The potential viral nature of songs, clips, videos, and TikTok fads can make people part of the public zeitgeist overnight. Sometimes the right song just rings true to so many that it can’t be ignored.
Such is the case with Oliver Anthony. The 32-year-old Virginia native whose song “Rich Men North of Richmond” is utterly inescapable. While he found himself in the company of other Americana and Country artists for his simple songs that speak about simple people, he has also found himself in the odd position of learning how to navigate the music industry way too quickly. He seems determined, however, to do it his way.
Take It From The Top
Oliver Anthony was born Christopher Anthony Lunsford on June 30 1992 in the area of Piedmont Virginia, just south of Richmond. After dropping out of high school at age 17, he did eventually get his GED but found himself working in paper mills in North Carolina.
An unfortunate work accident in 2013 left him with a fractured skull and forced him to move to Virginia to recuperate. In 2014, he was able to go back to work outside of the industrial sector traveling around Virginia and the Carolinas.
Musically, Anthony played guitar on and off since childhood, originally influenced by Walon Jennings’ playing the theme to The Dukes of Hazzard. His grandmother was another huge influence on his music, introducing him to country music from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. He began writing songs in 2021 as a way of dealing with his struggles with mental health and addiction. After a five-year struggle with alcohol, he made a promise to God to get sober if He helped him follow his dreams.
That’s When Lightning Stuck
Things changed completely for Anthony in the summer of 2023. A performance of his song “Rich Men North Of Richmond” was posted on the RadioWV YouTube Channel.
The video went viral. At the time of writing, the counter on the video had hit 81 million views.
The song itself is simply done, with Anthony performing the song solo with his resonator guitar. It is an impassioned performance where you feel that he means everything he sings. The lyrics of the song reflect the struggles faced by many blue-collar workers in the US:
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
It's a damn shame what the world's gotten to
For people like me and people like you
Wish I could just wake up and it not be true
But it is, oh, it is
The song has struck a chord with a large audience that propelled this song to heights that seemed unimaginable for a viral artist. His song hit the Billboard Hot 100 chart at No. 1 in its first appearance on the chart, becoming the first non-charting artist to ever do so. The song also debuted at No. 1 on the digital song sales chart and No. 4 on the streaming charts.
“We Are Still Learning”
Though his rise to fame has been swift, Anthony seems to shun and avoid the regular trappings of fame. Though he has management and has signed with United Touring Artists to build a touring schedule for the next year, he has steadfastly turned down offers from record labels to sign him or produce an album for him. He even turned down an $8 million offer! As per a post on Facebook:
People in the music industry give me blank stares when I brush off 8 million dollar offers. I don't want 6 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. 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. The style of music that we should have never gotten away from in the first place.
Anthony is also not shy about giving his thoughts about how much money others seem to be making from him. He famously told his fans not to buy tickets for a performance at Knoxville Tennessee’s Cotton Eyed Joy at $99 per ticket, or the VIP meet and greet at $199 per ticket. The show was ultimately cancelled, but organizers were quite vocal about how Anthony’s team agreed to the prices and that they were set to help the venue break even. Anthony ultimately played a larger venue in the Knoxville area for $25 per ticket, much more in line with how he wanted to do things.
The Politics of it All
“Rich Men From Richmond” has not been free of controversy, regardless of its minimalist approach and working-man-centric lyrics. He’s been criticized for punching down on those who rely on social assistance, particularly with lyrics such as:
Lord, we got folks in the street, ain't got nothin' to eat
And the obese milkin' welfare
Well, God, if you're five-foot-three and you're three-hundred pounds
Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of Fudge Rounds
This may or may not have led to many prominent right-wing figures in the US to praise the song thanks to what appears to be a right-wing talking point about welfare abuse. Anthony, however, claims that his politics lean to the middle of the divide, claiming that the song is aimed at both sides of theaisle:
Rich Men North of Richmond is about corporate owned DC politicians on both sides. Though Biden's most certainly a problem, the lyrics aren't exclusively knocking Biden, it's bigger and broader than that. It's knocking the system collectively. Including the corporate owned conservative politicians (sic) that were on stage that night.
Another major criticism faced by Anthony is that his songs are not that good. Louis Chilton ofThe Independent gave the song a dressing down in an August 22, 2023 “review” (of sorts, I suppose). Chilton was not kind with his analysis, and points to a growing trend in country music that Jason Aldean’s “Try That In A Small Town” finds itself; more pandering than protest: “Underneath it all, Anthony’s song is a work of banal and unyielding affirmation. You’re good. They’re bad. Don’t change. Where’s the protest in that?”
We all know that art is subjective, there is a point where things can be misinterpreted, or could have been executed better. Anthony himself has tried to explain his song, particularly the point about welfare, in hopes of making sure the ultimate point gets across:
"That's not the fault of those people," says Anthony. "Welfare only makes up a small percentage of our budget. We can fuel a proxy war in a foreign land but we can't take care of our own. That's all the song is trying to say. It's just saying that the government takes people that are needy and dependent and makes them needy and dependent."
He also says that if he has to explain all his songs going forward, he will. Hopefully, with some more time and experience, he’ll be able to craft his music in a way where he won’t have to.
In the end, we are all learning.
By Kevin Daoust - instagram.com/kevindaoust.gtr
Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.