As previously mentioned, the oil & gas industry is big along the Gulf coast. So is fishing. So is farming--and we have other crops besides cotton.
I find it interesting that someone from Illinois would be studying the South, that's good! I'm originally from Virginia, went to college in Indiana, and live in Texas. I sure had a lot of misconceptions about Texas before I moved here. We aren't hillbillies, we're rednecks--and we don't consider the term derogatory.
If you have any questions, I'll be glad to help!