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W.Va. should cash in on wholesome image

March 04, 2009

Naturally, plenty of people call or write with column ideas that I listen to before saying "Thank you very much for the idea; now never contact me again."

But when Paul Highbarger sent me a link to a Newsweek article about West Virginia's campaign to improve its image titled "Hillbilly No More" -- well, what can I say? He must know I have a weakness for the classics.

I lived in the Mountain State for 27 years, so it is a topic I can speak on with some degree of authority, if not accuracy. And as you know, there is a big difference between the two.

The Newsweek piece starts out with the story of Shawn Grim, who is "is a walking hillbilly cliché. His mother has no teeth, none of his relatives graduated from high school and there's a gun rack on the wall of his family's ramshackle trailer. But he was still shocked last year when his brother, 'Little Man,' was caught in flagrante with his half-sister."

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My first thought is that this isn't as bad as it sounds. If your nickname is "Little Man," you're lucky to be caught in flagrante with anyone. So cut the kid some slack.

Still, it's stories like this one -- and the recent exposé of "Mountain Dew Mouth," an affliction that is costing the kids of Appalachia their teeth -- that Gov. Joe Manchin wants to counteract. So the state is spending lots of money on national ad campaigns, tuition credits and incentives to keep the "best and brightest" West Virginians from leaving the state. Both of 'em. (Sorry, I had promised myself I wouldn't pick any low-hanging persimmons.)

But never fear, governor, I am here to help. Indeed, there are some things the state government can do to improve West Virginia's image. For example, no more bills legalizing the consumption of road kill. I'll be honest, that one didn't help cultivate the image of the state as a hub of international trade, if you know what I'm saying.

But if this is to work, the people are going to have to pitch in, too. That means no more nicknames like "Little Man," no more filling up the sippy cup with Red Bull, no more dropping out of the eighth grade, no more making moonshine in the crockpot and please, please, no more going full bow-chicka-bow-wow on the relatives.

Still, Newsweek seems dubious: "West Virginia's overhaul may require a deeper, more delicate approach, not least because many of the state's stereotypes are both long-standing and rooted in at least some fact."

For example, the government says that one in three adults in the state "have lost six or more teeth." I don't know that this is worse than pumping your face full of Play-Doh because wrinkles make you feel insecure, but it's the perception that counts.

But I was always kind of proud of West Virginia's people and its image and I didn't care what other people thought. I do know that, given my druthers, I would a lot rather spend an afternoon with Shawn and Little Man than with Bernie Madoff and others like him. If that lifestyle is what counts as sophistication, feel free to take my teeth.

And I think the nation as a whole is moving in this direction. Instead of slick and fancy, we're longing for wholesome and genuine.

This will be West Virginia's luck. Manchin's Extreme Makeover: West Virginia Edition will work, but just as it's becoming hip to be simple, West Virginia will become urbane.

So, speaking as a former West Virginian, I'm not sure I want a new, polished, store-bought image. I'd rather dance with the half-sister that brunged me here.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com.

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