennis Horton, the longtime owner of Horton's Music in the town of Hardy, population 772, heard a strange noise coming from outside his shop. Like a "weed eater or something," he said. He put aside the guitar he was fixing to step outside, and was stunned by what he found: a helicopter drone affixed with a camera, hovering over the sidewalk. "Flying back and forth up and down Main Street," he said, "under the power lines. I thought, 'What in the heck is that?' "
A few doors down from Horton's, Ron and Susan Wolfe run a cluttered antique store called Memories on Main Street. Ron loves talking to customers, and keeps a guest book behind the counter for people to sign. "I talk to everybody who comes in here," he said. "So I find out where they're coming from." Around the time of Dennis Horton's run-in with the drone, Ron noticed an influx of customers from major cities. He was stumped. "One little lady was from New York and one was from California," he said. "I told 'em, 'Man, you all are lost.' "
They weren't. They had come to Hardy to film a television show, a six-episode series for Discovery Channel titled "Clash of the Ozarks," that began airing in late February and will continue throughout this month. The show follows a blood feud that it claims has ravaged two Hardy families, the Russells and the Evanses, since the mid-19th century, continuing into the present day with the bitter rivalry between Crowbar Russell, who, the show's press release notes, "seeks only to work his land and hunt for what he needs to survive," and his nemesis, Kerry Wayne Evans, who "has a fondness for money" and will "do just about anything to build up his empire." Hardy, a quiet tourist community at the northern edge of the state, is described as resembling "a town right out of the Wild West," in which "emotions and territory conflicts outweigh a law-abiding society." Other characters include "a mountain man who doesn't own a pair of shoes and hasn't lived in a house for years" and "a tough gun-toting elderly woman who is fiercely protective of her family and is rumored to be clairvoyant."
The promo clip that circulated before the show started airing set the tone by emulating the rough Southern grit of shows like "True Blood" and "Justified," a stylized, high-contrast collage of snakes and moonshine and river baptism. Men in straw hats wielded bowie knives and chased trains, and a country preacher in a dilapidated church made pronouncements like, "If we stop fighting the good fight, it will open the door to the devil."
Hardy residents didn't expect this slant. According to Al Corte, who runs a historic preservation society in town, "We thought it was going to be a hunting and fishing show."
In a 1969 New Yorker article, "A Stranger With a Camera," Calvin Trillin writes about a film crew that visits a small Appalachian community in Jeremiah, Ky., to document its lower class residents. "It was an extraordinary shot — so evocative of the despair of that region," one of the filmmakers told Trillin about a segment involving a coal miner. The owner of the land, however, turned up to interrupt the shoot and eventually shot and killed the leader of the crew, a crime for which he was later acquitted by a local jury, because what was a film crew doing in Jeremiah, Ky., anyway?
We have come a long way since "A Stranger With a Camera." From "Duck Dynasty" and "Swamp People" to "Moonshiners" and "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," a disproportionate number of the most popular reality shows on television today are set in the rural South, a phenomenon that Brooks Blevins, a Missouri State University professor of Ozark Studies, calls the "redneck reality renaissance." The trend, of course, is only the most recent and profitable manifestation of a whole vibrant history of Southern caricature, something Blevins argues has particularly deep roots in Arkansas.
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