Oliver Anthony. Screenshot from RadioWV on YouTube.
Oliver Anthony. Screenshot from RadioWV on YouTube.

Unless you’ve been living off the grid for the past week or so, you surely must be aware by now of the internet sensation from Virginia known as Oliver Anthony.

For those of you who have missed this combustible mix of politics and pop culture, Oliver Anthony is the stage name of Christopher Anthony Lunsford, a former factory worker who says he lives in a camper on 90 acres out in the woods and used his phone to record himself playing original songs. Then he recorded “Rich Men North of Richmond” (the first time, he says, that he used a real microphone).

YouTube video

The chorus:

Livin’ in the new world
With an old soul
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 s*** and it’s taxed to no end
’Cause of rich men north of Richmond.

The song somehow got discovered by the internet, and conservative politicians promptly embraced it as a right-wing anthem. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-Georgia, praised it (“The anthem of the forgotten Americans who truly support this nation”). Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colorado, praised it (“You’ve created an anthem for our times. Congratulations, Oliver!”). Defeated Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake praised it (“The anthem of this moment in American history”). Fox News host Laura Ingraham praised it (“Haunting sound and commentary on what’s happened to America’s working class”). Commentator Matt Walsh praised it (“the anthem of normalcy”).  Joe Rogan talked it up on his podcast. Just like that, the song rocketed up the music charts, and into the Twitterverse (assuming we still call that platform Twitter). 

Here’s how the website AVClub reports the song’s rise: “In the single week since Anthony released the song last Tuesday [Aug. 15], it has soared to number one on both the iTunes General chart and the iTunes Country chart, knocking Jason Aldean’s similarly contentious ‘Try That In A Small Town’ all the way down to number five (behind two other Oliver Anthony Music tracks, no less). Anthony currently holds 18 out of 40 slots on the Country list, and, as of this writing, the song sits at number 9 on the US Spotify Top 50.”

Those numbers may change by the time this column hits the internet, but you get the idea. The last time I checked over the weekend, his song had been viewed 28 million times on YouTube. Anthony says in a Facebook post that he’s turned down an $8 million offer from a record label. 

Naturally, given the world we live in, that kind of response by conservatives prompted the inevitable pushback from liberals. The internet is now full of chatter that Anthony is an “industry plant” (some liberals are as prone to conspiracy theories as some conservatives are) to distract attention from Tyler Childers and a new generation of more liberal-minded country musicians who have risen up in recent years. I’ve seen the title criticized as an inherently racist dog whistle because Richmond is the former capital of the Confederacy. (To my ear the title just seems a clever turn of phrase from a Virginia-based musician but as a white Southern guy, I may hear that title differently from others). The song has been pegged as a pitch to the wacko QAnon crowd because it references Jeffrey Epstein, although do you have to be a conspiracy theorist to be concerned about sex offenders?

To be sure, there are some lines in the song that ought to be problematic with people no matter where they fit on the ideological spectrum. The ones that have gotten the most attention are the body-shaming parts of Anthony’s commentary on the welfare system:

Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat
And the obese milkin’ welfare
Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds
Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds 

Writes columnist Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Inquirer: “There’s a powerful line about so-called deaths of despair — ‘Young men are puttin’ themselves six feet in the ground’ — but there’s no condemnation of the oxycontin-soaked Sacklers or Big Pharma. Nope, just the Fudge Rounds Lady. Like most white, working-class brawlers, Anthony has been trained to only punch down.” 

Writer Ben Lorber points out some other troublesome things — Anthony’s public playlist recommends “videos that make your noggin get bigger.” Lorber writes: “Three of the 48 videos are devoted to antisemitic conspiracy theories about 9/11.”

Anthony has even come in for criticism from some on the right. “I don’t understand the adulation on the right for this song’s message,” writes Mark Antonio Wright in the conservative National Review. He singles out the song’s opening lines:

I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day
Overtime hours for bulls*** pay
So I can sit out here and waste my life away
Drag back home and drown my troubles away 

“My brother in Christ, you live in the United States of America in 2023 — if you’re a fit, able-bodied man, and you’re working ‘overtime hours for bulls*** pay,’ you need to find a new job,” the National Review writer says. “There’s plenty of them out there — jobs that don’t require a college degree, that offer good pay (especially in this tight labor market) and great benefits, especially if you’re willing to get your hands dirty by doing things like joining the Navy, turning wrenches, fixing pumps, laying pipe, or a hundred other jobs through which American men can still make a great living. If you’re the type of guy who’s willing to show up on time, every time, work hard while you’re on the clock, and learn hard skills — there’s a good-paying job out there for you. Go find it.”

Even Christianity Today has weighed in against Anthony: “‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ is disdainful towards people on welfare. Christians shouldn’t be.”

Meanwhile, at least one figure on the left found reason to say some good things about the song. U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, tweeted out a link with this two-part observation:

“a. I think progressives should listen to this. In part, bc it’s just a good tune. b. But also bc it shows the path of realignment. Anthony sings about the soullessness of work, s*** wages and the power of the elites. All problems the left has better solutions to than the right.”

How dare Murphy say something nice about the song! He was promptly pummeled on X, formerly known as Twitter, from those to his left (which, ironically, proves Murphy’s point — maybe more progressives should listen to this song and not get distracted by the unnecessary body-shaming). Here’s one sample comment from an account called the Firearms Policy Coalition: “You are such an incredibly horrid waste of space.” This is what passes for deep thought on X. This also helps explain why Democrats have such trouble connecting with many rural voters because Murphy may have a point.

This is an awful lot of commentary for a 3-minute song that isn’t nearly as original as a lot of people seem to think it is. The essence of the song is really no different than what Merle Haggard sang back in 1977: “A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today.” That message wasn’t even original then. You can trace that theme back a long way, and through other genres. There’s a reason why they call certain music “the blues.”

James McMurtry, a Virginia-born and Texas-based Americana musician who plays next month at The Harvester in Rocky Mount, said all this minus the criticism of the tax code and the welfare system in “We Can’t Make It Here”:

Some have maxed out all their credit cards
Some are working two jobs and living in cars
Minimum wage won’t pay for a roof, won’t pay for a drink
If you gotta have proof just try it yourself, Mr. CEO
See how far $5.15 an hour will go
Take a part time job at one of your stores
I bet you can’t make it here anymore 

McMurtry, though, comes from left-of-center so his song can’t qualify as a “right-wing anthem.” Bruce Springsteen, another left-of-center musician, worked some of these themes before he moved into the proverbial “Mansion On The Hill.” Anthony’s just more direct, and more current, and perhaps even more authentic than some slickly produced musician with a record label. Country music has always done a better job than other genres of capturing — and popularizing — blue-collar angst, which is why I’ve long said that Democrats who wonder why they’ve lost working-class voters should listen to more country music. Then again, Sen. Murphy seemed to say the same thing and was hooted down by some from his own side on Twitter.

Anthony’s not the first to sing about the welfare system in a critical or satirical way. Guy Drake was a one-hit wonder with “Welfare Cadillac.” Haggard approached the topic more seriously on “Working Man Blues,” which praises the importance of working: “Never been on welfare, and that’s one place I won’t be.” Meanwhile, the rock band Everclear, which played last week in Lynchburg, sang of the indignity of being on welfare in “I Will Buy You a New Life”:

I hate those people who love to tell you
Money is the root of all that kills
They have never been poor
They have never had the joy of
A welfare Christmas

Nonetheless, the national media seems quite obsessed with this particular song of Anthony’s so I’ll leave the literary analysis of its lyrics to them. Instead, I’ll focus on something else that bugs me. A lot of my colleagues in the national media, when writing about Anthony, get something dead wrong. Billboard, Variety, Barstool Sports (which writes about more than sports) and other sites call him “Appalachian.” He’s not.

He may be of Appalachian heritage — based on his social media, at least some of his kin apparently have come through Raccoon Valley in Washington County. He may sing in what some might consider an Appalachian style — country music did, after all, spring out of Appalachia as the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol is happy to tell you. But he doesn’t live in Appalachia now.

It’s unclear where Anthony grew up other than somewhere in Virginia but he did live for a time in western North Carolina. On Facebook, he describes Farmville as “my hometown.” The website RadioWV, where “Rich Men North of Richmond” first appeared, says Anthony lives “in Farmville” (at best they must mean near) on “a plot of land he plans on turning into a small farm to raise livestock.” None of Anthony’s social media accounts say where he actually lives. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that he owns land in Dinwiddie County. For our purposes, it doesn’t much matter whether he lives in Prince Edward County or Dinwiddie County. Neither of those is anywhere close to Appalachia. That’s not a political statement. That’s just a geographical fact.

That’s not the only geographical misstatement out there. The Spectator wrote that Anthony’s critics “could have picked up on the timeless presence of the young singer, whose lyrics have as much gravel and grit as his voice, or his charm and innocence as he thumbs his way through social media that jars with a Blue Ridge Mountain life otherwise unmarked by modernity.”

Neither Prince Edward County (where Farmville is) or Dinwiddie County is in the Blue Ridge. And I’m pretty sure that someone who is recording songs on his phone and uploading them to YouTube is not living a life “unmarked by modernity.” On the contrary, he’s figured out modernity quite well.

Think what you will of Anthony and his song — be it “With his viral protest song, Oliver Anthony is this year’s J.D. Vance” or “The Top-Selling Musical Artist in America Is Exponentially More Full of It Than Milli Vanilli” — but let’s at least get the geography right.

Appalachia is one of the most misunderstood — and most stereotyped — parts of the country. The definition of just what is Appalachia is somewhat elastic. When the Appalachian Regional Commission was created in 1965, some localities didn’t want to be included because they considered “Appalachia” to be a pejorative. Others that may not be Appalachian at all wanted to be included because they saw a federal faucet about to be turned on. The original lines started with 373 counties but over the decades more counties have been added. Today, the officially designated Appalachian region includes 423 counties (and, in Virginia, eight independent cities) that stretch from northern Mississippi to southern New York. There are no mountains in Mississippi, so how can it be Appalachian? If Anthony were from the shores of Lake Erie in western New York, I bet no one would call him Appalachian.

These are the counties that are part of the Appalachian Regional Commission.
These are the counties that are part of the Appalachian Regional Commission. Courtesy of the ARC.

In Virginia, Appalachia — as officially defined by Congress — doesn’t include Roanoke, Roanoke County or Salem but does take in Botetourt County, which I think about every time I drive past the fancy homes in the Ashley Plantation development (where Zillow currently lists one for a “discount” price of $775,000). It includes Rockbridge County but then omits the entire rest of the Shenandoah Valley. The Augusta County-based singer-songwriter Scott Miller has a wonderful song called “Appalachian Refugee” but he technically doesn’t live in Appalachia. East of the Blue Ridge, Virginia’s ARC localities include Patrick County, Henry County and Martinsville, but nothing else — which means that the Franklin County portion of the Crooked Road, Virginia’s Music Heritage Trail, isn’t technically in Appalachia. Ferrum College hosts a large annual festival, the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival, but officially that’s not Appalachia, either, while all the tech companies in Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center in Blacksburg are. I often cite the latter as an example of how Appalachia is more diverse than its detractors depict it to be but that Blue Ridge Folklife Festival still feels pretty classically Appalachian. The government says otherwise, though.

In North Carolina, Winston-Salem is officially part of Appalachia but Greensboro is not. Notice how in Mississippi there’s one county — Lafayette County — that’s not in Appalachia but all the surrounding counties are. And then there’s that odd little extension into central Tennessee to pick up Lawrence County. These lines are more political than cultural. What we popularly think of as Appalachia is surely contained within these lines but there may also be some parts of Appalachia that aren’t.

We can quibble about where those lines ought to be, but no fair definition of Appalachia, be it an expansive one or a minimalist one, would include Anthony’s hometown or the county where he apparently lives now. Geographically both are part of the Piedmont. Culturally, they’re part of what we in Virginia call Southside (although some along the state’s southern border prefer the term Southern Virginia). Writing that Anthony is from Appalachia isn’t just lazy shorthand for the rural South, it’s a giveaway that national writers really don’t understand what they’re writing about — which makes me wonder what else they’re getting wrong.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org...