The chart-topping US country song causing political debate – DW – 08/26/2023

The song by until recently unknown country singer-songwriter Oliver Anthony became a virtual smash hit overnight. Anthony’s track “Rich Men North of Richmond” has overtaken megastars Taylor Swift, Morgan Wallen and Olivia Rodrigo in the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart ranking. Such an entry onto the charts is unprecedented, music magazine Billboard said.

Billboard noted that Anthony, a self-proclaimed farmer from rural Virginia, has become the first artist ever to launch atop the list “with no prior chart history in any form.”

According to Billboard, the song was streamed more than 17.5 million times and downloaded 147,000 times in less than a week after being released on YouTube on August 8. It also soared to the top of Apple’s country chart.

As of Wednesday, August 23, it has been viewed over 34 million times on the RADIOWV YouTube channel featuring his song.

The twangy ditty, which could be interpreted as a working-class anthem, has hit a nerve among the disenfranchised in the United States, with Anthony singing: “I’ve been selling my soul, working all day, over-time hours for bullshit pay, so I can sit out here and waste my life away.”

Part of the appeal of song is that some of the lyrics seem so universal: “It’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to, for people like me, for people like you, wish I could just wake up and it not be true.”

Red-haired and bearded Oliver Anthony smiling and playing guitar.
Anthony calls himself ‘an idiot with a guitar,’ but says he wrote his music because he was suffering from depressionImage: Kendall Warner/The Virginian-Pilot/AP/picture alliance

Politics or not?

While the United States is gearing up for what is likely to be another unsavory long-haul of political maneuvering before the presidential election in November 2024, Anthony has grabbed the hearts of millions by cutting to the chase about his view of the political and economic elite: “These rich men north of Richmond…they all just wanna have total control, wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do…”

Yet Anthony takes digs at some of the other downtrodden in the US: “Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothing to eat, And the obese milkin’ welfare…Taxes ought not to pay, for your bags of fudge rounds.”

It invokes the widespread notion in the US that people receiving state financial assistance are merely feeding off the system.

But the song’s title and lyrics also give voice to the common argument that Americans in the South, and many in poor rural areas, have been left behind by those in power.

Back of man wearing green t-shirt that says "In Oliver We Trust."
Oliver Anthony’s fans have placed their faith in himImage: Kendall Warner/The Virginian-Pilot/AP/picture alliance

Just a guy with a guitar and his dogs

The Richmond in “Rich Men North of Richmond” refers to the capital city of the southeastern US state of Virginia, where Anthony resides. It is also just a few hours’ drive south of the US capital and political hub, Washington, DC.

According to the RADIOWV YouTube channel featuring Anthony’s songs, he lives in the aptly named small town of Farmville, “with his 3 dogs and a plot of land he plans on turning into a small farm to raise livestock.” Indeed, in the “Rich Men of Richmond” video, he can be seen singing outdoors in a wooded area, with a hunting hut up in a tree in the background and a camping stool to the side.

He cites Hank Williams Jr. as his biggest musical influence. RADIOWV wrote on YouTube that: “Oliver wants to give hope to the working class and your average hard working young man who may have lost hope in the grind of trying to get by.”

Crowd outside at concert, holding up smartphones.
Anthony has plenty of fans posting his songs on social media, like at this August 19, 2023 concert in North CarolinaImage: Kendall Warner/The Virginian-Pilot/AP/picture alliance

Politicians seize the day

In the loaded political climate in the US, some politicians have seized on Anthony’s perceived message.

Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, from the southern state of Georgia and who has a history of supporting far-right conspiracy theories, said on the platform X (formerly known as Twitter) that Anthony’s song is one “that Washington DC needs to hear.”

Yet Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of the northeastern state of Connecticut also said that left-leaners should heed Anthony’s call, writing on the same social media platform that “progressives should listen to this,” adding that the track “shows the path of realignment. Anthony sings about the soullessness of work, shit wages and the power of the elites. All problems the left has better solutions to than the right.”

Anthony himself has called his political views “pretty dead center.”

At a concert he played in North Carolina on Saturday, August 19, he told Fox News: “I don’t see our country lasting another generation the way we are headed. We got to go back to the roots of what made this country great in the first place.”

Anthony claims he doesn’t like the spotlight

The country singer and former factory worker, whose real name is Christopher Anthony Lunsford, adopted his grandfather’s name “Oliver Anthony” as his stage name. He has been writing music since 2021. 

But, despite his huge popularity at the moment, he says he’s in no hurry to sign a record deal: “People in the music industry give me blank stares when I brush off 8 million dollar offers,” he wrote on Facebook, saying he didn’t want to go on large tours.

“I don’t want to be in the spotlight. I wrote the music I wrote because I was suffering with mental health and depression. These songs have connected with millions of people on such a deep level because they’re being sung by someone feeling the words in the very moment they were being sung. No editing, no agent, no bullshit. Just some idiot and his guitar,” he said on his August 17 Facebook post.

Still, Anthony has already inspired other musicians. Across the pond, British punk-turned-folk-singer and labor rights activist Billy Bragg released on August 21 on YouTube his own response to Anthony’s “Rich Men” track.

The Guardian reported on Bragg’s video introduction to his “corrective” response song to Anthony, in which he says that he felt “the ghost of [late US folk artist] Woody Guthrie whispering in my ear. ‘Help that guy out,’ Woody keeps telling me. ‘Let him know there’s a way to deal with those problems he’s singing about.'”

Rather than taking punches at “overweight welfare cheats,” for instance, Bragg’s “Rich Men Earning North of a Million” urges people to channel populist rage toward more deserving targets. “We ain’t gonna punch down on those who need a bit of understanding and some solidarity — that ain’t right, friend,” Bragg sings.

And rather than remaining merely outraged, he suggests joining a union as a productive form of protest.

Edited by: Brenda Haas


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