Redneck Boy in the Promised Land
By Ben Jones
Harmony, 304 pp.
Ben Jones is 66 years old, sitting comfortably in a small 18th-century house he converted several years ago into an office on a 50-acre Virginia spread near Shenandoah National Park.
He laughs at his own jokes and audibly smiles at the stories of his life—participating in the Civil Rights movement in Chapel Hill in the '60s; starting his own theater company in Durham; playing Crazy Cooter on The Dukes of Hazzard; serving as a two-term Democratic congressman from Georgia; meeting the love of his life; and, most recently, writing his first book.
That book, Redneck Boy in the Promised Land, chronicles those adventures through inviting, colloquial text, the thorns of mixed metaphors and long wind-ups intact. Next week, he'll read from the book during three local stops. Thursday's stop in Chapel Hill will be part of the town's Ben Jones Day. Funny, he laughs, since he's spent many a night in the Orange County lockup, and since he was a poor boy hitchhiking into the city more than four decades ago.
"I'd come thumbing up there from Wilmington. My folks lived in Wilmington, and I'd thumb up just past Dunn and then hang a right and go through Coats and Angier and all those little towns," he remembers of the route he would walk along U.S. 421 into Chapel Hill while a student there. "You get to know a town pretty good when you hitchhike, because a lot of the time you have to walk through 'em."
Indeed, things weren't always quite so casual for Jones. Raised in a two-story shanty between the intersection of the ocean and the railroad tracks outside of Portsmouth, Va., Jones was the third of four sons. His father was a railroad section chief—"the last of the John Henrys," a co-worker described him after his death—and a weekend drunk who chased Four Roses whiskey with Miller High Life. His mother, a loyal housewife for 40 years, "carried sadness and secrets and a sense of entrapment despite her best efforts to put on the smile of a showgirl," Jones writes. Jones was a cheerful boy, a natural athlete and a baseball slugger obsessed with Stan Musial. But delayed puberty made him painfully shy, and while still in high school, he found his long-lost confidence in 8-ounce cans of Country Club Malt Lager: "The pain and shames I had been carrying seemed to be lifted," Jones remembers. "I was the dynamite and booze was the match."
Buster, as his mother called him, carried that de facto credo for the next two decades. Automobile accidents, arrests and three unsuccessful marriages didn't slow his pulls. But while spending most of his time in Chapel Hill haunts like Harry's, The Rathskeller and the after-bar diner Byron's, he did manage to find another passion. A friend needed an actor for three one-act plays, so he asked Jones. Lured by a female lead he'd long been attracted to, Jones drunkenly agreed to do the part. He fell hard: "I would volunteer for every student project, every off-the-wall experimental play and anything else around at which I could throw my inexperience and zeal. I had found something I thought I was good at. Something besides drinking."
Drinking and drama continued to compete, though, and drama mostly lost. That is, until 1977, when—Jones, then 36—hit a five-week skid of continuous drinking. "I would sleep wherever I passed out, and then start drinking as soon as I got up," he remembers. "I felt like I could not get drunk enough, no matter how much I consumed."
When he came around, he checked himself into a clinic and went cold turkey. He says he hasn't had a drink since Sept. 26, 1977. A year later, he was filming the first episodes of what would become one of the most successful television shows in history. A decade later, he was U.S. Rep. Ben "Buster" Lewis "Crazy Cooter" Jones of Georgia. At least he came about his all-or-nothing attitude honestly, he jokes.
"We were excessive. My mother's family, in particular, did things to the hilt. And my father was a prodigious worker, but he was also an alcoholic," says Jones. "There was a natural example—a role model of excess around me. There was that crazy artist in me, and I'm still that way. I wanna see the whole world."
But more than any anecdote Jones can chuckle his way through or any of his accomplishments he can rattle off, he seems most proud of his past and the stubborn, very Southern path he thumbed to success. Jones has been a Southern cavalier of sorts all his life, whether being the poor Southern boy marching for racial justice in Chapel Hill or demanding that The Dukes of Hazzard reflect the South as it existed instead of as created by Hollywood writers and producers. His political career has been marked by candor, wit and, as he writes, working to represent those who elected him, no matter the political cost. At his own risk, he smuggled a banner remembering those who died in Tiananmen Square into China. Though he considers himself a Christian, he stood against a Christian right organization led by Pat Robertson when they tried to grade his faith on a scorecard. And, in 1994, while running for a third congressional term against Newt Gingrich (who became Speaker of the House after his victory), Jones, speaking about Gingrich, quipped, "Oh, fuck him and the horse he rode in on."
Some, of course, called him a redneck for such things. That's OK: As the title of his book indicates, he's proud of the term. It just means Jones, who says he has more energy now than he's had in his entire life, is not afraid of a little hard work. He'll always espouse that value, he says, no matter how comfortable life gets.
"It's not about some white, Appalachian, inbred, dirt-eating retard. We're just working people," he says, laughing big. "There's nothing wrong with that. I know black rednecks. It's an attitude. I know gay rednecks. We're just old shitkickers, and [being gay is] just the way they turned out."
Ben Jones makes three area appearances this week. Two are in bookstores: The Regulator Bookshop on Wednesday, June 18, at 7 p.m., and Quail Ridge Books on Friday, June 20, at 7 p.m. On Thursday, June 19, in Chapel Hill, "Ben Jones Day" will be observed with a book signing and pig picking at the Dead Mule Club from 4-7 p.m.