To some the topic may seem frivolous, the point moot, or even, “Who the heck cares?” But to my often-maligned friends and relatives, there is significance in the labels “river rats" and "rednecks.”
Due to my McNairy County, Tenn., heritage and my life of pleasure on the Upper Mississippi River, it's obvious I’ve got a stake in this name-calling and an obligation to shed light on the subject.
Short of a thesis, in a few words, let’s try to answer some questions and identify of whom we speak. First, consider the term “redneck.” Among his many words, Mr. Daniel Webster actually has a definition of said being; “An uneducated white laborer, especially from the South, a reactionary, the rural working class.” (Pretty much describes my gene pool.) But to show you the shallowness of Mr. Webster, he makes no mention of faded jeans, sleeveless shirts, dirty hats, rusty ol’ pickup trucks with nice gun racks, tobacco habits, beer cans or living quarters. Nor does Dan bring up twang in the talk, canine companionship, personal hygiene or dental appearance. It’s obvious he was never introduced to one of my kin or close friends. No one really knows, or if they do, accept responsibility for labeling these fun-loving, happy-go-lucky, live-off-the-land, mostly hardworking, salt of the earth folks; but whoever did, “Bless their pea-pickin’ heart.”
Many great Americans have proudly accepted the classification of redneck, and for instance, where would country music be without these guys and gals? I’m reminded of an interview with the late music legend Tennessee Ernie Ford, when he proclaimed, “Who else
could fix an opossum dinner, grid grits, play a fiddle, raise a houseful of kids and make the best dang moonshine in the world but a true redneck.” Another example is country music sensation Gretchen Wilson, who would probably have never been heard from had she not been a “Redneck Woman.” To list all the “famous” people who are very proud of their redneck heritage would fill volumes; to call out the rest could cause a revolution. So the only logical explanation is that some stiff-collar government official assigned to the classification of citizens recognized my Southern family either sweating their heads off making a living from the land, fishin’ in the hot summer, perhaps a red bandana tied around their necks to keep from getting sunburned. By the way, Mr. Daniel Webster, I personally know doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs who are rednecks. How’s that for your definition of uneducated?
Now we turn our attention to the term “river rat.” A search of the dictionary finds no mention of said term “river rat,” but it is safe to assume that Mark Twain used the word in his daily conversation and I’ll bet several of his fondest friends proudly wore that label. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that our rats of the river gained proper recognition, acclaim and fame through the writings of Outdoor Hall of Fame legend John Madson. Mr. John’s collection of commercial fishermen, clammers, catfishin’ misfits, and dedicated waterfowlers became major characters in Madson’s books, "Up On the River," "Out Home" and "Stories from Under the Sky." Many gained celebrity status and membership into the “Royal Order of River Rats,” Madson’s self-proclaimed fraternity of folks dedicated to a life consumed with adventure on the likes of the Mississippi, Illinois, Skunk and Missouri rivers, to name a few. Ol’ Coon Madson was the founder, leader, overseer and president of the mystic order until his passing in the late '90s. To be recognized and referred to as a “card-carrying river rat” is indeed a distinction and honor.
John Madson, you’d be proud of your troop and as long as rivers flow we’ll carry the torch. As for you, Daniel Webster, we feel sorry because you really missed the boat.
Larry Reid is host of “Outdoors with Larry Reid,” which airs at noon Sundays on WBGZ Radio, 1570 AM.