This is totally unscientific and unsubstantiated but true: Rural Americans have crafted more colorful, poetic, and evocative sayings than their urban counterparts ever have or ever will. Feel like someone’s trying to scam you? Warn them not to go pissin’ on your boots and tellin’ you it’s raining. Tired of hearing your kid pining for some superfluous item? Tell him, “You need that like a hog needs a sidesaddle.” And after picking your bleary-eyed buddy up from his girlfriend’s house, congratulate him on “getting his tree trimmed.” Sure, blue-collar New Yorkers might say your friend got his “pipes cleaned,” and car-centric rust-belters often demand their buddies check out an attractive woman’s “chassis,” but both, while clever, chafe the ears with their gritty industrialism.
Who knows how these things start: lack of education, limited vocabulary, need for creative outlets. It doesn’t matter. Creative country sayings not only draw motifs from the topsoil tilling, hog slop and well-water world where they originate, they bear the undeniable stamp of American resourcefulness, a creative independence born of bright, irrepressible, industrious minds scratching livings from demanding environments. Originality and independent self-expression are arguably our nation’s greatest intellectual assets, forces that—alongside humor and hope in the face of hardship—helped birth Blues and Jazz, and make these most American art forms—like Harleys and skateboarding—cult favorites in socially rigid cultures like Japan. I’m not talking about that clichéd “how to speak Southern” stuff either—“limber as a dishrag,” “pretty as a speckled pup.” I mean truly unique, rural wordsmithing.
The English language may offer words to express the essence of most any entity, no matter how subtle the gradations between it and its closest lexical cousins, but sometimes specificity isn’t enough. In place of a precise adjective like “intelligent,” consider the conceptual ingenuity of calling someone “smarter than a tree full of owls.” Or describing some unfortunate as “so bowlegged he couldn’t stop a pig in a ditch.” Is it paucity of language that produces such gems, or just pure artistry? Is their production more akin to painting with red clay when you can’t afford oils or to shucking oils for a medium with greater texture, color, and personality?
Not being an academic, I’ve always called such sayings countryisms. But that seems patronizing since it implies an appealing primitivism, as with so-called folk art, and worse, dumps rural wit in that same cutesy category as “country kitchen” interior design styles (plaid curtains with pine cone motifs!) and the manufactured front-porch warmth of a Cracker Barrel restaurant. Paint me green and call me Kermit if you want, but “trimmed tree” seems an ingenious metaphor for humanity’s need for regular physical maintenance. Symbolizing a sort of erotic servicing, “trimmed tree” becomes high art, the Jazz of daily speech, as sexually charged a metaphor as R.L. Bumsides’ shaking peaches and as lasting an image as John Lee Hooker’s crawling kingsnake.
My Granddad was a reservoir of such loaded lines. Not that he catalogued them for posterity. He used them, and I jot them in a journal every time Dad recalls another line Granddad liked using. For instance: When Dad or one of his four brothers would wish for something—a new bike, a baseball mitt, better luck—Granddad told them, “Ok. You shit in one hand and wish in the other and see which fills up faster.” Or when someone, a construction site foreman or fellow carpenter, asked to borrow money, Granddad expressed his amusement with, “Yeah? If I had a feather in my ass we’d both be tickled.” Instead of a crass “f— them,” he preferred “Let ’em go peck shit with the crows.” He’d be smiling when he said this. Mostly because he was a jovial spirit, but maybe he was partly amused by these sayings’ cleverness too. Just how fun they were.
Granddad never said “I reckon” or “fixin’ to,” but surely the folks he grew up with did. He was raised in Boswell, Oklahoma, amid the post oak and pines of the Boggy River, just over the Texas line. Following World War II, he moved his wife and kids to southern Arizona to find work; with jobs scarce, he needed other irons in the fire. Plus, Boswell winters were colder than a witch’s tit. Granted Oklahoma may not be considered the proper South—not even that far-southeastern, swampy bottoms section that rubs elbows with Arkansas—more like the edge of the South, a satellite community. But only someone with his hat on too tight can deny the cultural similarities between Alabama, North Carolina, and southeastern Oklahoma: buttermilk biscuits slathered with sorghum, barbecued pig, juke boxes loaded with George Jones. Or how about catfish fries, cypress knees, and pestering possums? Don’t go pissing on my boots. . . .
Granddad was a woodworker, not a wordsmith, but he recognized an evocative saying when he heard it. Like the stern, highcheeked Indian faces and crooked-nosed cowboys he carved from Arizona cottonwood and sold at arts fairs, he preferred humorous and highly visual self-expression to dull verbal timber. Speech need not share carpentry’s painful precision. For me, it was a shortage of words that hurt most. His Alzheimer’s struck during my early college career—when I was too deep in textbooks and too stoned to visit often, or ever—and he died while I was living in a faraway state. During my more honest, emotional moments, I’ll admit my fascination with countryisms isn’t purely artistic, that these ingenious lines link me to a man I always admired but never allowed myself to truly know. He’s the man credited for planting what we offspring like to consider creativity in our gene pool, the man who, having encouraged my childhood dedication to drawing since I was old enough to hold a pencil, offered to teach me to carve when I was in college. Decked in overalls yellowed with wood dust, he labored for hours in his makeshift shop, trimming bark, maneuvering drills, carving intricate profiles with miniature blades. His was a daily dedication I admired, a satisfied drive that I wanted to absorb myself, but I selfishly ignored his gracious offer in favor of weekday bong hits and weekend parties. Granddad, my idol, mentor that never was.
In those candid moments I’ll admit that here I am, thirty-three, sober, and back living in Phoenix, Arizona, where he’s buried, and all I have left of him is a notebook full of sayings and a shelf of his wood carvings. It’d be fun to blame our failed relationship on intervening circumstances or youthful ignorance, because then I could use one of Granddad’s lines about getting the short end of the stick: “I got what a bird left on the pump handle,” he used to say. But I need another self-deception like a hog needs a sidesaddle.
© Aaron Gilbreath