How Rich Men North of Richmond Became the Cry of Middle America
Early last week hardly anyone had heard of Oliver Anthony. Now he has four of the top ten songs on iTunes. Three of his songs are being downloaded more than hits by Jason Aldean and Taylor Swift. No one in the music industry has ever risen so dramatically to prominence without radio play, corporate connections, or even a music studio. An Appalachian music Youtube Channel posted one of Anthony’s songs “Rich Men North of Richmond” a few days ago. People on social media picked it up, and the rest is history. So how did this happen and why are people so hungry for Anthony’s music?
The short answer is that decent, ordinary people in middle America who enjoy things like Country music and who respect the Bible have almost no one in Nashville or evangelical organizations who sympathize with them. Industry singers and preachers do not publicly value their way of life, seek to defend it, or show frustration when it is under attack. In short, elites do not identify with the common people who make their own successful lives possible. In some ways they resemble the “men north of Richmond” the song takes aim at.
In the case of Oliver Anthony, the market demanded someone willing to stand up for righteousness, not just in the abstract, but in the concrete. In “Rich Men North of Richmond” Anthony calls out things like people taking advantage of welfare, anti-masculine standards, and power-hungry pedophiles in the ruling class. The song channels the righteous indignation of a betrayed people who loyally pay their taxes but struggle to feed their own families. It is a good example of what Clyde Wilson called “American Populism” which expresses hostility to elites who consolidate power and force their idealistic plans on populations who want to be left alone. These Bible Belt dwellers want someone with eyes open enough to notice what is happening to them. Anthony Oliver, without any help from media elites, is now that man.
Anthony had his first large show Sunday afternoon at a North Carolina farm market. Anthony opened the concert stating: “It’s crazy to me, because I remember back in June I played here for about twenty people, but that’s the beautiful part of this country, though, is even an idiot like me can make something happen. So, if I can do it you can do it.” He then did something unconventional. He proceeded to open his Bible and read nine imprecatory verses from Psalm 37 about coming judgement for the wicked and vindication for the righteous. He almost choked up at the end when reading: “Though the Lord’s enemies are like the flowers of the field, they will be consumed and they will go up in smoke.” The crowd cheered and he played his new hit. Anthony may not realize just how big of a nerve he struck but perhaps he does.
Since 2021, the young Scots-Irish looking Country singer recorded music on his cell phone from his 90-acre farm in central Virginia. The lyrics featured rural-Southern themes like living off the land, finding contentment even in poverty, feeling homesick for an older way of life, and the importance of religion, region, and family. Anthony’s songs spurned increasing urbanization and group-think as signs of impending destruction. The usual inclusion of trucks, dogs, farming, and moonshine also make their way into his songs. In one song called Rich Man’s Gold the Dobro player exclaimed “You won’t born, to just pay bills and die.”
Though most people seem to resonate with Anthony’s anti-modernity message, there are political and evangelical leaders who take exception to his success and the positive reaction to it. A left-wing best-selling author and journalist linked “Rich Men North of Richmond” to white supremacy. James Lindsay agreed the phenomenon surrounding the song represented a postmodern political power play because it appealed to Biblical authority to justify an incorrect message. National Review published an article complaining Anthony painted an inaccurate picture of how bad things really were. A pastor in Texas implied Anthony’s fans were hypocrites for thinking the rising star’s reading of Psalm 37 and it’s pronouncement of judgement against the wicked did not apply to them. Another pastor in Washington took offense to Anthony reading the Bible “to promote a song that uses [profane] language God hates.” In my estimation, most critics seem to lack a sense of proportion for how righteously indignant and discouraged many Americans are.
Anthony’s fans admire the crying groan present in his music which conveys a raw and real feel rarely heard in Nashville today. This coupled with a twangy and tinny sounding Dobro is the perfect recipe for Country and Blues music. Right before Anthony’s song went viral, the working-class singer uploaded a video from his truck where he explained the pain in his voice. He said: “[In 2021] things were obviously not good for a lot of people and in some respects I was one of those people.” He goes on to describe his attempt to escape through drugs and alcohol only to find his purpose in helping others through music. Anthony talked about the hard-working people he knew in factory and construction settings “who just can’t quite get ahead” and expressed his desire to “be a voice for those people.” Anthony closed his video by revealing that he spent a long time as an agnostic who was angry at God. However, he came to realize during his time of discouragement that “there is a divine Creator who loves you and sometimes it takes falling down on your knees and getting ready to call things quits before it becomes obvious that He’s there.”
Though we cannot see deep into Oliver Anthony’s soul, we do know that he certainly comes across as more sincere and authentic than most of our country’s politicians, musicians, and popular preachers. He seems to be coming to a greater knowledge of God and the hope this knowledge produces. He also exhibits a rare humble demeanor. In a recent video he expressed his desire to meet every single person who would come to see him perform. Anthony stated: “This is not about me, it’s about you” and people happen to believe him.
Now that Anthony can sell out concert venues if he chooses, the major danger he faces stems from the pitfalls associated with instant success. Both the music industry and conservative media are filled with “rich men north of Richmond” who do not mind taking advantage of another’s success to advance themselves. There’s also the corrupting influence that naturally accompanies money. Fortunately, Anthony is starting off in the right direction by understanding who he represents and who he does not. It is time to support his good efforts and pray they continue in a positive direction.
For now, most of the rich men north of Richmond who hate his message cannot publicly say so without implicating themselves. Perhaps the popularity of Anthony’s song signals a sea change in public opinion. After years of being marginalized and disregarded people who care about righteousness are retaking the moral high ground. By God’s grace, perhaps the Oliver Anthony phenomenon can pave a way for others to keep and hold this position.