One of a very small list of pro wrestlers about whom no one has a bad word to say, Hillbilly Jim has spent close to 40 years as a wrestler, manager, TV host and ambassador in a sport he more fell into rather than actively pursued. Born Jim Morris of Scottsville, Kentucky, he was an athlete from an early age, playing basketball at an All-state level in high school. So good was he for Bowling Green High he received scholarship offers from several colleges. Unfortunately, according to Jim, he was more interested in playing basketball than he was in attending classes. After spending time in five different universities, Jim made his way to Belgium to play pro basketball in the Euro League.
He returned to the States for a tryout with the Philadelphia 76ers in the late-’70s, but after that didn’t pan out, Jim headed back to Kentucky and began training at Western Kentucky University for a run at professional bodybuilding. “I’m forever grateful to WKU for affording me even though I never enrolled one semester,” Morris said. “They would let me come up to Smith Stadium and work out with so many great WKU athletes.” The 6’7” Morris began to pack on a lot of muscle, swelling to 320 pounds, even catching the eye of then Western Kentucky head basketball coach (and future Purdue Boilermaker legend) Gene Keady. “All the WKU coaches loved me,” said Morris. “I even had the great Gene Keady approach me one time about helping some of his skinny and weak boys train.”
Friends would joke with Jim about getting into professional wrestling, but after he began watching Georgia Championship Wrestling, the idea didn’t seem so far-fetched. “When cable TV came out, I started watching Georgia Championship Wrestling,” Morris said. “It blew my mind because they had these wrestlers that looked like guys from the gym. Most of the wrestlers we used to see looked like big fat guys with their shirts off, but these guys didn’t look like that.” Jim has credited both Paul Orndorff and Butch Reed as guys he admired prior to working his way into the sport of professional wrestling.
One night Jim and some friends were at the local movie theater when he bumped into Dale Mann, a local wrestler and promoter. Mann’s son had seen Jim working out at WKU and had relayed Jim’s interest in professional wrestling to his father. Mann agreed to train Jim, breaking him into the business, then sending him to Calgary to work for Stu Hart. Wrestling as Big Jim, an oil rigger, Morris worked a few months in Canada, travelling across Hart’s vast territory and gaining important experience. After his mother fell ill, Jim returned home to Kentucky to look after her, a decision which ultimately opened his next door in pro wrestling.
While back in Kentucky, Jerry Jarrett got in touch with Jim about coming to work for him in Memphis. He and Jerry “The King” Lawler had an idea for a big, rough house babyface tag team and thought Jim would be a good fit. He was given the gimmick of a biker who went by the name Harley Davidson and teamed up with Roger Smith (aka “Dirty Rose”) to comprise a formidable duo. The run was short-lived, however, as Smith got sideways with Jerry Jarrett and left the promotion. Feeling a sense of loyalty to his tag team partner, Jim left with him, heading back to Calgary for another short run for Stu Hart.
Back in Kentucky, Jim went to Nashville, Tennessee with fellow wrestler “Beautiful” Bruce Swayze to watch the WWF show that was in town. Swayze introduced Jim to several people in the locker room including Pat Patterson, who took an instant liking to Jim and wanted to see him work. Jim borrowed gear from Jimmy Snuka and his former tag team partner Roger Smith (who was working the undercard) and wrestled a preliminary match that night. Patterson told him to go home and get his gear and meet him in Memphis to work another preliminary match at WWF’s next show. After his second match, Pat told him to head back home and wait on a phone call.
A month later, Howard Finkel called Jim and flew him to New Haven, Connecticut by way of New York to wrestle a match in front of Vince McMahon. That night in the locker room after his match, Jim sat around with George Scott, Chief Jay Strongbow and Vince McMahon and watched as the three men talked over his gimmick.
“Chief Jay Strongbow told Vince that there hadn’t been a hillbilly in the business for a long time,” Morris said. “Vince asked me where they could say I was from, and I came up with Mud Lick, Kentucky. Vince said, ‘That’s great, Hillbilly Jim from Mud Lick, Kentucky,’ and that’s exactly how it began.” Just like that, Hillbilly Jim was born.
Let Me Ride
Initially appearing as a fan in the front row of shows, Jim finally made his official debut in ‘84 after he jumped the barricade around the ring to save Hulk Hogan from getting his hair cut by Bobby Heenan, Ken Patera, King Kong Bundy and Big John Studd. The association with Hogan made Hillbilly Jim and instant fan favorite. “That angle grew and grew each week as we watched Superstars of Wrestling,” said legendary ring announcer “Mean” Gene Okerlund. WWF capitalized by creating a series of vignettes in which Hogan was training Jim to become a wrestler. “Hulk Hogan was like Elvis in the wrestling business, so when they had him start acting like he was training me, it was over,” Morris said. “When people look at you you’ve got to have something to connect to them, and because I had that charisma the fans really loved me. I knew I wasn’t a hillbilly, but I became the best hillbilly that I could be.”
Jim began wrestling full-time for WWF in January of ‘85, including a win over Rene Goulet at The War To Settle The Score show. Less than a month later, however, Jim slipped chasing Johnny Valiant around the ring, injuring his knee. The injury would keep Hillbilly Jim out of the ring for six months and cost him his first WrestleMania match, but rather than sit around the house, Jim shifted gears and embraced a role as a manger for his hillbilly “family”, Uncle Elmer, Cousin Luke, and Cousin Junior. Playing off Jim’s charisma, the gimmick was extremely popular with fans and when Hillbilly made his return to in-ring competition, the fans were only too happy to welcome him back.
Jim responded by tagging with his fellow hillbillies or Andre the Giant and picking up big wins against King Kong Bundy and Big John Studd, before working a short series of house show matches against the Intercontinental Champion, “Macho Man” Randy Savage. He followed those up with a long series of Tuxedo Matches against the legendary Mr. Fuji, whom he defeated several times on his way to WrestleMania III and (arguably) the biggest moment of his career.
At WrestleMania III before 93,173 people, Hillbilly Jim teamed up with The Haiti Kid and Lord Little Beaver in a Mixed Tag Match against King Kong Bundy, Lord Littlebrook and Little Tokyo. Though Jim’s team picked up the win via disqualification, it came at an expensive price for his team after Bundy body slammed and dropped an elbow on the 4’4”, 60 pound Little Beaver.
The Mania match would prove to be the apex of Jim’s run in the WWF. By late-’87 through early ‘89, Jim settled into the role of a babyface used to help heels move the next rung up the ladder within WWF. He worked the house show loop, putting over a who’s who of wrestling heels, including Nikolai Volkoff, Hercules, Honkey Tonk Man, Dino Bravo, King Haku and Rick Rude. Throughout it all, Jim knew the WWF was where he was supposed to be, never showing any desire to go elsewhere.
It Ain’t Over Yet
His loyalty was repaid by Vince McMahon countless times over after Jim decided to step away from the ring in the Summer of ‘91. “I wasn’t real young when I got in the wrestling business, and I wanted to be done by the time I was 40,” Morris said. “I’d seen guys hang around too long and I didn’t want fans to say, ‘how old is Hillbilly Jim?’ I wasn’t going to embarrass myself, so after neck surgery I decided that I was done wrestling.” He was added to the panel of hosts on WWF’s Prime Time Wrestling show in ‘92 and was also tapped as a representative for Vince’s Coliseum Home Video (followed by Sony Video), a position he held for a dozen years.
He returned to ringside in December of ‘95 for a 14-month run as the manager of The Godwins. Though Jim never carried any championships during his in-ring career, he finally secured gold as a manager, helping The Godwins to the WWF Tag Team Titles. After the team turned heel, however, Jim stepped away from them, moving backstage and working as a road agent for several more years.
From ‘04-’08, Jim was the official WWE legend host of WrestleMania’s Axxess tour. His personality and positive attitude were perfect for the job and Axxess has been an extremely popular part of WrestleMania Weekend ever since.
In 2005, Sirius Satellite Radio gave Hillbilly Jim his own show called Moonshine Matinee. Still on the air today, Jim tells old stories, comments on the news of the day and plays a variety of classic country music and southern rock. “I knew when I began this thing that someday I’d have to end the in-ring stuff, and I was good with that,” Hillbilly said. “I moved on and reinvented myself in a lot of different ways, but I don’t have a Sirius XM Radio show because I’m Jim Morris. I have it because I’m Hillbilly Jim, and I never deny that.”
Though his in-ring career was relatively short in comparison to the rest of his run in the business, Hillbilly Jim made a mark on the sport that remains to this day. In 2018, the WWE honored Jim by inducting him into the company’s Hall of Fame. Regardless of the accolade, Jim has remained true to himself, saying, “This business doesn’t owe me anything because I’ve already had a Hall of Fame life,” Morris said. “I’ve already had my glory, so this induction is in my name, but I’m accepting it for my family, my friends and the fans. Nobody makes it by themselves, and this whole thing wouldn’t have happened for me without help from a lot of different people.”
Jim went on to say, “I don’t live in the past, but I’m thankful to God I had those wonderful memories. I’m more interested in what I’m going to do today, but I know I’m one lucky guy because I got to live my dream. My friend Wes Strader once said, ‘I got to do what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it and where I wanted to do it at.’ That’s a lot like my life, and it’s really a miracle.”