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

Oliver Anthony is having his moment.

So is Farmville.

Virtually every news story about the singer behind the viral sensation “Rich Men North of Richmond” makes reference to the county seat of Prince Edward County, which Anthony says is “my hometown.”

The song has been polarizing, but this column isn’t about the song. It’s about Farmville.

When I was at The Roanoke Times, we kept an informal list of all the bad ways that out-of-town journalists described Roanoke. “A homely city in a lovely setting.” That was The Washington Post. “A gritty former railroad town.” That was The Washington Post, too. A New York Times reporter once said that Roanoke was a place where “dry-goods stores carry the kind of overalls often worn with one strap flapping free” and that restaurants serve lunchtime “dinners” that “could stun a farmhand.”

My personal favorite was the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reporter who called Roanoke an “often neglected and declining old mining town.” Pro tip: Roanoke was never a mining town.

When Anthony lit up the internet, I was prepared for Farmville to get the same treatment. So was Brian Carlton, editor of The Farmville Herald (and related papers in Southside). He tweeted out: “Hi, national media outlets (and readers). In your pursuit of a story on Oliver Anthony, a few of you have made claims about Farmville that aren’t accurate. We’re not a ‘backwoods ghost town,’ we’re not a ‘place flooded with meth’. So instead, let me introduce you to this place…”

He then proceeded to list 12 things about Farmville that he felt the national media ought to know — from it being a college town (a two-college town!) to its museums and community theater.

I certainly haven’t read every story about Anthony — Google his name and you’ll be told there are 39.7 million results. Of those, Google says 347,000 mention Farmville. I haven’t found the descriptions of Farmville as cliched as they could be; often the mention is simply that Anthony considers that his hometown. The main error that I’ve seen (and that I’ve noted before) is that Anthony is often called Appalachian. Farmville is not Appalachia.

When Anthony played recently at the North Street Press Club in Farmville, he chuckled at how so many people get the geography wrong. “It’s funny because a lot of the online comments are talking about, ‘Oh this is the best music to come out of Appalachia in however many years. It’s like, ‘Have y’all looked on a map? We’re in Farmville. This ain’t Appalachia.’”

I understand why “Rich Men North of Richmond” has been so polarizing, but I’d encourage folks to take a listen to Anthony’s whole catalog of songs., which aren’t particularly political at all but cover all the usual themes that country music is known for — trains and cars and dogs and women, good times and hard times, as told through a rural lens. Some found “Okie From Muskogee” polarizing back in 1969 but Merle Haggard’s career was bigger than that one song. I will say that Anthony has a knack for a clever turn of phrase. My favorite line: “People eating bugs because they won’t eat bacon.” It’s certainly fair to say that Anthony’s music owes its roots to Appalachia (so does much of country music), but as someone who listens to a lot of music, I’d say his songs remind me more of Colter Wall, a bleak country singer from the Canadian province of Saskatechwan. That ain’t Appalachia, either, although Wall’s first collection of music was an EP titled “Imaginary Appalachia.” But I digress. 

The point is: “Rich Men North of Richmond” has been polarizing. However, the irony is that it comes out of one of the least polarized places in the country. I’ve written about this before but let me run through the figures again:

In 1976, the year of a close presidential election nationally, most localities in Virginia saw a winning margin somewhere in the 50% to 59% range — some for Gerald Ford, some for Jimmy Carter. Only one locality — Charles City County — saw the top candidate (Carter in that case) take more than 70% of the vote. The point is, almost every locality in the state was fairly close.

By 2020, the year of another close presidential election nationally, look at how much things had changed: Instead of the one 70%-plus locality we had in 1976, in 2020 we had 32 localities where one candidate took more than 70% of the vote — and 16 of those topped 80%. Petersburg topped out at 87.8% for Joe Biden, followed by 84.1% for Donald Trump in Lee County.

However, Prince Edward County has avoided this trend.

In 1976, Republican Gerald Ford carried the county with 50.4% of the vote.

In 2020, Democrat Joe Biden won there with 51.9% of the vote.

Over the years in between, Prince Edward County has toggled back and forth between the two parties, but the vote has almost always been close, often very close. The biggest gap came in the Ronald Reagan landslide of 1984, but even that year Reagan took just 56.1% in Prince Edward County, behind both his statewide (62.3%) and national share (58.8%).

In 1976, all but one of Prince Edward County’s neighboring counties were close, too, and Carter won five of the seven bordering localities. Working clockwise: In Appomattox County, Ford took 50.8%. In Buckingham County, Carter took 58% (the lone exception that wasn’t close). In Cumberland County, Carter won with 47.2%. In Amelia County, Carter won with 49.6%. In Nottoway County, Carter won with 49.0%. In Lunenburg, Ford won with 49.7%. In Charlotte County, Carter won with 52.6%.

By 2020, all seven of Prince Edward’s neighbors went Republican, and strongly so, from a low of 55.9% in Buckingham County to 72.6% in Appomattox County.

That right there shows how rural Virginia has realigned from contested territory to predictably Republican landslides. So how has Prince Edward County remained an exception to this realignment?

The answer is demographics.

Prince Edward County is 32.3% Black — and Black voters are a strong Democratic constituency — but that’s not unusual for Southside. In neighboring Nottoway County, the population is 38.6% Black, yet Nottoway, like other counties in Southside, has shifted strongly right while Prince Edward County hasn’t.

What makes Prince Edward County unusual — and likely accounts for it remaining so close politically — is that Farmville is home to two colleges, Longwood University and Hampden-Sydney College. (Although technically Hampden-Sydney is in, well, its own place. The college has its own zip code). There aren’t many small towns (Farmville has a population of 7,202) that have four-year schools. It’s been that way for a long time, too. Hampden-Sydney was founded in 1775; Longwood traces its ancestry to the Farmville Female Academy in 1839. The Farmville Herald makes the case that Farmville was the nation’s first two-college town. Lexington became a two-college town the same year Farmville did but Longwood’s predecessor started a few months before Virginia Military Institute joined the future Washington & Lee University. Somehow Farmville doesn’t get the credit for this that it deserves.

It would be a mistake to conclude that because Prince Edward County is so politically purple that it’s achieved some kind of harmonic convergence.

History certainly argues otherwise: This was one of the places that both saw a landmark civil rights event (teenager Barbara Johns leading a walkout from her segregated school in 1951 to protest conditions, which led to a lawsuit that became part of the Brown v. Board of Education decision) and saw Massive Resistance carry on long after it had crumbled elsewhere (Prince Edward County infamously closed its schools in 1959 and didn’t reopen them until 1964).

The present argues otherwise, too: There’s been a controversy over a giant Confederate flag that a property owner has erected, which stands on the main route to the property that the county is trying to promote as a site for data centers. That seems a pretty succinct collision of the past with the future.

And yet the numbers are the numbers: Prince Edward County stands out as unusual for being a bellwether county while other communities have turned not just predictably red or blue but bright red and bright blue. An analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project found over the past 16 gubernatorial elections — dating back to 1961 — it’s picked the winner 15 times (1969 was the only exception). Only Fairfax city has tied that mark. (Montgomery and Northampton counties were tied for third). That propensity to be a swing locality may make Prince Edward an outlier, but it’s also a reminder of what the country used to be like, in a good way, and could be again if we wanted to be. Of course, just because the county is a swing county doesn’t mean that the Democratic and Republican voters there are close to one another politically, just that there are roughly equal numbers of them. Still, that proximity means they have to figure out how to live with one another in a way that more lopsided communities don’t. 

An acquaintance in Farmville recently sent me his observations of the town:

Last Saturday night [Aug. 26] was the “Rock the Block” festival on Main Street in Farmville. Oliver Anthony himself appeared, publicly unannounced. I’m sure he could have been somewhere more remunerative, but he seemed happy to be there — and my impression was most folks, even those whose political impulses hadn’t prompted the same burst of enthusiasm for the lyrics to his breakout song as was the case for many on the political right, also seemed basically proud and pleased he was there. Anthony smiled and patiently waited while people stood in line to get a photo with him. Then he played a set on the outdoor Crute Stage, closing with “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Finally, he walked back to Ellett’s, an embroidery shop across from the Courthouse, to greet more folks waiting for a photo or autograph, and he was still posing and signing when I finally went home. 

Along Main Street were a great range of people, of all walks of life, having a good, and as best I could tell, totally apolitical, time. There were Longwood and Hampden-Sydney college students. Beside me, two very large older men, one Black and one white, greeted and embraced one another for some time, one consoling the other on the recent death of his father. The food trucks included an Amish soft pretzel stand and a BBQ tacos truck with a sign that read “Warning: Hippies.” Among those who’d set up tables at the other end of Main Street were Megan Clark, the twice-elected and deeply admired Black female Prince Edward Commonwealth’s Attorney; a pro-life support group; and the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, where staffers helped kids who were drawing pictures and turning them into buttons. A young trans woman walked by with a couple of friends, and I recognized a local Afghan refugee family, one of them now a student at Longwood. And there was Oliver Anthony, hard to miss with his big red beard, looking at home and at peace despite everything that had happened to him the last few weeks. “Farmville contains multitudes,” I texted a friend. “Farmville contains multitudes indeed,” she texted back. “It’s the best part.”

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