Only in America! Over the last fortnight, the US has seen the meteoric rise of country singer Oliver Anthony. This is an interesting story that has provoked strong emotions. It also includes a twist or two, so stick with me and I’ll try not to get you all het up. On 21 August 2023 the news broke that Anthony’s song Rich Men North of Richmond had entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number one. This makes Anthony only the sixth person to have his first solo release enter at the top of the charts.
Even more impressively, Anthony is the first person in Hot 100 history to go straight to the top with no previous chart entries of any sort. This is a big deal and has been making headlines around the world. Interestingly, given that he is a country act that deals first and foremost with American issues, Anthony has entered the charts in Australia (13), Canada (8), Ireland (39) and UK (64). It is number 2 on the Billboard global chart. Let’s hear the song before I look at the controversies:
UK singer songwriter Billy Bragg captures my initial to the video “At first glimpse, the video clip looked like my kind of music: a young bearded guy up in the woods of Appalachia, playing a resonator guitar. As soon as he started singing, I was on board.” Bragg continues, “I was still with him when he highlighted ‘folks on the street with nothing to eat’ but was brought up sharp when he followed it with ‘and the obese milkin’ welfare’.”
The next line is about short 300 pound people spending tax money on fudge rounds. Billboard characterises the song as tackling “politicians, taxes, welfare and other issues from a struggling working man’s perspective”. It is also described as “anti-establishment, conservative, or conspiratorial”. The song’s unprecedented success has been credited to endorsements from conservative figures in American politics. I’ll get back to this, after we listen to another of Anthony’s record-breaking songs.
According to Jacaranda FM, the new song “made history by collecting more than a million streams in just one day”. Released on 23 August 2023, Take Me Home has 3.1M YouTube views in just two days. At present, Anthony has the top three songs on U.S. iTunes (Rich Men North of Richmond, I Want to Go Home, and Ain’t Gotta Dollar). All told, he has 19 songs on the US iTunes Top 70 and Rich Men North of Richmond is number 3 on the US Spotify chart. Rich Men North of Richmond also featured at the Republican Presidential Primary debate. A 30 second clip was played and the first question asked by the host was about the reasons for the popularity of the song.
Anthony claims that he has turned down record contracts worth $8M. “I don’t want six tour buses, 15 tractor trailers and a jet. I don’t want to play stadium shows, I don’t want to be in the spotlight. I wrote the music I wrote because I was suffering with mental health and depression. No editing, no agent, no bullshit. Just some idiot and his guitar,” he has said. Appropriately, the video for Take Me Home ends by quoting verse Mark 8:36: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Which leads to the following story.
Wikipedia tells of Twitter-user Jason Howerton interviewing Anthony in July 2023. Anthony, who has suffered from mental health and substance abuse issues for five years, apparently broke down during the interview and pledged to God that he, Anthony, would get sober if God helped him follow his dream. Around a month later, Wikipedia continues, West Virginia-based RadioWV contacted Anthony to record a track for the station’s YouTube music channel. This turned out to be Rich Men North of Richmond. Anthony says that this was his first time using a professional microphone for a YouTube video. His previous uploads, many of which are charting, were recorded on a cell phone.
Given that Anthony (real name Christopher Anthony Lunsford) has self-confessed mental health and substance abuse issues he seems like a bit of a risky figure for conservative US politicians to rally round. It seems that some of his biggest US Republican supporters (Joe Rogan, Senator Marjorie Taylor Greene etc) have just realised that Anthony is a bit of a loose cannon, from the conservative perspective. On 24 August 2023, The Independent UK reported that US conservatives are turning on him. “The right-wing darling praised America’s diversity in an interview, infuriating his supporters,” the publication reported.
Interviewed by Fox News on 22 August 2023, Anthony said. “I mean, we are the melting pot of the world and that’s what makes us strong, is our diversity, and we need to learn to harness that and appreciate it, and not use it as a political tool to keep everyone separate from each other you know?” Conservative fans are also apparently agitated by the fact that Anthony, who grew up in North Carolina but now lives in West Virginia, talks in a “normal” North Carolinian American accent and not with a West Virginian Appalachian twang. Some infuriated conservatives have accused Anthony of being a CIA agent.
On 25 August 2023, Anthony issued a statement from behind the wheel of his parked pick-up. He addresses many issues relating to his new-found fame, including the way in which conservative politicians have attempted to identify with him. As the rain tap taps on the metal roof he says, “It’s aggravating seeing people on conservative news try to identify with me, like I’m one of them. It was funny seeing my song … at the presidential debate because it’s like I wrote that song about those people, you know, so for them to have to sit there and have to listen to that, that cracks me up.” Here is the full video:
It is normal for inexperienced musicians to be a bit heavy handed in their more political songs. Anthony’s song would have more universal appeal if he hadn’t brought in the eating habits of overweight welfare recipients and the tax money spent on babies on islands (another contentious lyric). Dang it, without these lines Billy Bragg and I would be getting behind the song. We know that taxes are necessary, but working people needing a break, well why not, of course they do. Broadly speaking, Anthony captures the worldview of a large number of people struggling to make ends meet in an apparently hostile world. Not Just in the US.
I am reminded of the late great Merle Haggard’s early song Okie from Muskogee (four weeks at #1 in 1969). The song delighted flag-waving anti-hippie conservatives at the height of the Vietnam War. Haggard, who was fresh out of jail after being pardoned when he wrote it, later said that he wrote the song to express his father’s bewilderment at a fast-changing world. When he died in 2016, Haggard was regarded as one of the greatest post-WW2 American songwriters. As regards Oliver Anthony, my instinct is to give the guy a break until we have more perspective. Here is Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson with Okie from Muskogee. Singing the song with his close friend Willie Nelson makes the irony inherent in Haggard’s song unmistakable.