The country singer who’s ruffling political feathers


The country singer who’s ruffling political feathers

Oliver Anthony has captured the imagination of both sides of the political spectrum. But could the country singer become the voice that cuts through the noise from both left and right, asks FRED DE VRIES.


HE came out of nowhere with cropped hair and a red beard, calling himself Oliver Anthony Music. On the video, we see him behind a microphone in a rural setting, two dogs at his feet. He’s wearing a T-shirt with a drawing of a cow, playing a Gretsch Resonator guitar. Simple acoustic music, country with rough folky edges. He is, in his own words, “just some idiot and his guitar". But then he opens his mouth and we hear a rough, emotional monster who, with some great country sobs, rails against the politicians who’ve let down the poor, leaving them in a perennial existence of welfare and junk food.

The song is called Rich Men North Of Richmond and it has been viewed more than 80-million times on YouTube. It jumped effortlessly over Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo, Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 on August 26, with 147,000 downloads and 17.5-million streams that week — quite a feat for a musician for whom the charts had always been a different galaxy.

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Never before has a song of barely three minutes caused such a stir. Everyone from the man on the street to mighty influencers, from pop writers to politicians, from the lofty left to the radical right is getting involved, insisting they know where Oliver Anthony stands on the political spectrum. And the man himself? He keeps us guessing.

“I sit pretty dead centre down the aisle on politics and, always have," he said in a long, explanatory Facebook message. “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." He added that he hates to see political opportunists weaponising his song for their culture wars. “I see the right trying to characterise me as one of their own, and I see the left trying to discredit me, I guess in retaliation. That shit’s gotta stop."

Before we get into the particulars of Rich Men, let's have a look at this 31-year-old musician. In real life, his name is Christopher Anthony Lunsford. His stage name, which we’ll use in this story, is a tribute to his grandfather Oliver Anthony, who grew up in the poverty-stricken Appalachian Mountains — earthen floors, seven children, hard times, the works. Anthony himself came of age in Farmville, Virginia. He dropped out of high school, worked in factories in North Carolina, had an accident in 2013 and returned to Virginia, where, after recovering, he worked as an outside sales rep. “There’s nothing special about me. I’m not a good musician, I’m not a very good person. I’ve spent the last five years struggling with mental health and using alcohol to drown it," he mentioned on Facebook. He also found God.

When Rich Men was released, Anthony was living in a used $750 motor home on land he bought in 2019 for $97,500. He was still paying it off when his song shot to the moon. In other words, he belonged to that part of the nation that is often dismissed as “trailer trash". As a sales rep he was the social type, patiently listening to other people’s woes. Just like him, they worked their asses off, six days a week, $14.50 an hour. “People are SO damn tired of being neglected, divided and manipulated," he said.

From those observations came the idea for Rich Men. For the recording, Anthony reverted to a do-it-yourself method popular among young hip-hoppers: you record at home with simple means, no bullshit. Then you post the results online, hoping it will be picked up and go viral. Like those hip-hoppers, Anthony cuts straight to the chase. “I've been sellin' my soul, workin' all day/ Overtime hours for bullshit pay," he begins his lament. And while the common people suffer the indignities of being neglected, those fellows north of Richmond — the politicians and spin doctors in Washington, DC — only hanker for power, and more power. “These rich men north of Richmond/ Lord knows they all just wanna have total control," he sings. And all the daily sweating and toiling in a factory seems futile, “cause your dollar ain’t shit and it’s taxed to no end".

These are sentiments with which many people will empathise. But in the second verse, Anthony veers off this course. He begins with a reference to the island in the Caribbean where US financier Jeffrey Epstein offered the super-rich the illicit joy of sex with underage girls. “I wish politicians would look out for miners/ And not just minors on an island somewhere," he sings. Then, in another unexpected move, he turns his angry lens on overweight people living on government handouts. “The obese milking welfare. What a waste of taxpayer money," he grumbles, wondering why he, as a hardworking dude, should support these people. “Well, God, if you're 5-foot-3 and you're 300 pounds/ Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds."

Warning lights started to flash in progressive circles. Does Anthony’s reference to paedophilia mean we are dealing with a QAnon devotee? After all, a paedophile conspiracy is a main trope in the discourse of a scary, Trump-approved cult of far-righters who believe Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, George Soros, Oprah Winfrey, the pope and the Dalai Lama belong to a perverse coterie of power-hungry people bent on world domination. In interviews, Anthony never alludes to QAnon. He does mention Donald Trump in his podcast interview with Joe Rogan. “People like that rough, raw, authentic type of speech. It’s not clean-cut and it’s not professional … it’s not polished. But at least what he’s saying, you feel like at least he actually believes it."

And then there is the racism issue. In the 1970s, the phrase “welfare queen" was coined in America: a fat black woman who refuses to work and lives on welfare. Is Anthony referring to them when he sings about 300-pound people who use their welfare money to buy fudge rounds? Fattist? Racist? Left-wing British singer Billy Bragg accused Anthony of “punching down". In a Facebook post, Anthony denied everything, referring to a 2016 study that showed that nearly a quarter of the food allowance in America is spent on junk food, soda and candy. “That's not the fault of those people," Anthony assures us. “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."

The discussions went into overdrive. The right gloated. Here we had — out of nowhere, like a godsend — an “authentic" voice of the white working class making connections between rich politicians and paedophilia, and lashing out at freeloaders. Anthony became their hero. And they felt affirmed in their choice when the singer refused to speak to “mainstream media" and instead did podcast interviews with Rogan and Jordan Peterson, both decidedly anti-woke. Music magazine Rolling Stone thought this warranted the headline “Right Wing Influencers Just Found Their Favorite New Country Song".

But hold your horses, let’s defer judgement. So far, the young singer has pointedly refused to take sides in America’s culture wars. He has also refused to formally enter the corporate music industry, turning down an $8-million record deal. He intends to be the voice of the trampled masses, the factory workers, the peasants, the underclass, those whom the politicians only acknowledge come election time. He vies for the title of “working class hero". “Republicans and Democrats, Lord I swear they're all just full of crap," he sings on Doggonit. He has given despair a voice. British folk musician Winston Marshall described him in The Spectator as a new protest icon in the tradition of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, John Steinbeck and Mark Twain. Here we should note that Marshall left Mumford & Sons in 2021, having been cancelled because of his tweeted praise of a “far-right" book.

For fans of protest music, these are interesting times. Until deep into the 1990s, politically charged pop music was the domain of the progressives. Think Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, John Lennon, Dylan, Marvin Gaye, The Clash, Public Enemy, Bragg, U2, Green Day, Rage Against the Machine, Tracy Chapman. But the right is making serious inroads. Country music in particular — traditionally a genre with a conservative, macho, not particularly diverse following — is being used to mobilise Trump supporters and to settle political scores with the left. With the 2024 presidential election looming, the end is nowhere near.

Oliver Anthony is certainly not an aberration. Earlier we had Aaron Lewis, founder and lead singer of the nu metal band Staind, who created a parallel lucrative career as a right-wing country singer. Two years ago, he had a big hit with Am I The Only One, in which he wonders if anybody else still gives a damn about the country that, in his view, is rapidly going down the drain, drowning in the woke/left/liberal takeover under Biden’s presidency. “Am I the only one willin’ to bleed/ Or take a bullet for bein’ free/ Screamin’, ‘What the fuck!' at my TV," Lewis snarls in a gravelly voice. At concerts he wears “Fuck Biden" T-shirts and entertains the crowd with a “Fuck Joe Biden!" chant.

Lewis’s histrionics, however, pale in comparison with Jason Aldean’s bile. He vented his disgust with the way things are going in his megahit Try That In A Small Town, which came with hateful video that shifts between Old Testament doom and modern-day dystopia while flirting with violent vigilantism. It went viral and has been viewed more than 39-million times, while the song went to the top of the Billboard charts thanks to millions of fed-up Americans clicking the “stream" or “buy" button on their phone or laptop. It was a right-wing guerrilla action, a successful infiltration of the cultural mainstream that had always kept them away.

The big difference between Rich Men and Small Town is that Aldean is spoiling for a scrap while Anthony seems to crave some kind of redemption and reconciliation. He even made a plea for diversity when he told Fox News: “We [America] are the melting pot of the world. And that’s what makes us strong, 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 it."

That didn’t go down too well with his radical followers. “The guy with the viral right-wing song about hating taxes and fat people is already pissing off right-wing twitter with generic statements about how not being openly racist is good," wrote one Wild Geerters on X, summing up the sense of disappointment many hardliners felt.

But the real fans don't care. They show up at his concerts, wearing T-shirts that bear the slogan “Oliver Anthony for President".

♦ VWB ♦

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