The Magazine

When Bubba Meets Obama

If you want to fish for votes in Appalachia, here's how.

Jun 30, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 40 • By MATT LABASH
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As we agree on the musicality of Mudcat's delivery, Stowe says, "There's also something epic-like in his thinking--which is a quality any great song has, and all epics are born from something simple. He'll take the smallest detail and spin a huge story out of it. That's kind of his gift. He understands how a person will react on the gut level to just about any idea, probably because he's so reactive himself."

The last couple of months have seen two storylines emerge in the Democratic party. The first is that Barack Obama put away the nomination. The second is that Obama has a white-people problem in the general. More specifically, he has a problem with white rural voters, particularly those of the Appalachian belt, which straddles key states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. To put it in Mudcat-speak, Obama got beat there in the primaries like a tied-up billy goat.

Ruggedly independent, anti-elitist, and famously pugnacious, the denizens of Appalachia include many of the Scots-Irish variety lionized in Jim Webb's last book, Born Fighting, touched upon in his current book, A Time to Fight, and whose fight song is bound to be reprised in a future book, What Are You Looking At? I'll Fight You.

These voters went in droves to the unlikeliest Jacksonian populist imaginable, Hillary Clinton, whose bubba street cred entailed calling the hogs at Arkansas Razorbacks football games, claiming she once bagged a banded duck, and doing a shot of Crown Royal at a campaign stop (three tries to get it down, and it was Canadian whiskey to boot). If Obama was spanked by a poseur like her in these regions, journalistic handicappers say, imagine how bad he'll have it against a war hero with the Scots-Irish name "McCain."

These are the people Mudcat knows best. So when my editor commanded me to get down to the Roanoke Valley of southwest Virginia, where he lives, to find out what Mudcat's prescription was for Obama to stanch the bleeding, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to kill two birds. Mudcat had been imploring me for months to grab my fly rod and catch some trout with him.

When I contacted Mudcat, he was in a state of blood-spitting agitation at all the Poindexter reporters trafficking in stereotypes, depicting mountain people as racist mouth-breathers, while explaining Obama's "Appalachian problem" as if they were anthropologists dropping in on the lip-plated savages of America's last exotic tribe. He agreed to host me, insisting I stay at his house instead of a hotel. "Be sure to bring your gun and plenty of ammo," he wrote me in an email, playing to Poindexter type:

The state put up a new road sign a few days ago out here in front of my house, and I've been saving it until you get here. They're having a revival over at the church so we'll be having supper on the grounds tomorrow evening. The service shouldn't last too long because Orville got drunk the night before last, rolled up his windows, locked his truck, and forgot to pull the snakes out of the cab. By the time he came to at 4:00 yesterday afternoon, they were cooked. The Klan meets right after church so we can all walk over together. The Grand Dragon has scaled the weekly program back a bit. We were planning on burning seven crosses tomorrow night, but with gasoline prices being where they are, we can only afford to burn two. I know how much you like to fish. I'll take you to a hole over behind Cousin Gertie's trailer, but you must fish alone for awhile as I have not seen Cousin Gertie for several months and need to get "caught up." You can stay in the spare bedroom, at least until she warms up to you a little bit. We probably won't be able to sleep much anyway because nobody can cook up a mess of Crystal Meth like Cousin Gertie. The next day we'll fish the fast water where the big-city Yankees ride them rafts. There's only one thing an Appalachian boy likes to do more in the summer than fish, and that's to catch a Ned Beatty look-alike as he leisurely makes his way down the river with no idea he's floating livestock. We thought we had us some Yankees last week, but when we sneaked up on them, it was just the Crowell boys dumping an old refrigerator and washing machine in the river. I can't stress strongly enough to bring extra ammunition. Your friend, Mudcat