Arkansas/Arkansaw: The Governor Faces Rebranding Challenge

The cover of the book Arkansas/Arkansaw by Brooks Blevins (2009).
Credit Univ. of Arkansas Press

This week Governor Asa Hutchinson rolled out another tool in his Arkansas boosterism arsenal unveiling the branding campaign "Arkansas Inc." He has about 180 years of a contradictory image to compete with but he intends to join former governors Charles Brough (champion of the early Wonder State moniker) and Winthrop Rockefeller in trying to do so.

A few years back I read Brooks Blevins's "Arkansas/Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, & Good Ol' Boys Defined A State." Blevins investigates the creation of the image Hutchinson is trying to overcome by casting Arkansas an economically savvy player.

Blevins lays out a premise (that Arkansas has a bad image) with which the governor may have been wrestling.

"Assuming, at least for the amount of time it takes to read this book, that Arkansas has historically occupied the outhouse on this farmstead we call the United States - that folklorist James R. Masterson was correct when he opined of Arkansas: "Her ill fame has marked her, more than any other State in the Union, as a target for reproach and ridicule"-why is this so?"

Blevins concludes good answers are found in two schools of thought:

[1]Those who attribute the Arkansaw image to the state's quite real shortcomings and eccentricities and [2] those who who, finding nothing exceptional or unique about Arkansas, blame the serendipitous confluence of the territory/state's awkward frontier stage with the nation's Jacksonian era humor-mining.

(I'll note you can hear Blevins take on folk music on the new radio program Ozark Highland Radio, Fridays at 8 p.m.)

It's a narrative of Arkansas that was crafted early and often controlled by outsiders.

"The Wells children were dressed in abundantly greasy and dirty clothing; not a person in the family was literate. The hunt was the nexus around which the household revolved. The interior walls of the grimy cabin were festooned with deer antlers. - Henry Schoolcraft of New York, 1818.

More influential to the national consciousness than newspaper accounts and travelers, Blevins argues was music. "The Arkansas Traveller," or "The State of Arkansaw," also known by a host of other names proliferated into countless version since the 1840s. Blevins quoted lyrics from a 1952 field recording in Batesville.

"I landed in Hot Springs on sultry afternoon.

Up came a walking skeleton and handed me his paw,

Inviting me to his hotel, the best in Arkansas."

1930-40s radio caricatures continued the prevailing Arkansas image of hillbilly, backwardness (Blevins concludes the Ozark image overtook the rest of the state). The Beverly Hillbillies and television naturally extended earlier mediums portrayals. KUAR's Ben Fry knows a thing or two about the film industry's "hixploitation" of Arkansas.

Late night TV hosts enjoyed former President Bill Clinton's "Bubba" persona and former Governor Mike Huckabee's move into a "manufactured home" when the Governor's Mansion underwent renovations. Clinton made mention of jokes that his Presidential Library resembles a mobile home last year in Little Rock too.

Of course, having something to laugh about (which Blevins encourages readers to do) isn't necessarily a bad thing. There are a host of factors to consider beyond sketch comedy such as tax codes, state incentive packages, and workforce skills with which the governor plans  to persuade investors. 

The cultural image of Arkansas as apart from costal economic hubs still persists however. It's indeed regularly promoted by state politicians. At times, it brings the state to a crossroads over issues like including "human sexuality" and "gender identity" into civil rights protections. Legislation in a related area generated anti-Arkansas investment campaigns in 2015, targeted in some of the same publications Hutchinson's "Arkansas Inc." may be interested in.

Hutchinson has traveled to China, Cuba, Silicon Valley, New York City, and a host of other places, thanks in part to $75,000 in gifts, to attract economic development.