Is viral sensation Oliver Anthony too good to be true? Too “right” to be true? Or an authentic working class hero, which is something to be?
Since the Virginia native’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” song began taking off from out of nowhere earlier this month, the Appalachian country-folk singer has been acclaimed by freshly minted fans as a phenomenon of the people and accused by detractors of harboring ugly right-wing attitudes or suspected of being an “industry plant.”
The suspicions of progressive music fans have largely to do with the fast numbers he’s racked up as an independent artist with supposedly no industry backing whatsoever. The “Rich Men” video (hosted not on his own YouTube page, but that of a site that promises “real music, real people, real cuture” [sic]) has racked up 27 million views in 11 days. The red-bearded upstart has accumulated 341,000 Twitter/X followers within days of registering on the site. On the iTunes downloads chart, he has the top three songs as of this writing, and five of the top 10. And while paid downloads are hardly a solid measure of broad success nowadays, Anthony’s breakout tune has cracked the top 10 on a much more indicative one, Spotify’s daily USA Top 50.
It’s a phenomenon not unlike the recent rise of Jason Aldean’s similarly right-rousing “Try That in a Small Town,” but with a literally friendlier face. His critics maintain he is punching down as well as up, with the song’s lyrics about “the obese milkin’ welfare” (“Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds / Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds”) as well as the supposed fat cats in Washington, D.C. that are ostensibly the main target of the tune.
What’s known about Anthony, who has a minimal news or paper trail up to this point, comes largely through a YouTube monologue he put up a few days before releasing “Rich Men.” In that speech, he declares himself nonpartisan: “I sit pretty dead center down the aisle on politics and, always have,” Anthony says, facing the camera from behind the wheel. “I remember as a kid the conservatives wanting war, and me not understanding that. And I remember a lot of the controversies when the left took office, and it seems like, you know, both sides serve the same master. And that master is not someone of any good to the people of this country.”
But if an artist is known by the fans they keep, the highest-profile fans Anthony has quickly accumulated are very much on the right side of the aisle -- insta-supporters like former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, firebrand commentator Matt Walsh, former Mumford & Sons banjoist-turned-political gadfly Winston Marshall and far-right country figure John Rich, who said he has had long conversations with Anthony and offered to produce and finance a full album. If Anthony wants to prove the centrism he professes by picking up some less partisan public figures as fans, he may have his work cut out for him, given the way he’s instantly been embraced as a hero to the right.
Whether Anthony really is an ideologue in good old boy’s clothing remains to be seen. He has several other songs up on YouTube or TikTok, and he refers to pot a lot more than he does politics. (Sample lyrics: “Ain’t gotta dollar / And when the sun goes down / On this itty bitty town / We can light up a bowl n’ pass it around.” And: “Well the liquor and the bowl / They’vе been saving my soul / From the pain that the world’s put on me.”)
When he does stick with social issues, he doesn’t seem like a political scientist, exactly: The only three “issues” he addresses in his plaints against politicians are high taxes, welfare queens and child trafficking. His focus on the latter, which is the sole topic he addresses in his YouTube monologue, has led to the suspicion that he may harbor or represent QAnon views, since that is a key bugaboo of that movement, although he has been limited in how conspiratorial he has publicly gotten. “I wish politicians would look out for miners / And not just minors on an island somewhere,” he sings, a slightly confusing couplet that seems to indicate belief in a government cover-up having to do with Jeffrey Epstein.
And yet non-fans may have to admit that, in the brief glimpses of him in public so far Anthony has a less belligerent, more conciliatory-seeming persona than that of, say, the perpetually glowering Aldean. This past week, in playing what was said to be his first public gig ever, at a farmer’s market, he promised to pose with each one of the thousands that showed up.
Yet there’s a sense of righteousness in his undertones that may extend beyond his judgment of obese women. At his public gig, he opened the show by reading a lengthy biblical passage from Psalm 37. His recitation ended with the words “But the wicked will perish. Though the Lord’s enemies are like the flowers of the field, they will be consumed, and they will go up in smoke.” With that promise, he closed the good book, and the crowd erupted in enormous cheers -- whether for the promise of the damnation of enemies, or just the promise of the music starting up, it was hard to tell.
It almost seems as if, if Oliver Anthony hadn’t come along, someone would have had to invent him. And some progressives suspect he is an invention of behind-the-scenes forces, though there’s little evidence so far that he is not who he says he is: a factory worker turned farmer with a not-obscenely-expensive resonator guitar without a ton of industry connections waiting in the wings. (“Oliver Anthony” is a nom de plume; still, nothing that turns up under his real name suggests that he was actually financed by a PAC or major label or doesn’t really know what a deer blind is.) Web sleuths may or may not make headway in proving that “astroturfing” accounts for his success, but it’s not hard to grasp the niche he fills, or that the guy who filled it might’ve come up organically.
Conservative commentator David Harris wrote a series of tweets in late July that was widely disseminated and ridiculed by country music progressives, in which he lamented the fact that most of the best singer-songwriters in roots-based music from Texas or the South were progressives -- or, in his terminology, “hick-libs.” “Several years ago I was shocked when I heard that a Texas country singer whose music I really enjoyed was a Beto O’Rourke-supporter (Ryan Bingham). For the life of me, I couldn’t understand how someone associated with rural West Texas could be on the left,” he wrote. Harris went on to express his cognitive dissonance over how artists like Kacey Musgraves, Jason Isbell and Tyler Childers held liberal views. Childers, especially, has been a controversial figure in recent weeks for a song and video about gay relationships.
With Anthony becoming a phenom, Harris followed up and wrote that he felt “vindicated” -- as may many on the right who jumped off, say, the Childers bandwagon and now feel they have one of their own to embrace in ideology as well as sound.
To progressives, though, having an apparently conservative version of Tyler Childers at last may feel a little like Tim Robbins’ satirical “Bob Roberts” character -- a fictional right-wing politician who adopted the folkie language of the left to spread fascism, in an “SNL” sketch-turned-feature-film.
But for others who consider the demographics of where Anthony comes from, region-wise if not so much subgenre-wise, it’s not so startling to hear Appalachian music that takes a rightward view. And country music is the genre that once brought the world an anti-welfare song called “Welfare Cadillac.”
Winston Marshall, the banjoist who became estranged from and eventually quit Mumford & Sons because of his right-leaning views, wrote a commentary for the American Spectator that directly connected Woody Guthrie to Anthony. “Honest and considered coverage by cultural critics could have drawn a line from Oliver Anthony back to Bruce, Bob, Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, to Steinbeck and Twain. They could have picked up on the timeless presence of the young singer, whose lyrics have as much gravel and grit as his voice, or his charm and innocence as he thumbs his way through social media that jars with a Blue Ridge Mountain life otherwise unmarked by modernity.” Instead, he said, publications like Rolling Stone were diminishing Anthony by making his audience look exclusively right-wing, much the same as he said the magazine had done with the “Sound of Freedom” film.
“A truly countercultural publication would have weighed the merits of fairly covering a movie about the sexual exploitation of children, two million of whom are being trafficked. Not Rolling Stone,” wrote the plucker-politico. “For ‘Sound of Freedom’ as with Oliver Anthony, Rolling Stone has made noticeable editorial decisions that would be deeply worrying if it was still a relevant magazine. Instead of having the courage to offer its own cultural critiques, it instead looked at who was enjoying the art --and denigrated it accordingly.”
Whatever point Marshall may have, it’s hard to escape the irony: a conservative commentator who loves a new artist is attacking a magazine for pointing out that the artist he loves is especially beloved by conservative commentators. It may not be the last irony that comes to the fore with the rise of Oliver Anthony.
Meanwhile, proving that conservatism itself is no monolith, the National Review published a commentary knocking the complaining tone of “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Writer Mark Antonio Wright quoted some of Anthony’s lyrics -- “I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day / Overtime hours for bullshit pay / So I can sit out here and waste my life away / Drag back home and drown my troubles away” -- and concluding: “My brother in Christ, you live in the United States of America in 2023 -- if you’re a fit, able-bodied man, and you’re working ‘overtime hours for bullshit pay, you need to find a new job. There’s plenty of them out there -- jobs that don’t require a college degree, that offer good pay (especially in this tight labor market) and great benefits, especially if you’re willing to get your hands dirty by doing things like joining the Navy, turning wrenches, fixing pumps, laying pipe, or a hundred other jobs through which American men can still make a great living. If you’re the type of guy who’s willing to show up on time, every time, work hard while you’re on the clock, and learn hard skills -- there’s a good-paying job out there for you. Go find it. I wish Oliver Anthony the best, and I’ll give his next single a listen, but he should consider singing about what makes America a great land -- a land of opportunity, not of guaranteed success.”
But that p.o.v. may get little traction among those on the right when Anthony has Marjorie Taylor Greene describing the song as “the anthem of the forgotten Americans who truly support this nation and unfortunately the world with their hard earned tax dollars and incredibly hard work. This song represents my district and the people of America I know and love.” Or Matt Walsh calling the track “the protest song of our generation.”
Amid all the reams of love and hate Anthony has attracted on social media, there were a handful attempting to take more nuanced views, like the band American Aquarium. “On first listen, I liked the first verse and chorus a lot,” the group tweeted. “‘Old soul in a new world’ is a great line. It echoed what a lot of folks, left and right, are feeling right now. Just couldn’t get behind the fatphobia and ‘welfare queen’ trope though. Just seems pointed and forced. As a songwriter, I don’t think you get to complain about being kicked while you are down one line after you kick others while they are down. Again, just my opinion. What the fuck do I know? It obviously resonates with a ton of folks, just not me. Listen to what makes you happy.”
American Aquarium continued: “To the writer, I’ll give him the same advice I give every young writer. Stay true to you and be careful how much of yourself you put up for sale, because you can’t get it back. If you just want a few years of success, sell it all and sell it high. If you want a career, don’t sell a thing and if you absolute must sell something, be sure you are the majority stockholder in your future. Interested to see how this one plays out. Side note: his ‘Virginia’ song rules.”
Time will shortly tell whether Anthony (who so far has not responded to press requests for interviews) embraces the right back, the way it has embraced him, and concludes that rich women north of Richmond like Taylor Greene aren’t so terrible after all. Conversely, he could ditch the welfare and child-trafficking stuff, make good on his professed centrism and try to establish apolitical bona fides as a truly populist maverick. Facing these choices, it may come down to whether he’ll be happy to have John Rich’s career, or has Zach Bryan’s in his sights. Or which psalm he turns to next.