One morning last summer, Dennis Horton, the longtime owner of Horton’s Music in the town of Hardy, population 772, heard a strange noise coming from outside his shop. Like a “weed eater or something,” he said. He put aside the guitar he was fixing to step outside, and was stunned by what he found: a helicopter drone affixed with a camera, hovering over the sidewalk. “Flying back and forth up and down Main Street,” he said, “under the power lines. I thought, ‘What in the heck is that?’ “
A few doors down from Horton’s, Ron and Susan Wolfe run a cluttered antique store called Memories on Main Street. Ron loves talking to customers, and keeps a guest book behind the counter for people to sign. “I talk to everybody who comes in here,” he said. “So I find out where they’re coming from.” Around the time of Dennis Horton’s run-in with the drone, Ron noticed an influx of customers from major cities. He was stumped. “One little lady was from New York and one was from California,” he said. “I told ’em, ‘Man, you all are lost.’ “
They weren’t. They had come to Hardy to film a television show, a six-episode series for Discovery Channel titled “Clash of the Ozarks,” that began airing in late February and will continue throughout this month. The show follows a blood feud that it claims has ravaged two Hardy families, the Russells and the Evanses, since the mid-19th century, continuing into the present day with the bitter rivalry between Crowbar Russell, who, the show’s press release notes, “seeks only to work his land and hunt for what he needs to survive,” and his nemesis, Kerry Wayne Evans, who “has a fondness for money” and will “do just about anything to build up his empire.” Hardy, a quiet tourist community at the northern edge of the state, is described as resembling “a town right out of the Wild West,” in which “emotions and territory conflicts outweigh a law-abiding society.” Other characters include “a mountain man who doesn’t own a pair of shoes and hasn’t lived in a house for years” and “a tough gun-toting elderly woman who is fiercely protective of her family and is rumored to be clairvoyant.”
The promo clip that circulated before the show started airing set the tone by emulating the rough Southern grit of shows like “True Blood” and “Justified,” a stylized, high-contrast collage of snakes and moonshine and river baptism. Men in straw hats wielded bowie knives and chased trains, and a country preacher in a dilapidated church made pronouncements like, “If we stop fighting the good fight, it will open the door to the devil.”
Hardy residents didn’t expect this slant. According to Al Corte, who runs a historic preservation society in town, “We thought it was going to be a hunting and fishing show.”
In a 1969 New Yorker article, “A Stranger With a Camera,” Calvin Trillin writes about a film crew that visits a small Appalachian community in Jeremiah, Ky., to document its lower class residents. “It was an extraordinary shot — so evocative of the despair of that region,” one of the filmmakers told Trillin about a segment involving a coal miner. The owner of the land, however, turned up to interrupt the shoot and eventually shot and killed the leader of the crew, a crime for which he was later acquitted by a local jury, because what was a film crew doing in Jeremiah, Ky., anyway?
We have come a long way since “A Stranger With a Camera.” From “Duck Dynasty” and “Swamp People” to “Moonshiners” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” a disproportionate number of the most popular reality shows on television today are set in the rural South, a phenomenon that Brooks Blevins, a Missouri State University professor of Ozark Studies, calls the “redneck reality renaissance.” The trend, of course, is only the most recent and profitable manifestation of a whole vibrant history of Southern caricature, something Blevins argues has particularly deep roots in Arkansas.
“There seems to be no scientific way to quantify the level of stereotyping to which Arkansas has been subjected in comparison with other states,” he writes in his book, “Arkansas / Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies and Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State.” “But the general consensus around the Natural State is that Arkansas was at some point in the murky past singled out and given a special place in the American consciousness. And it’s a specialness that many in the state would just as soon do without.”
Once a primarily science and education outlet, Discovery Channel has evolved its focus over the years, a philosophical awakening that can be tracked by the changes to the company’s tagline: From “Explore Your World,” the channel mellowed and rebranded with the more easy-going “Entertain Your Brain,” before settling a few years ago on “The World Is Just Awesome.” The show that airs after “Clash of the Ozarks” on Discovery, incidentally, is called “Amish Mafia.”
David George, executive vice president of programming at Leftfield Pictures, the company that produced the series for Discovery, offered some insight into the making of the show. Having made his name at MTV, George has gone on to produce such programs as “Truck Stop Missouri,” “Guntucky,” “Hillbillies for Hire,” and “Cajun Pawn Stars.”
“It’s kind of an interesting story,” he said of the show’s origins. “We were down in the area, in the Ozarks, casting for a completely different concept. We were looking for people who really lived off the land, and we came across Crowbar Russell.”
Russell, the backwoods moral center of the show whose quest to save his own land from the bank and from Kerry Wayne Evans’ plotting provides much of its conflict, is well known in the area for his TV work, particularly the local-access show, “Ozark Outdoors,” which he produced with his cousin, Jason. Episodes usually consisted of handheld footage of the two of them noodling for catfish, bowhunting hogs or shooting crows.
“I’m sure that’s how he popped up on our radar,” George said of Russell’s previous work. “But when he started talking about his own personal history and the issues that he was personally facing down there, we realized it was much bigger than just that one little nugget that we had gone for.”
In conversation, George projects a sort of innocence about the criticisms someone like Blevins might have for the shows he produces, and his almost utopian enthusiasm for “Clash of the Ozarks” is contagious. Describing whether the series was a reality show or a drama, he said, “It doesn’t really fall into any one particular category — I think that’s what makes it unique. The show is about ideology, what people believe in and their way of life and how that impacts their surroundings.” It’s easy to forget, speaking with George, that this is one of the minds behind MTV’s “Pranked.”
“At first, there was definitely some confrontation,” George said of the early days of the “Clash of the Ozarks” production. “I think anytime a production team from New York City waltzes into Hardy, Arkansas … if there wasn’t any hesitation, I’d be a little bit nervous.” Having made it through this initial awkwardness, he said, “We really let [the locals] take the lead.”
“Production companies make a big mistake when they try to stereotype the South,” he said. “And we consciously made a decision that we were not going to go down that road.”
“You’d rather try to pour hot butter up a wildcat’s ass than mess with him when he’s mad.” That’s what one character says about Crowbar Russell on the show, and it’s hard to disagree, as most of his screen time is spent railing furiously against “poachers,” “flatlanders” and “those bastards who busted up my moonshine.” His dialogue is generally subtitled, presumably because his accent might be a challenge for some viewers.
Still, Crowbar is the show’s hero, a bulwark of traditional values and domesticity, as opposed to his rival, Kerry Wayne Evans, described as “one of the Ozarks’ most controversial businessmen.” On “Clash,” Russell says Evans is “money hungry” and “ain’t worthy shit for nothing,” and later compares him to a coyote. Evans embraces the role: “I can finally get the Russell clan out of the Ozarks for good,” he says in episode one, “Blood Land,” with evident villainous glee.
Like all great family feuds, the original impetus for their grudge is vague, but the show claims it started with a fight at a “family dance,” and has persisted for over a century. The poet Justin Booth, who got to know both Crowbar and Kerry Wayne when he worked at a bar in Cherokee Village, a few miles from Hardy, in the late ’80s, said there may be some truth there. He told a story about Crowbar’s cousin, Brad — they looked similar enough that people were often mistaking them — being jumped once by “this other family,” who “beat him nearly to death,” thinking he was Crowbar. “As soon as he gets out of the hospital,” Booth said, “he comes back to the club and he has a T-shirt on that says ‘My name is not Crowbar.’ “
Of Kerry Evans, Booth recalled, “He punched me in the mouth one time. He was not nice, is my opinion.”
Most of the current Hardy residents, though, were less certain about its authenticity. “It’s a fictional story,” said Dale Maddox, who runs a local pottery shop. “It’s television, entertainment.” Ron Martin, owner of an antique store called Memory Lane Mall, said, “The plot’s all hooey, but it’s entertaining.”
Ernie Rose, Hardy’s police chief, laughs when I ask if Crowbar and Kerry Evans get along: “Yes, to my knowledge.” Rose should know, as he went to high school with both of them and goes fishing with Crowbar from time to time. His own father, he said, worked closely alongside Crowbar’s and Kerry Wayne’s fathers in the early days of Cherokee Village. “Them three men were the three key people in the whole water system,” he said, “installing it and making it operate.” This shared history could explain why, as the local newspaper, The Villager Journal, has it, Crowbar and Kerry Wayne both recently served as pallbearers at each other’s parent’s funeral.
The more you talk to people in Hardy, for that matter, the less certain you become about which character would belong on which end of a hero-villain dynamic. “He’s kind of a local legend, and not all in a good way,” said Tammy Curtis, The Villager Journal’s managing editor, about Crowbar. “He’s a convicted felon. So if you see him with a gun [on the show], he’s probably not even supposed to have it.”
While Discovery’s press release says that “Everyone in Hardy has their own story of how Crowbar got his name,” Curtis said there’s pretty much just one story. “His name came from some nasty fights,” she said. “People call him that because he’s more apt to pick up a crowbar and hit you in the back of the head than to fight you face to face.”
Kerry Wayne, meanwhile, who on the show claims to “do business with rough folks, people with blood on their hands,” actually owns and operates a fairly innocuous business in town called N-Sta-Smile. It manufactures disposable toothbrushes. When an interview was requested with the cast through Discovery (everyone who appears on the show is under a strict contract not to speak to the press, which led to a handful of awkward interactions while reporting this story), it was Kerry Wayne who was made available.
“At first I was reluctant to get involved,” Evans said of his part in the show. “They had a preset notion of what we were going to be like, and I refused to be involved in that. I wanted people to see what we were really like, overall. And I’m pretty proud of what it turned out like, to tell you the truth.”
About the feud, he said, “I’m not going to speak for my family, because I wasn’t there. But I’m sure our families butted heads.” And about the contrast between the show’s Hardy and the real Hardy? “There’s an element of truth in everything you seen on the show,” he said. “Nothing in life is 100 percent accurate.”
One weekend, once a couple of episodes had aired, I decided to drive up to Hardy to get a better sense of the city I’d been watching on television. The day before I visited, maybe fittingly, there was a bank robbery in town. According to The Village Journal’s Tammy Curtis, “A lot of people here thought it was funny, they were saying, ‘I think Crowbar did it.’ And it got to where some people were even believing it.” The real perpetrator turned herself in that same day. She’d hidden the money under a log.
Driving into Sharp County, you’ll pass through Cave City, self-proclaimed home of the World’s Sweetest Watermelons, and Evening Shade, population 432, the setting for an early ’90s sitcom starring Burt Reynolds. Along the highway, confederate flags hang from dead trees and horses graze in patches of ice. “Welcome to Historic Hardy: Home of Lauren Gray,” one sign for the city reads, referring to a onetime contestant on “American Idol.”
Fans of “Clash of the Ozarks,” can immediately begin recognizing landmarks within the city limits. There’s the old church that reappears in the opening credits and throughout the series. In reality, it’s an abandoned building in a cemetery, and the preacher is a local TV and radio personality named Tommy Garner, but there it is all the same, just as it looks in the show.
At any moment, one expects to see Jimmy Haney, the shoeless, shirtless, overall-wearing mountain man who lives in the woods hunting for mushrooms. For the record, almost everyone I met seemed confident that he actually does live in the woods. Dennis Horton said his son recently asked Haney’s daughter about the show and his role in it, and she responded, “Well, best I can say is I’m glad he dressed up.”
There’s nothing revelatory in the notion that a reality show isn’t entirely real, but there is something interesting about these real people’s eagerness to package themselves for a worldwide audience in the way that they have. They’ve used their real names, after all, and have created, or at least acted out, narratives about their own real families. Most people in town, despite some initial hesitation or confusion, now embrace the show as well, and discuss it in proud and hopeful terms.
Horton, so confounded by the crew’s first appearance outside of his store, now has a huge cardboard “Clash of the Ozarks” poster displayed in his window. He plans to get it autographed by all the cast members, and only has a few left to go. “I think anytime that you can shine a spotlight on your community, that’s got to be a good thing for your town,” he said. “One of the characters was in here earlier today, just before you came in as a matter of fact.” And he said he took a count and the title of the city Hardy was displayed 14 times during one episode of that show. “So lots of people all over the world are at least seeing the name of our town.”
“This is a tourist-oriented place, we’re dependent on the tourist dollar,” he said. “Whatever it takes to bring people here, we’re for it.” With a sly grin, he adds, “I just hope Kerry and Crowbar can work out their differences without somebody getting hurt.”
Dale Maddox, who moved to Hardy in 1980, at a time when the city was “pretty much decimated” economically, agreed. “I understand over a million people watched the first episode [1.1 according to Nielsen ratings], and if 5 percent of those people seek Hardy out,” he said, trailing off. “I think a lot of people are going to be looking for Hardy, Arkansas, that never had a clue it was here.”
Tammy Curtis sees things differently. “I see it as being more negative than positive, personally,” she said. “But then I think it’s like any other show. In a few months, after it’s over with and the episodes are gone, it’s kind of like your moment of fame. And I think it’ll die out. I don’t think there’s going to be people on the other side of the world saying, ‘I watched this and I want to go to Hardy.’ “
For his part, Chief Rose is mostly indifferent. “I don’t watch much television,” he said gruffly. “I live the life, I don’t have to watch it on TV.”