Long Parties Taste The Best
Redneck Express BBQ Team continues its 35-year tradition of beer, broads and barbecue
story by Doug Gillon photos by Lisa Chapman
n 1976, Woody Coleman went to give his noisy neighbor a piece of his mind. A boisterous party at the Hickory Ridge Apartments was interrupting some alone time with his then-girlfriend. But instead of telling him off, Coleman joined the fun.
The neighbor and apartment complex manager in question was Pete Gross, and that failed noise complaint eventually spawned the longest-tenured team, and by their account, longest-running party at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
It’s the Bar-B-Q Redneck Express. Named after the then-new Federal Express and boasting a roster that has consisted of more than 90 members in its 35-year existence, the focus of the Redneck Express remains unchanged from that first party in ’76: Have a blast.
The team’s popularity inspired their decision to enter the first contest in whole hog in 1978. “More food for people to eat and more cook time for a longer party,” Coleman says. It inspired a list of other ‘firsts’ the team claims: first to have stickers, first to have a band, first to have T-shirts, first (and only) to have a billboard and first to party on Tuesday.
The team’s dedication is popular but comes with its share of disapproval. “The first winner in ’78 was a little lady named Bessie,” Coleman remembers. “She set up with a little K-Mart cooker, a lawn chair and a gallon of iced tea. And she would just keep looking at us and shaking her head.” Coleman mimics the shaking and it is not vertical. But the Rednecks aren’t seeking approval — they seek fun, by almost any means necessary. It’s landed them it hot water a number of times. The stickers and bands have been outlawed, and the team almost got themselves banned one year for tossing empty beer cans at the judges’ stand.
“We’ve been on secret probation lots of years,” says current president and fourth-year redneck Mark Kingsley. “One year, I think we were even on double-secret probation.” The Animal House reference draws a raucous laugh from the rest of the group. Controversy just adds to the party for these guys.
And the party is popular. Coleman, Kingsley and vice-president Sean Kline note that by Saturday, they maybe only know half the people in their tent. But the more, the merrier seems to be the motto for the Rednecks. “There’s a little guy from England that always stops by the booth,” Coleman says. “He’s been coming for years and he always says the same thing.” Coleman attempts to quote the foreign visitor in an accent that’s more Savannah than Sussex, and the laughs start again.
While the party is pretty open, the team is not. Kingsley is the son-in-law of Gross, one of the co-founders. He waited in line 15 years to be offered a spot. “That probably had to do with him taking the blood oath,” Coleman jokes. “We value two things: fun and hard work,” Coleman says. “Some people want to be able to pay and show up on Saturday and eat and that’s it. But that’s not the Rednecks.”
No it is not.
The team considers set up, break down, trash duty, and all the arguments that come along with them as much a part of the party as the eating, drinking and troublemaking. “We pay to work our asses off,” Kingsley says with pride. And they do pay.
The Rednecks’ estimated budget for this year is about $12,000, which requires about $600 from each of their 19 current members. The decision to keep that money coming from their pockets was deliberate. “When the casinos were first coming to Tunica we talked about sponsorship,” Coleman says. “We thought ‘let’s ask for $1,000.’ Then we thought ‘well, they might pay that.’ Then we thought $5,000, then $50,000, and we thought, ‘well they might even pay that.’” In the face of all that imagined sponsorship money, the Rednecks voted no. Because it’s never been about the money, it’s always been about the party. At the first contest, Coleman was able to recoup most of the team’s entry fee by selling extra T-shirts. He was so good at it that Memphis in May asked him to coordinate some of their merchandise. Coleman turned them down because “that sounded like work.”
Members must attend monthly meetings, but aren’t kicked out if they don’t (in fact, non-attendance is the fastest way to become head cook, according to the team). Women aren’t allowed to be official team members, but are considered “essential” to the weekend’s success. Arguments are heated and common, but always end with a shared beer.
That contradictory stream is the lifeblood of the Rednecks. Kingsley waxes philosophically about it. “It’s a state of mind, being a redneck. It’s about having the best time you can and making good food for your friends.”
There is one thing that does not contradict with this team: dedication. Dedication kept them in the contest for this long. Dedication brought Coleman back to the tent while his wife was in labor. Dedication brings Coleman’s wife back to the contest every year despite suffering a stroke in 2003. Dedication made Kingsley work through a four-ligament injury in his foot last year. Dedication got Cline through his first three years on the team handling garbage duty without complaint.
And that is not going to change. Coleman, only 58, wants the party to go on forever. To ensure that, he and Gross stepped back from active leadership to let younger members run the team. They aren’t going anywhere, though. “Even when I’m old and can barely move, I want these boys to wheel me out there, bring me some beer and some barbecue and change my diaper,” Coleman says. Kingsley and Cline shake their heads. This time the movement is vertical.
“We’ll bring him the beers and barbecue for sure,” Kingsley says. “About the diaper though, well, we’ll tell him we changed it.”