Jim Morris was going to take a pass on appearing at the coming edition of WrestleMania and all its associated hoopla and festivities. Better know to legions of wrestling fans worldwide as the affable, scufflin’, larger-than-life Hillbilly Jim, Morris is invited every year to attend the biggest event in sports entertainment to participate in a host of activities as befits his status as a beloved legend of WWF/WWE lore.
But he was going to decline the invitation this year after a bad experience with flights both to and from last year’s event in Orlando. When he started getting phone calls from WWE head office in Connecticut in the early weeks of 2018, he figured it was just his normal invitation to WrestleMania, which this year takes place in New Orleans.
There was a significant difference in this year’s invitation though, as Hillbilly Jim is set to be inducted into the prestigious WWE Hall of Fame alongside Bill Goldberg, The Dudley Boyz, Ivory, Mark Henry and Jeff Jarrett. It is an honour that Morris had never sought out or expected, even if many of his friends and fans did. And as befits his down-home humble character, the decision to induct him into pro wrestling’s most distinguished pantheon of greats left Morris feeling truly grateful.
“My mouth went to marbles when they told me,” Morris said in a telephone interview with Chinlock.com. “What are you going to say? I was trying to process all that and my brain kind of shut down for a minute, because it was really something I wasn’t expecting. Let me just put this out there, this isn’t something that you start out thinking about when you begin your career. You just want to hold on for your dear life and do as good as you can. You just want to keep getting better and make sure that you’re doing your best to stay in the business at a high level. So that’s all I was doing, I never dreamed of this,” Morris said from his home in Franklin, Kentucky, which also happens to be the home state of his character, Hillbilly Jim, who hailed from the fictitious community of Mud Lick, alongside his kayfabe Uncle Elmer and Cousin Luke.
“I don’t sit around thinking about stuff like this, it’s for someone else to say I am in the hall of fame, I can’t think of myself in there. I have heard people talking about it all the time, but I tell them that it’s not for me to say. People ask why I was not in the hall of fame, but it’s not in my nature, it’s not my style to think about that. Because I live in the now. I am a happy guy. I am proud of all the things I did. I am happy that I had a great career that has given me a great life, but I assure you my friend, I don’t hardly ever think about it unless someone else brings it up to me.
“I am not one of those people who lives and revels in yesterday. I live in the now. I am not one of those people who wishes they could go back in time, other than when people bring it up like in this conversation I am having with you. When that happens, I love to talk about it, and I when I get to thinking about it, it rekindles some memories, good, bad and indifferent. I have been thinking about a lot of great events and great people that I haven’t remembered in years.”
The induction into the WWE Hall of Fame is a singular achievement that recognizes the positive impact a wrestler and their gimmick (or gimmicks) had on the wrestling business, and the esteem for which that person is held by the industry, their peers and most significantly, the fans. But Morris believes the honour is a collective one, meant to be shared with all those who helped the Hillbilly Jim character ascend the heights of the wrestling business, and remain one of the most beloved characters of all time.
“The way I feel about it may be a little different. I am going to be the guy who is going to get inducted; it’s going to be under my name. But I can’t accept this just for me. Because as I told you earlier, I’ve already got all the accolades, I’ve received all the goodness and al the wonderful things that this business can give me. I have this life and this lifestyle from being Hillbilly Jim and being in the WWF as it was called back in the day. But I accept this for my family, for my mother who is no longer with me and who really enjoyed this business and was very happen that I was in it. If mom was here, she would really enjoy this moment,” he said.
“I am accepting this on behalf of all my friends, everybody I grew up with down here in my little town, every guy I went to the gym and worked out with, people I went to school with and all the people in my state of Kentucky, the little boys and little girls who really got into this Hillbilly Jim thing, because he really touched a note, and it was something that everyone could connect with.
“And finally, I didn’t get the international radio show that I have been doing on Sirius XM for 13 years by being Jim Morris. I got it by being Hillbilly Jim. And listen brother, I am forever grateful. I wouldn’t be talking to you today if not for all the support and gifts I have been given by the wrestling business.”
Morris reiterated that he had no intention of going to WrestleMania this year, but fate had other plans.
“They are pretty punctual about calling you because they want to make sure that anyone who wants to come into WrestleMania is confirmed to get your schedule and itinerary together. But they called on a Sunday morning, and I believe it was the last day of the NFL playoffs and I was getting ready to do what I always do on a Sunday, get something to eat, head down to the gym and then come back and watch football all day. But I was like, ‘Man why are they calling me on a Sunday, it’s not that urgent?’ I was planning on not going so I called back to tell them that, so they would stop calling, and left a message for (WWE Senior Director of Talent Relations) Mark Carrano in the office,” he said.
“I told him that I had an awful time in Orlando. Everything just went wrong for me. I told him I was three hours later getting in from the airport, which set me off on a bad tone. The whole weekend down in Orlando was kind of spoiled for me because I couldn’t ever seem to get caught up and relax and enjoy myself. And then to top it off, when I was getting ready to come home, I was four hours delayed, so instead of getting home at 8 p.m. it was after midnight. I said I was thinking of staying away this year and to please tell everybody to have a great WrestleMania and enjoy New Orleans. I said I appreciated them calling me and wanting me to come and taking care of me when I do come. So, I left that message and felt good, because I got it off my chest.”
But Carrano called back with a much different request – a hall of fame request that he could not refuse.
Morris began his career a full decade before joining the then WWF at the height of its spectacular rise in the 1980s, when Hulkamania not only dominated the wrestling industry, but had become imbedded into pop culture. An athlete from a young age, he began lifting weights in high school, and played NCAA basketball for Western Kentucky University, as well as a little semi-pro basketball in Europe.
But for many years, he would run into current and former pro wrestlers who thought he would be perfect for that line of work, because of his height and physique. A fans since he was a small boy, it took little convincing from a transplanted Canadian ex-pro wrestler named Bruce Swayze to convince him to get into the business. After training for a short while with a small Kentucky-based indy promotion, Morris gained his first experience in one of the territories when he joined Calgary’s Stampede Wrestling – a time that not only gave Morris some great experience, but also some lifelong friends.
“I spent some time on the road working for Stu Hart and learned what it was like to go all over the place and do shows every night. I got to know the entire Hart family and as the years have gone by, one of my nearest and dearest friends has always remained Bruce Hart, and we talk quite often,” Morris said.
“After that, I went down to Memphis, Tennessee, and worked for Jerry (The King) Lawler and Jerry Jarrett and I did some work for them in the CWA and that’s when I got a real character going for the first time.”
Swayze again proved to be a great connection, as he took Morris to a WWF show in Nashville in 1984, where he was introduced to WWF stalwart and Canadian Pat Patterson who, upon seeing Morris in person, asked him to have a match right then and there.
“I tell you, that dressing room was loaded with a who’s who of the wrestling business: Junkyard Dog, Andre The Giant, King Kong Bundy, Big John Studd, Jimmy (Superfly) Snuka, Paul Orndorf. But I made the cardinal sin of not bringing my wrestling gear with me, so all these big stars got some extra gear together and gave it to me and I went out and did a little preliminary match,” he said.
After working a couple of matches in his biker character, Morris met behind the curtain at a show in New Haven, Connecticut with top WWF officials to decide on a new gimmick.
“There was myself, and the great old-time wrestler and agent for the WWF at the time, Chief Jay Strongbow, a Canadian guy named George Scott who was our booker and another old-time wrestler who had been around for years and years and Vince McMahon. And I basically said, I can’t do what I am doing now because you can’t merchandise the character that I was then. Vince wanted me to come into the company but wondered what they were going to call me. Chief Jay Strongbow, God rest his soul, said, ‘You know there hasn’t been a hillbilly wrestler in while.’ And he remembered Haystacks Calhoun and the old Kentuckians from way back in the 1950s and 1960s,” he said.
“Vince looked at me and said, ‘I like that – Hillbilly Jim.’ And that’s where it started. And then I told them where I thought I should come from and it all came together in a matter of maybe 10 or 15 minutes. And that’s where the journey began on that. Now, lots of times when you put these gimmicks on, you just throw them up against a wall like spaghetti and they don’t stick. This one was one that just hit immediately, as soon as we started to do stuff with it.”
The Hillbilly Jim character was not suddenly thrust upon wrestling fans as an in-ring performer. It is an interesting question to ponder whether the gimmick would have taken hold had it not been introduced slowly.
At first, the ‘hillbilly’ character was just an enthusiastic wrasslin’ fan called Big Jim who was appearing at various venues to cheer on the good guys, especially WWF heavyweight champion Hulk Hogan. He would be ‘spotted in the crowd’ by a camera operator and commentators such as Gorilla Monsoon, Bruno Sammartino and Lord Alfred Hayes would recognize the affable ‘fan’ was in attendance.
This happened over the latter part of 1984 until finally the enthusiastic ‘fan,’ now recognized throughout the country, could not contain himself when he saw his hero Hogan under duress. During a televised match, Hogan had come in to save a couple of jobbers who were being thumped post-match by Olympic strongman Ken Patera, Big John Studd and their manager Bobby (The Brain) Heenan. Hogan broke up the beat-down, but soon found himself being victimized by the dastardly heel trio. Suddenly, out of the crowd, the big burly hillbilly fan stepped over the barricade, jumped into the ring and began to – in the parlance of the day – clean house.
Hogan embraced his saviour and now friend, and vowed to train him, and over another couple of weeks, vignettes were shown of Hogan trying to prepare the man now dubbed Hillbilly Jim to become a professional wrestler. The character was a hit with fans because it seemed so real and authentic, and that’s because it generally was. As anyone from Stone Cold Steve Austin to The Rock will tell you, the best gimmicks are ones that simply amplify and accentuate traits that you already have. For Morris, being a friendly, affable, down-home, approachable hillbilly was not a huge stretch.
“It was no stretch for me to do the Hillbilly Jim character,” he said. “It was easy for me, I didn’t have to change a lot. A lot of guys had characters that they got so caught up in that they couldn’t leave them behind either, but because mine was so much like what I was really like, I could check my character at the door when I came home. Sometimes when you go home people know you and you want to kind of stay in character, but you can’t do that. It’s not healthy. Especially if its something that’s really far out there, it’s hard to do that. You have to be able to compartmentalize it. And for me it was no problem at all,” he explained.
“The whole Hillbilly Jim thing was that he was approachable, which is the way I pretty much am anyways. My whole deal has been and always is, come to me, come be a part of it. I always ask how are you doing? That’s why I never refuse an autograph, that’s why I never refuse to take a picture with somebody. I always lived like this and this is just the way I am. I was able to connect with people naturally and the way the character acted around people, made that connection easy. In this business, if the people don’t like you and don’t connect with you, you’re done.”
On Jan. 26, 1985, he had his first televised match against veteran jobber Terry Gibbs. Accompanied to the ring by Hogan, to the strains of Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger (which Hogan used as his theme song for a couple of years before replacing it with Real American) and to a thunderous response, Hillbilly Jim won his first match, and soon became a significant draw on the live circuit, generally as a babyface upper mid-carder, who would get some choice opportunities at the tops of some shows, especially if he were working a program alongside Hogan or Andre the Giant.
Both the slow build, and the ‘rub’ from Hogan were instrumental, alongside with Morris’ ability to create and inhabit such a beloved character, in contributing significantly to Hillbilly Jim’s success and his status as a WWE legend – and now Hall of Famer.
“They took their time introducing me – they cooked it, as we called it. There’s a little saying I like; the longer you boil the pot, the hotter it gets, right. So, they cooked me for a few months and had me in all kinds of different places and all sorts of different cities in the crowd. It might have been Brantford, Ontario, one night, or London, Ontario, or it may have been Madison Square Garden or the Philadelphia Spectrum and up in Poughkeepsie, where we did the TV tapings at the time. They began to put the camera on me more and more and then Gorilla Monsoon might say, ‘Look at that good ole boy there, he seems to be really enjoying himself.’ And Lord Alfred Hayes would say, ‘He seems to be a very big man himself and seems to have having as good a time as anyone,’ you know in that English accent of his. So when I hit the ring, it was something that had been bubbling, that fans had been thinking about and anticipated a little bit, so when it finally happened, it just delivered,” Morris said, adding that modern wrestling fans may not truly understand how big a star Hulk Hogan was at the time, and what being closely associated with him meant to your career as a wrestler.
“You have to understand, Hogan was the biggest star in the world. He was like Elvis and when you get brushed up against Elvis and he gives you the thumbs up, everyone else is going to see that, wow that’s a friend of Elvis and if Elvis likes him, he must be something special. So that was the real seal of approval. And I know Hogan did like me and the character, but he was also looking on it from the business level too. He really wanted other people to come up and get over, especially another babyface, because the load that he was carrying was just so much. We needed more people to fill up the cards and balance the cards, because Hulk Hogan could not be everywhere at once.
“In those days, the WWF had three shows touring North America at the same time. There would be an east coast show, a middle of the country show and a West Coast show, and every one of them was selling out, because we had superstars that people wanted to see. If it wasn’t a show with Hogan on it, it would have Roddy Piper and Jimmy Snuka, or Paul Orndorf, Big John Studd, King Kong Bundy and Bobby Heenan and Hillbilly Jim.”
At this point in time, the mid-1980s, house shows, and live events were the bread and butter of the industry, only augmented by cable TV shows and the rare closed-circuit event, such as the first Wrestlemania, which happened a couple of months into Morris’ tenure with the WWE. That meant an incredible workload on the part of the wrestlers, who easily put in more than 300 nights a year.
“You’ve got to understand the dynamics and the workload was completely different than it is today, my friend,” he said. “For instance, there was one time when yours truly here wrestled 63 straight nights in a row in different towns all over North America. And I flew 53 of those 63 days. It’s not even possible to do that now, because the way airlines are now, and because they focus more on the TV shows and pay per views,” he said.
Hillbilly Jim was one of those rare characters that did not need titles to garner acclaim and popularity. He participated in a handful of WrestleManias and was in the ring with every big name of his era, many of whom are already enshrined in the WWE Hall of Fame.
His popularity with fans, as well as the respect he had earned from his fellow wrestlers and the higher ups within the WWE ensured Morris would be affiliated with the company for years to come. After retiring from the ring in 1991, he would pop up from time to time as a guest referee, or a commentator on WWE television programs. In the mid-1990s, he began serving as the manager for the hillbilly tag team of Henry O. and Phineas Godwin before they turned heel in 1997. He also participated in the Gimmick Battle Royal at WrestleMania X7 in 2001. Morris also spent time working in sales and public relations for the then WWF home video arm, Coliseum Video until 2001. He has also been asked to be the host of several WrestleMania Fan Axxess events across North America and has been invited to participate in events around WrestleMania, right up until the present year.
Since 2005, Morris has been the popular host of a Sirius XM satellite radio show called Hillbilly Jim’s Moonshine Matinee on the Outlaw Country channel 60 where he plays classic country music and southern rock, interspersed with stories of his wrestling days.
“I enjoy talking on the radio,” Morris said. “I have developed a little bit of a talent for it, I guess. But I honestly didn’t think it was going to last at all, and now I am looking down the barrel of 13 years being at it. I love connecting with the people. I do the Hillbilly Jim thing, and I play a little bit of everything, get to tell stories and interact with the fans. It’s just another blessing that has come my way, all thanks to the fans who supported Hillbilly Jim all those years ago,” he said.
Throughout the conversation, you could hear Morris enjoying bringing up names and matches from more than 30 years ago. He mentioned that his favourite travelling companions on the road were the likes of George (The Animal) Steele, Jumpin’ Jim Brunzell and his Killer Bees tag team partner, B. Brian Blair, as well as Tito Santana.
“One of the reasons I am being put in the hall of fame might be that I never had any problems with any of the guys in the dressing room. I got along well with everybody. I never started any stuff and I never did the political part either. I wasn’t going to do that. Now as far as working with different guys, probably the best big man I ever worked with was Akeem the Dream, who was also called One Man Gang, George Gray. I loved working with Kamala the Ugandan Giant, he was lovely as far as being a big guy in the ring. I wrestled with Andre and against Andre, and the same with Big John Studd. I also wrestled with King Kong Bundy a lot,” Morris said.
“Some of the best technicians in the ring were guys like Harley Race, Macho Man Randy Savage was great, and Cowboy Bob Orton was wonderful to wrestle with. The Magnificent Don Muraco was also great too. It’s funny, all of these things I haven’t thought about in years until really you just asked me the question.”
So, what about stiff wrestlers! Morris said there were a few, but that if you knew that already, you just prepared for it and let the match unfold as it would.
“One of the guys who made everybody cringe working with, but who I actually liked working with because I knew what to expect and I knew what to do, was another Canadian guy, Iron Mike Sharpe. I love Mike Sharpe, he was a great guy, but he would be real stiff and would lay in those punches and kicks on you pretty good, so you had to watch him,” he said.
“There were a few guys who were stiff, but didn’t know that they were stiff, just because they were so big and strong. King Kong Bundy was a big man, about 440 pounds, but he had an amazingly quick first step. He could have been a great NFL lineman. He could really club you pretty good too, but if I knew I was working with a stiff guy like Bundy I would just kind of set my mind to it that I was going to take a thumpin’. A lot of guys would really complain about it, but I would never complain. It was just part of the business.”
As for career highlights, besides the chance to be on the road, wrestle and befriend legends such as Andre, Hogan, Sammartino, Santana and Superstar Billy Graham, working his first Madison Square Garden show, and working WrestleMania 3 at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan top the list.
“I am looking forward to getting to that place where I am at peace finally with this business. Not that I wasn’t but I really want to soak in this moment, this is the biggest honour this business can give me, and this is as far as you can go. It’s like if you’re in the NHL and being in the Hockey Hall of Fame, or Cooperstown or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It can’t get no higher that this, and I just want to enjoy it,” he said.
“And listen, say hi to all my buddies and friends in Canada. Let them know that I am not just going in — we’re going in. because if any of them liked what I was doing, they’re a part of this too, because if it wasn’t for the fans, there was no me.”
The 2018 WWE Hall of Fame ceremony takes place on Friday, April 6 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, starting at 8 p.m. It will stream live on the WWE Network and the USA Network will rebroadcast it on Saturday, April 7 at 10 p.m., and Monday April 9 at 11 p.m. following Raw.
- Jim Barber is a veteran journalist and lifelong wrestling fan, currently based in Napanee, Ontario.