May 9, 2008
The Hillbilly Jim story not far off reality
By GREG OLIVER - Producer, SLAM! Wrestling
The arrival of Hillbilly Jim in the WWF in 1984 as a hick from Mud Lick, Kentucky, entering the ring from the crowd and befriending Hulk Hogan, is, of course, fiction. But it isn't all that far from the truth either.
Jim Morris was a big boy in Bowling Green, Kentucky, a whopping 6-foot-7, and carrying upwards of 320 pounds. He was an athlete though, having been an All-State basketball player for Bowling Green High. In short, he is hardly the simpleton he portrayed; after all, he has a college degree.
"He's one of the guys that really got me into the wrestling business. I don't really think there would be a Hillbilly Jim, no wrestling Jim Morris, no nothing, had it not been for Bruce Swayze," recalled Morris earlier this year to SLAM! Wrestling.
Swayze's career was winding down as he was getting more involved with the business run by his wife's family. But he still knew what mattered in the wrestling business, and just as importantly, he knew the people behind the scenes.
Morris took some convincing that the wrestling business was for him.
"You really need to be in this business," Swayze told Morris.
"You really think I could make it?" Morris questioned.
"A guy your size? Absolutely."
In Kentucky, Morris started training with a local wrestler and Swayze's pre-training helped fast-track him. In the fall of 1983, Morris set off for Calgary's Stampede Wrestling territory, where he worked as Jim Morris.
"I had a short tenure in Calgary, but I'll tell you, it was a learning experience and quite a sharp, hard learning curve. I got to hang around and see Stu Hart, the Great Stu Hart," Morris said, dropping into an impression of Hart. "'Eh, eh, Hillbilly, you're a big man.' I got to see Stu Hart, hear all the imitations up close, to hear stories. I didn't stay long, but it was fun."
But before the Harley Davidson gimmick got over too much in Memphis, Morris got his big break. Again, he has Swayze to thank.
Morris realizes now what a break he got and is ever so thankful for it. Calgary and Memphis were brief stopping points that never amounted to much. "I'm kind of glad that I didn't spend enough time anywhere to really get over anywhere before I came to the WWE after that time, because nobody knew of me nationally, which was good," said Morris. "After hitting the WWF, you don't want to look back; I didn't want to look back to those other territories. That's like sleeping in a mansion, and then going back and living in a little shanty somewhere. It's that much different."
But don't take that as bragging about making the big time or belittling those who went that route. The nice guy persona as Hillbilly Jim isnít a work. He's not one to bad mouth others.
"One of the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet," said Swayze, talking about how Morris was there for the birth of his son, and has offered help in other ways through the years.
"He was one of those guys, he was a good guy in the ring and he was a good guy out of the ring," said WWF Maple Leaf Wrestling announcer Billy Red Lyons.
Hillbilly gimmicks have been around wrestling for decades. The most famous was definitely William "Haystacks" Calhoun, a massive 600-pound Texan who awed people with his sheer volume. (Asked once about his overalls size, he replied, "Don't think there is a size. They just make 'em to fit me.") He was a traveling performer like Andre the Giant, where he didn't stay in a territory too long and risk overexposure. Yet, in 1973, he held the WWWF tag team titles with Tony Garea for a short while, one of the few times he ever held a belt.
The Scufflin' Hillbillies were made up of, at various times, Billy Garrett, Chuck Conley, Rip Collins and Marvin Cheatham. Unlike Calhoun, they could actually perform. But the act was over as well, carrying shotguns to the ring or escorting a pet pig. They had in-ring moves such as the Possum Stump and the Stump Puller.
Elvira Snodgrass was promoted as a "country gal from the tips of her high button shoes to the top of her sun bonnet-covered auburn hair."
So as Vince McMahon Jr. envisioned global domination for his expanding WWF product and a shift towards a kid-friendly environment, it was time to go back to the past for an old gimmick, one that he'd seen with his own eyes in New York.
"[My character] came directly from those guys, that came down and laid it down before me," explained Morris. "It was just about time for them to try a hillbilly character again -- and there I was. It was good for me. I might have put in for a Ric Flair gimmick, but I got a Hillbilly Jim gimmick. I was happy with it. Whooooo!"
Again, the debut of Hillbilly Jim on WWF television was hardly anything new. There had been wrestlers who came out of the crowd before. But few could match the rub Morris got from Hulk Hogan, then still in his ascension to immortality.
"There was nobody as over as Hulk Hogan was at that time. That whole Hulkamania thing, how strong it was," said Morris. "It was like that everywhere; it didn't matter where the matches were, or where he was in the main event, it was going to be a sellout. The whole country was alongside, Canada was, the U.S. was. For me to get brushed up against him was the ultimate seal of the deal right there. That's like if you want to be a financial guy, you brush up against Donald Trump. If you want to be a great announcer and have your own talk show, and you get Larry King to say, 'This is the guy who is going to do it.' It's like, whoa."
On screen, Hogan presented the newcomer, Hillbilly Jim, with a pair of his wrestling boots. It wasn't a work, either -- Morris still has the boots in his home today!
Morris admits that there was no doubt a little bit of jealousy of the rub he got from Hogan for such a newcomer to the business. He became the de facto number two babyface in the WWF for a short while, before an injury curtailed his push. "I may have had a little bit of that coming off, but I think it was pretty much broke down because most of the guys who knew me, I was cool with everybody. I really don't think I had too much heat with anybody in the business ever. Me and the boys always got along real well. I was cool about all that, and they pretty much liked me. There might have been a little touch of that jealousy at the beginning, but everybody got over that pretty quickly. But I'm sure there was a little bit at first."
It was fortunate for the WWF that Hillbilly Jim apparently had a big family. Uncle Elmer (Stan Frazier) was a legit 6-foot-10, but at the tail end of his modest career. Morris had hooked the WWF up with Jimmy "The Mouth of the South" Hart, who he knew in Memphis. It was Hart who got Frazier into the WWF.
Frazier's size made for natural competition with the real big dog in town, Andre the Giant. "He had a lot of heat with Andre. Andre didn't care for Frazier, Uncle Elmer," confessed Morris. "Uncle Elmer was kind of a different kind of cat, and Andre didn't care for him too much. [Laughs] And it wasn't easy for him to get around him either. I don't think there was anything ever said, I don't think they ever worked each other. But Andre let it be known that he didn't care too much for Stan Frazier. I think it was just a personality difference. We kind of made jokes about it, pretty much trying to scare Uncle Elmer all the time about that about Andre. I'd say, 'Uncle Elmer, how do you know that Andre don't like you? What makes you say that?' He'd say, 'Because he told me so!' [Laughs] And that was like, 'Whoa.' That ain't a real good sign. Believe me, if you knew Andre, that wasn't a good thing. And by the way, Elmer, God rest his soul, probably is really happy that he never did have to wrestle Andre, because that wouldn't have been a nice thing. ... It would have been a bad thing!"
Frazier was too old to be a regular performer, so it was only natural to look for someone younger. The WWF brought in Lanny Kean as Cousin Junior. "Everybody loved him, and he wrestled barefoot, and he looked like a super little hillbilly -- he was perfect, and he did all the things that we needed," Morris said. "Then he went crazy, and they got rid of him." (Kean would later resurface in Memphis as Moondog Cujo.)
Having been burned by a youngster who grew too big for his britches, WWF brought in a veteran, Gene Lewis, as Cousin Luke. One day while visiting his parents in New Jersey, Lewis dropped by the WWF offices to visit booker George Scott and ask about work. Scott was not encouraging, but at that time Hillbilly Jim and his "family" -- Uncle Elmer and Cousin Junior -- were popular and Gene had a picture of himself wearing overalls that he showed to Scott. Scott mentioned that theyíd been having trouble getting Cousin Junior to show up for matches and booked Gene as Cousin Luke for a Saturday Night's Main Event live show in Poughkeepsie, NY, a few nights later. "Hillbilly Jim was a big character [but he] had an injury and he could not be an up-and-down wrestler. Uncle Elmer was pretty much created just to make people laugh, although he did get over. They needed a mechanic that could wrestle 15-20 minutes, and I was the guy that fit that spot," Lewis explained.
Morris liked them all, but said they were never meant to last. "Luke came in and he did the job, but by the time, and by design, all those guys that came in were only going to be there for a while until I got well. Then I was going to go back. Well, Cousin Luke was there for a while after I got well, and they kind of like let him go. I just went back to doing singles matches. They just paired me up with whoever they wanted me with. They wanted me to do tag matches, as I was all up to do a runaround with Andre -- there was a while where me and Hacksaw Jim Duggan wrestled Andre the Giant and Haku, that was a big thing we took around for a while. You know the dynamics of the business."
Technicians the "Hillbillies" were not, and therefore they got a lot of guff from the more serious hardcore fans -- and fellow wrestlers.
"In my opinion, the Hillbillies were one of the worst gimmicks I'd ever seen in the WWF," wrote The Dynamite Kid (Tom Billington) in his autobiography. "Hillbilly Jim had no ability in the ring. I mean, none. He'd cut the TV interview, doing all that stupid country bumpkin stuff, with the sheep and the chickens, smiling and pulling at his dungarees, and then he'd get in the ring and do a cartwheel. That was it. He even managed to break his ankle doing that one time. So, I thought the whole Hillbilly gimmick was the shits."
Morris is more than aware of the complaints and criticisms. But he also takes it in stride.
These days, Morris still works for WWE on an on-call basis. For the last five years, the call has come in to run the WrestleMania Fan Axxess tour, traveling from town to town. It's a great gig for a man who genuinely likes meeting people. Plus, there is always the thrill of being remembered.
Morris also has a radio show on Sirius Radio. The show, Hillbilly Jim's Moonshine Matinee, combines country with southern rock. "I've been doing that for about three years now. I enjoy doing that," he explained. "That's a weekly show I do that comes on twice on the weekend, on Saturday and Sunday. I have to usually go to Nashville, Tennessee and record and tape it there. That's a lot of fun." He has been able to have many old friends on as well, including Hogan, and the entire Swayze family. As an active member of the Kentucky Blues Society, Morris heads out to classrooms for the Blues in Schools program.
It seems that Morris, unlike a lot of his peers from the '80s, is well-grounded and has his head screwed on straight. The father of four grown children ("Two of each kind -- I probably should have quit before I got that set, but I didnít."), he knows the trials and tribulations of the road and continues to choose to do it for almost half the year.
"It's tough. A lot of times you can make it tough for yourself, if you don't take care of your ends," Morris said of the road. "Sometimes, you get out there and a lot of guys get out of control. I'll tell you what it's like, in that wrestling business as you well know, back in the days that I was doing it, it was like a rock star kind of existence. They treat you like you're a rock star, they give you everything and you've got all these temptations that you've got to learn to live with, learn when to say no and when to cut back, when to relax, when to just get your sleep to do what you've got to do. A lot of guys have a problem with that."
Not one to dwell on the past, Morris dismisses any talk of being in the WWE Hall of Fame. "Oh lord, I don't know about that, I don't even think about that. I've had such a good career already," he said. "To me, for me to be happy, to validate me and my career, in my eyes, I wouldn't have to have that. That would just be above anything to be able to do that."
Spoken like a true country gentleman.
After writing up this story, SLAM! Wrestling Producer Greg Oliver popped on a Dwight Yoakam CD -- Hillbilly Deluxe. Greg can be emailed at email@example.com.