Less than a month after the release of the controversial video for Jason Aldean's “Try That in a Small Town,” a foul piece of macho musical Cheez Whiz (TM) aimed at simultaneously stirring up and cashing in on conservative America, a fresh piece of weaponized country music came bubbling up to the top of the Internet septic tank, all the way to number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Rich Men North of Richmond” caught on like a wildfire, and the haze it generated has become nearly impossible to escape. That's not just a glib metaphor- speculations on the origins of singer Oliver Anthony and who or what are behind the song's runaway success are so thick that it's hard to read the monitor. Despite the enthusiastic support of right-wing ghouls such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and failed politician/ex-Fox News host/disgraced Secret Service agent Dan Bongino, “Richmond” appears to be a rare organic success.
Even if you've not heard the song, it's likely that you've seen the ruddy, bearded visage of Christopher Anthony Lunsford on your Facebook feed, caught in mid-howl with a Gretsch resonator shining against the verdant background of some Piedmont hollow. The son of Virginia, roughly 30 years of age, began playing music as an alternative to the drinking and drugging that filled the time that wasn't eaten up by soul-crushing third-shift factory work. His cell-phone recordings attracted little to no attention until “Richmond” was picked up by Radiowv, an equally obscure YouTube channel based in West Virginia. “Richmond” is now the most popular video on the channel, with 48 million views as of this writing. The rest of Anthony's music can be found on his Oliver Anthony Music YouTube account, his stage name being a homage to his Depression-surviving grandfather who first bore it.
Musically, the song could not be further from Aldean's infamous hit. Its words are delivered with pained conviction by their sole author over the barest of chord progressions. Unlike the maximalist production so essential in sending Aldean's floater to the top of the pop country Port-A-John, Anthony's video is as spare as the song itself: just a man and his guitar and a couple of dogs, presumably on his Farmville, Virginia homestead.
This simplicity, and apparent authenticity, is a major key to the success of “Richmond.” The transition of industry outsiders such as Cody Jinks and Tyler Childers from underground favorites to outright country stars was possible thanks to a groundswell of grassroots support from unpretentious listeners who craved something more “real,” a hard-times howl in a husky, cracking voice instead of the smoothed-out crooning and airbrushed twang of the dime-a-dozen mainstream singers. Anthony is clearly indebted to these men, even if their political views don't quite line up. Self-described as “not a good person,” Anthony has emphasized the importance of his Christian faith in keeping his life together; he sings like a man haunted, and his not-quite-dead eyes hint at tales best untold for now. Even if Anthony's music and lyrics are questionable, at least they're real. This, by itself, isn't necessarily enough to recommend “Richmond,” but it's head and shoulders above the cynical attempts at reactionary branding purveyed by Jason Aldean and other would-be provocateurs.
“Rich Men North of Richmond” is an authentic voicing of working-class protest, which means it is also seriously misguided in choosing some of its targets. “I've been sellin' my soul, workin' all day, overtime hours for bullshit pay” – a hell of an opener, more real and to-the-point than many people would like to admit. As the title suggests, Anthony attacks the rich and the system that allows them to thrive off the labor of everyone else, but he also takes the universal cheap shot at the poor, specifically “the obese milkin' welfare.” The curious pronunciation of “obese”makes it difficult to understand on first listen, and its unexpected placement is admittedly humorous. This simultaneous blaming of the rich and poor for America's problems is unfortunately familiar; it goes without saying that tax-dodging corporations do more damage than even the most craven welfare frauds. And as for obesity, try maintaining a healthy diet while living on food stamps. Not easy in a small town.
Another line from the same verse has publications such as the Washington Post dropping the dreaded “conspiracy theorist” tag (a gutsy move for a paper owned by Amazon billionaire/sociopath Jeff Bezos). Anne Branigin's August 17 editorial misses the point, unintentionally highlighting liberal America's all-too-frequent lack of understanding of the working class:
“... with lyrics such as 'I wish politicians would look out for miners, and not just minors on an island somewhere' – an apparent reference to the late financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was charged with sex trafficking – 'Rich Men' also nods to conspiracy theories and grievances that are deeply rooted in far-right circles. (QAnon believers often cite Epstein as proof that a global cabal of elites has been trafficking children.) Some believe the success of the song, particularly on the heels of Sound of Freedom, a box-office smash that echoed QAnon propaganda, signals a mainstreaming of ideas that were once fringe.”
Trigger, a columnist for the redoubtable website Saving Country Music, responded to these insinuations:
“A line that should not be as polarizing is the 'minors on an island' that makes reference to Jeffrey Epstein. Though some critics of the song and people on the left are couching this as conservative conspiracy, Jeffrey Epstein was a convicted sex offender who pled guilty to sexually assaulting dozens of underage girls – and even after this conviction, continued to do business with world leaders such as Ehud Barak, American Presidents like Bill Clinton who two separate eyewitnesses claim they saw on Epstein’s island specifically, business leaders like Bill Gates, and individuals from academia such as Alan Dershowitz. This is not conspiracy theory. Jeffrey Epstein had an island where powerful people went to have sex with underage girls. Sure, perhaps the political right likes to glorify and sensationalize this concern to allude that sex trafficking is more prolific among powerful people than it is. But for some strange reason, some on the left seems to be more than willing to couch it as conspiracy.”
This would be a good time to note that I am not a QAnon guy, nor do I consider myself a conservative. Nor do I care much for “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Authenticity alone does not make a song “good,” and this piece is not intended to be a value judgment. The political divide in America is larger and more vicious than perhaps any time in the last century, and in the run-up to what will doubtless be a truly hellish election season in 2024, the powers-that-be are continuing to weaponize mass media and popular culture, especially the media creation known as “country music.” The discussion of “Richmond” at the GOP sideshow/shit-show in Milwaukee shows how far the song has penetrated into popular and political consciousness.
With all this in mind, I came into this piece certain that, like with Jason Aldean, we were once again dealing with an industry plant. The resounding consensus, at least from the credible sources, is that this is not the case. Anthony himself has emphasized his political non-alignment: “I sit pretty dead center down the aisle on politics and always have.” The closest thing he has to an industry connection is a former Glenn Beck stooge named Jason Howerton, founder of right-wing “consulting firm” Reach Digital (and member of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think-tank heavily supported by oil companies), who apparently put up the dough to fund the “Richmond” recording session. But Howerton, a genuinely creepy neo-con in the vein of Ben Shapiro, seems to be chasing the ambulance more than anything. Misleading tweets imply some sort of management connection, but then he backpedaled to the Post: “... Howerton responded that he is 'not working with Oliver in any official capacity' and is 'not really the guy to talk about country music.'”
Reach Digital seems to lack an official website, and some inspired soul snapped up the JasonHowerton.com domain name, with a single page showing his LinkedIn info, screenshots of sketchy tweets, and some choice descriptors (“fascist” and “White Supremacist” among them). This does not reflect well on any supposed management skills Howerton thinks he possesses. And speaking of Shapiro, videos by Lil' Ben and Jordan Peterson feature on a playlist on Anthony's YouTube channel, titled "Videos that make your noggin get bigger," alongside 9/11 conspiracy videos. This is not great news, but much like the misguided sentiments of his new hit, the sketchy videos in his playlist are unfortunately representative of the content that resonates with so many other angry and uneducated young men.
Anthony's anger at the dysfunctional state of America is justified, if misdirected. He is no plant, but is still a pawn in some rich men's game, whether he likes it or not. To discount his views, no matter how off the mark, is to deny an undeniable dissatisfaction with a corrupt and dysfunctional system, a dissatisfaction that could be tapped and used for good instead of yet another tool to divide and destroy. The song doesn't deserve a second listen, but its lesson is well-worth pondering.