Gone Viral: Country Music Chart Topper Hailed as Voice of the Working Class
The song Rich Men North of Richmond went viral upon its release on YouTube. But what made this Folk-Country song a global hit almost overnight? Leanne Elliott investigates.
It is not often a Country Song, from an unheard musician shoots straight to number one on the charts. But Oliver Anthony’s Rich Men North of Richmond, released by RadioVW on August 9, clocked up over 28 million views in its first 11 days on YouTube; making Anthony the first artist without any previous chart history to debut at the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
With its’ distinct American folk-country bluegrass tone, which usually isn’t for everyone, it took just days for Rich Men North of Richmond to resonate with listeners from all over the globe, including Canada, Ireland, UK, Italy, France, Belgium, New Zealand, and Australia.
YouTube reviewers were caught off guard once they hit the play button, with many quickly commenting how the sound and words were not what they were expecting. Some reviewers shed tears, some sang along, while many sat back with bleak expressions, rhythmically nodding in agreement.
Why has Rich Men North of Richmond become an instant chart topper?
Looking past the song itself and focusing on what gives this song the power to move so many people, we need to step back and appreciate the forest before the trees. In other words, we need to look at the whole package, which is comprised of the artist, the video, the sound, and the message, all which formed to create a perfect musical storm.
“The hopelessness and frustration of our times resonate in the response to this song.” – Oliver Anthony, Billboard.
Christopher Anthony Lunsford, aka Oliver Anthony, is an American singer song writer, farmer and former factory worker from Farmville, Virginia. Anthony shares his small farm with his three dogos, which guest star in many of his videos.
Anthony’s YouTube channel, Oliver Anthony Music, features not only his music, but also clips where he shares things about himself and discusses his view of the world. In one of his videos, It’s A Pleasure to Meet You, Anthony describes how he got into playing the guitar, and making music and videos during COVID, adding how it had become outlet for him.
What we have seen of Anthony so far appears authentic, which is why people have easily related to many of the thoughts, feelings, and opinions he shares in Rich Men North of Richmond. And, not one to shy away from his beliefs, at a recent performance Anthony opened his set with a Psalm, reading it to a large crowd.
This is not to say Anthony is a perfect human. In fact, he openly discusses hard issues he has faced, such as addiction, a challenged sense of purpose and his personal failings. On FaceBook, Anthony recently described himself and “just an idiot with a guitar”, which implies he has not succumbed to an unhealthy ego and is able to laugh at himself (an important skill many of us lack today).
Adding to Anthony’s authenticity, is recognition that he is literally self made. Bypassing the need for record labels and contracts, Anthony has reached the top as a true independent. Not to mention, turning down an 8 million dollar music deal and calling out hypocritical politicians and corporations trying to ride on his coattails, demonstrates his passion for the music rather than the money and fame.
Set in a lush clearing surrounded by forest, stands a man with his mic, guitar, 3 dogs, a camping chair and a deer stand perched high in a tree. It is simple, raw and represents a connection between man and his surroundings.
Anybody who is a fan of the outdoors will understand when I talk about that feeling of connection and contentment when outside trekking, camping or even just gardening in your backyard. For me, being outdoors is restorative; like medicine, like a pressure release. This concept of human connectedness to nature is referred to as biophilia; which Britannica describes as the “idea that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life.”
And I mean, who wouldn’t want to be out doors instead of going through the daily grind which often leaves us time poor and too exhausted to have meaningful experiences.
The simplicity of the backdrop for the Rich Men North of Richmond video reminds us how disconnected we are from nature and from each other. It reminds us that we sacrifice our time, which is a precious and finite commodity, for what?, material possessions and the struggle that comes with living in a world which is becoming increasingly unpredictable.
From a different angle, you also have to look at what is missing. Where are the camera crews, the makeup artists, props, lighting and CGI? Everything that usually represents making it big in the music industry is absent. It is reminder of how thoroughly manufactured our music industry is. An industry headed and tightly controlled by high powered monopolies, who have often been accused of exploiting or subjugating independent artists.
Music videos like Rich Men North of Richmond demonstrate how, thanks to technology, anyone can create and distribute their content. Not to mention, there is greater opportunity for musicians to retain ownership and creative control over their work. Social media and other content platforms means they can extend their reach by promoting themselves and it allows creators to freely network, collaborate and share their ideas. This stimulates the creative economy by providing a less restrictive environment, which in turn, encourages creative output.
But, going back to the artist, the simplicity of the video just adds to Anthony’s authenticity.
The simple, catchy rhythm with its blend of folk, country, bluegrass, mountain sounds has appealed to music lovers from all different genres, even those who are not fans of country music.
In the Rich Men North of Richmond video, Anthony is seen with his Gretsch G9220 Bobtail resonator acoustic guitar and microphone. While I am not sure about the mic which managed to capture the sound in such high quality, the guitar is apparently quite affordable, which adds to the persona of Anthony being an everyday working man.
As the video starts, the sound of crickets or cicadas in the background is quickly drowned out by a voice possessing an unmistakable folky sound, a style not heard often on the mainstream music scene. While not as twangy as Ralph Stanley, Anthony’s voice produces a subtle, folky twang, remindful of vintage mountain bluegrass.
Watching reaction videos, you can see reactors instantly connect with Anthony’s voice, with many commenting on how they could feel and relate to the angst in his voice.
Anthony’s powerful voice is accompanied by a twangy acoustic guitar, which sounds almost half guitar, half banjo and is reminiscent of the sounds produced by Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson. Again, not an instrument we hear often, but one which can be genuinely appreciated when played right.
Rich Men North of Richmond touches on a lot of topics which are on the minds of folk around the world, including cost of living, social welfare, taxes, suicide and child protection; but, there are also other, more subtle messages.
However, before diving in, I think it is important to highlight the influence music can have on us, particularly when meaningful words are added to an potent tune.
“One of the most powerful ways to influence emotions and consciousness is to set words to memorable music. Add engaging images to this mix and you have what holders of ancient wisdom have known for thousands of years as the ultimate power over the populace.” – Frank Fitzpatrick, Thrive Global.
In the article, Why Words Matter: The Power of Lyrics, Frank Fitzpatrick discusses the effects a combination of meaningful lyrics and music. For example, a lyrical statement accompanied by music activates more of our brain, making the message and memory “stickier”. This is why you can remember they lyrics to some songs long after you hear them, because of the memories or emotions you have attached to the song make it stick in the deep recesses of your brain.
Another obvious but often overlooked issue raised by Fitzpatrick is how a our music intake is like our “sonic diet”, what music we consume can affect our belief system, value system, our mindset and our energy; not to mention music can trigger memories and emotions.
“Great songs have long been used to inspire hope, create a sense of unity, galvanize beliefs and move people to action. Songs of this nature are powerful and useful tools for our lives” states Fitzpatrick, later adding, “The key is to be aware of how words are affecting our internal programming.”
Just for those who didn’t know, the rich men North of Richmond Anthony is referring to the are the politicians, capitalists and corporate elitists who control Washington, DC; which, lets face it, has a long history of corruption and shady goings-on. Ironically, these are the people who are entrusted to make decisions which are in the best interest of their Nation and its’ people.
Okay, lets dive in to take a look at the lyrics. There is no lulling people in, the lyrics straight up cut right to the heart of one of the most timely and widespread issues of today, the struggle of the working class.
“Well, I’ve been selling my soul, Working 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…”
Immediately this resonates with the working class. Particularly those most impacted by high inflation, increased cost of living, housing affordability, low wages which illustrate a glaringly obvious effort-reward imbalance, and yet another global economic downturn.
These words highlight how an increasing number of working class are doing it tough, working long hours and still only just managing to get by. It was only a few months ago, Australian media were reporting that young Australians were tired of working to the bone and still the prospect of home ownership is but a pipe dream.
The very real struggle described in this verse is being felt by people from different races, religions, cultures and political persuasions, which is one reason Rich Men North of Richmond has had global success.
“…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 shame comes from the potential we as a species seem to have lost somewhere along the way. We can create a billion dollar industrial military complex, we have sent men to the moon, dived to the deepest depths of the oceans and conquered the planet; yet hundreds of thousands of people do not have access to clean water (priorities, am I right?).
Using “you and me” gives the sense of togetherness and allows the message to overcome some hard core and divisive boundaries, such as political affiliation, race and religion.
It also illustrates how “We’re all in this together” is actually just a catchy slogan. Instead, it is blatantly obvious there are different rules for people like ‘me and you’, and for people like ‘them’; ‘them’ being the rich men North of Richmond and their ilk.
As for waking up each day wishing the state of the world was just some really sick, twisted prank, but then realising its real, well, that’s a type of despair I know many of us can jive with.
“…Livin’ in the new world, With an old soul…”
This is a line I can definitely relate to.
Depending on who you ask, “the new world” Anthony is referring to could relate to a few different things. The most obvious being a general reference to how things like technology, globalization and the human condition have rapidly changed the world we live in, particularly over the past 20 years. Some also believe it is a reference the Great Reset, a World Economic Forum initiative (WEF) which aims to “urgently build the foundations of our economic and social system for a fairer, sustainable and more resilient post-COVID future.”
The term ‘old soul’ means “a person, especially a child or young person, who demonstrates a maturity, understanding, or seriousness that is typical of someone much older”, it can also mean that you have lived many lives. It is a nostalgic reference for people who have lived at a time where they believe life was better, simpler and fairer. The new world we live in can be challenging for old souls due a sensitivity to changes perceived as negative, not just negative for themselves but the the planet and the entire human race.
“…These rich men north of Richmond, Lord knows they all, Just wanna have total control, Wanna know what you think, Wanna know what you do, And they don’t think you know, But I know that you do, ‘Cause your dollar ain’t shit, And it’s taxed to no end, ‘Cause of rich men, North of Richmond…”
And as far as the rich men North of Richmond wanting to have total control, well that’s pretty obvious isn’t it? Government and corporate overreach is a real and relevant danger to any democratic society. According to Chris Merritt, Rule of Law Australia, “No matter how beneficial government action is intended to be, it will contain the potential for overreach unless it is accompanied by effective oversight and checks on the exercise of power.” Governments are increasingly intruding on and eroding our rights, as demonstrated by the rise of civil and political unrest we have been witnessing.
“Over the last 15 years the world has become less peaceful, with the average country score deteriorating by five per cent.” – Global Peace Index 2023 report.
Then we need to consider the fact governments and corporations have spent the last few decades scrambling to monitor everything about us and what we do. Cameras, digital data, consumer spending, you name it, they monitor it. Gone are the good old days when it was a major task to surveil citizens or consumers. These days you can just source or access all you need from the long list data sellers and suppliers. Why? Because data is the new oil.
“At the very least, a perpetual lack of privacy invades people’s personal space and sense of security, says Namrata Khetan, a counseling psychologist. “This leads to hypervigilance, doubts, constant fears, and paranoia in some cases.” They converge into the larger inability to trust people, surroundings, and things.” – Saumya Kalia, The Swaddle.
“…I wish politicians, Would look out for miners, And not just minors on an island somewhere…”
The word play on miners and minors is very clever. As the world turns to a “green energy” economy, the mining industry which has provided secure work for generations is now in rapid decline, leaving many miners out of work and having to retrain. This line is yet another link to Anthony’s reference to the ‘new world’ and is coupled with a dig about the political global attention given to Epstein and Maxwell’s child trafficking and pedophile island (which unsurprisingly has all but been forgotten by MSM), compared to the tens of thousands of minors who are trafficked and exploited every year.
In short, this wordplay is being used to describe the often whack priorities and policies of government and the justice system.
“…Lord, we got folks in the street, Ain’t got nothin’ to eat, And the obese milkin’ welfare, But God if you’re five foot three, And you’re three hundred pounds, Taxes ought not to pay, For your bags of fudge rounds…”
Poverty and homelessness are two issues which have been around for centuries. While the poverty rate has been declining since the 1990’s, as of 2014 the rate of decline has continued to slow. Contrastingly, homelessness appears to be on the increase in some parts of the world. Daniil Filipenco, Developmental Aid, reports the top 5 countries experiencing homelessness in 2023 are: Italy, Spain, France, United States, and Australia.
And yes, this verse contains an obvious statement about obesity and people abusing social welfare, however, in a more general context this also represents deeper, broader issues, such as greed, gluttony and the health of society. And honestly, the topic of people abusing social welfare isn’t new, just take a look at the controversial 1969 song by Guy Blake, “Welfare Cadillac“.
“…Young men are putting themselves, Six feet in the ground, ‘Cause all this damn country does, Is keep on kicking them down…”
Sadly, according to The International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), “an estimated 703 000 people die by suicide worldwide each year”, with more than one in every 100 deaths being the result of suicide. Suicide rates in men are more than twice as high than women, while more than 50% of suicides occurring before the age of 50.
Though we can never be 100% sure why suicide rates are higher in men, speculation points to cultural and internal factors, such as men not discussing feelings and emotions as openly as women, men are less likely to seek help or identify that they are suffering mental health issues, such as depression, and men are more likely to self medicate to help cope with issues they may be experiencing.
Jill Harkavy-Friedman, Vice-President of Research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention told the BBC, “It’s not that men don’t have the same issues as women – but they’re a little less likely to know they have whatever stresses or mental health conditions that are putting them at greater risk for suicide.
“There tends to be more substance use and alcohol use among males, which may just reflect the distress they’re feeling – but we know it compounds the issue of suicide” said Harkavy-Friedman.
From a different perspective, moving away from the internal causes for higher rates of male suicide and turning to the external factors, we can see that just because your a man, society doesn’t automatically place you at the top of pecking order.
“Yes, it is true that there are more men on top, but we often forget to look down. And if we look down, we see that there are also more men in the mud and in the sewers of society, in the less privileged places.” states, Pablo Malo, Center for Male Psychology.
“The discussion of female suicide tends to be focus on external factors: the living conditions of women, the stress they endure, etc. When talking about male suicide, on the other hand, the main focus is on internal factors: men don’t cry, they have to be tough, they can’t ask for help, etc. Why is it not possible to conceive that perhaps men commit suicide at higher rates because they have harsh and stressful living conditions that turn their lives into hell?”
We also need to consider the changing role of males in society, especially when masculinity itself is being challenged. Now don’t get me wrong, no one likes easily triggered, oppressive, aggressive, condescending men; but, masculinity is not just a social construct and there is no way we can separate male masculinity from male biology.
Which is what I think Anthony is trying to say here when he refers to the country kicking young men down. Society has gone from holding men in high regard for being strong, masculine, providers and protectors, to attacking men for aspects which are inseparable from their male biology. Instead of focusing on masculinity as some toxic thing which needs to be eradicated, we need to look at building upon male strengths, and encouraging men to develop a form of positive masculinity.
Obviously, not everyone is going to enjoy or relate to the song or the artist. Time’s David Cantwell describes how the political ideology in Country songs like Rich Men North of Richmond, and Jason Aldean’s, Try That in a Small Town, are dividing country music culture.
Cantwell goes on to say, “Musically speaking, both songs are stolid, turgid, and no fun”.
Meanwhile, politically speaking, the song has caused contention between the political right and left, with some media outlets reporting “progressives” are wary of Anthony, even to the point of questioning his origin story, theorising Anthony is a ‘plant’, or “an invention of behind-the-scene forces”. However, despite many media outlets and groups describing Anthony and his song as “right-wing,” Anthony describes himself as sitting “dead center down the aisle on politics…”.
And, then there are the allegations that Anthony has promoted antisemitism and conspiracy theories, with many pointing to one of Anthony’s YouTube playlists as proof.
To sum it all up, I loved this song. I spent almost a day watching the reaction videos and shedding a few tears for the pain and anguish I could see on peoples faces when they were reacting to the video. For me, this is what music is all about. Reaching into to someone’s soul and letting them know they are not alone.
If you are a student who is experiencing difficulties please click this link to find information on UON’s support services for students. Also, just a reminder – Suicide Prevention Day is coming up on September 10. To find out more visit: