An Appalachian lightning rod in America’s culture wars
Oliver Anthony has become a lightning rod in the American culture wars — not likely something he intended when he recorded a simple tune in the woods on his resonator guitar.
In the space of just a week, “Rich Men North of Richmond” has propelled Anthony from an anonymous factory worker to the hottest thing in country music, if the charts are to be believed.
His song has been viewed tens of thousands of times on social media, sits at No. 3 on Spotify’s daily USA Top 50, and is still enjoying the top spot on iTunes a week after its release. It may even debut at No 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 next week.
Hailing from Farmville in central Virginia, where he lives on 90 acres with his three dogs, Anthony began song writing several years ago, during a dark period of his life when he — in his own words — “wasted a lot of nights getting high and getting drunk”.
A local YouTube channel that promotes homegrown Appalachian music caught wind of Anthony’s tunes and offered to record one on video.
Later, a southern culture enthusiast by the name of Chase Steely shared the track on Twitter, which soon got the attention of podcaster Joe Rogan, country star John Rich, conservative commentator Matt Walsh, and others.
Now half the country, it seems, has Anthony’s refrain stuck in their heads:
Livin’ in the new world
With an old soul
These rich men north of Richmond
Lord knows they all just wanna have total control
Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do
And they don’t think you know, but I know that you do
‘Cause your dollar ain’t sh*t and it’s taxed to no end
‘Cause of rich men north of Richmond
Join our community of truth-tellers
Get the latest updates delivered right to your inbox
One doesn’t need to dissect the lyrics to see why Oliver Anthony is enjoying an extended 15 minutes of fame. He has a raw and authentic voice, and a natural feel for America’s vernacular genre. With his dog and big beard and camping chair, Anthony is far more ‘country’ than the now-commercialised country music scene, with its obligatory cowboy boots, flannels and leather.
Even so, it is the lyrics of “Rich Men North of Richmond” that has everyone talking.
No sooner had conservatives begun sharing the song and singing its praise than corporate newsrooms had their junior journalists taking pot-shots.
‘Right-Wing Influencers Just Found Their Favorite New Country Song’, scoffed the Rolling Stone.
“Rich Men North of Richmond punches down. No surprise the right wing loves it,’ The Guardian moaned.
‘Do Republican anthems have to be as terrible as 'Rich Men North of Richmond’?’ taunted the Independent.
The hit pieces keep coming — evidence, perhaps, that Anthony has struck a sore nerve, or even desecrated a sacred cow.
Though he decries the fat cats in D.C. for their love of money and power, Anthony’s themes go beyond populism. In fact, he has something to offend everyone.
Progressives are irate at his criticism of “the obese milking welfare”.
Libertarians would hardly relate to his complaints about low wages.
Establishment types label him ‘QAnon’ for his veiled reference to Jeffrey Epstein.
The woke are upset that he’s mourning for men instead of minorities.
Meanwhile, “folks in the street [who] ain’t got nothin’ to eat” and America’s mental health crisis are hardly traditional conservative concerns.
What many have missed is that Oliver Anthony describes himself as “dead centre” politically. He complains that both Republicans and Democrats “serve the same master”.
In short, the political message in his song is hardly cohesive, but it resonates.
As commentator Michael Knowles notes, ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ is “a stew of lamenting about the political order” — an “anthem of a crippled America”.
Like any good music, it expresses something that millions of people feel but don’t have the words for.
It’s also just a really good song that’s worth hearing.
Ben Terangi is a freelance journalist writing from Milwaukee.
Image credits: cartoon by Brian Doyle
Have your say!
Join Mercator and post your comments.