History was made on August 21 when a singer-songwriter from rural Virginia topped the Billboard Hot 100 despite having no prior chart history. What makes this even more remarkable is that Oliver Anthony doesn’t even have a recording contract, and Rich Men North of Richmond was the first time he ever used professional recording equipment instead of his cell phone. The song went viral on YouTube for its critique of Washington politicians who ignore the struggles of working-class people like Anthony, and was quickly embraced by right-wing Republicans.
Only Anthony’s plaintive voice and dobro guitar can be heard in Rich Men North of Richmond. There are no other arrangements or instruments. It’s an unfiltered sound that fuels the heartfelt country songs coming from the secluded Virginia farm where the singer-songwriter lives with his three dogs and composes music in his spare time. A friend who works for RadioWV, a West Virginia Instagram page dedicated to the region’s musical talent, posted the video hoping to get 300,000 views. In less than two weeks, the song garnered over 31 million views on YouTube and 15 million streams on Spotify.
The song skyrocketed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, a chart that combines audio and video streaming, radio airplay, and physical sales across all music genres. Surprisingly, Anthony’s song claimed the top spot without any radio promotion. Billboard reported 17.5 million views and 147,000 downloads of the song, far surpassing the 15,000 weekly downloads of a typical No.1 song on the Hot 100 chart.
The heart of the song’s message is in 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 shit and it’s taxed to no end / ‘Cause of rich men north of Richmond.”
In a lengthy Facebook post, Anthony reveals that his legal name is Christopher Anthony Lunsford and reflects on the success of the song, which came as a shock to someone who started making music in 2021 because he was suffering from mental health problems and depression. “These songs have connected with millions of people on such a deep level because they’re being sung by someone feeling the words in the very moment they were being sung. No editing, no agent, no bullshit. Just some idiot and his guitar. The style of music that we should have never gotten away from in the first place.”
Lunsford, who is originally from Farmville, a small town west of Richmond (southeast Virginia), writes, “My grandfather was Oliver Anthony, and ‘Oliver Anthony Music’ is a dedication not only to him, but 1930s Appalachia where he was born and raised. Dirt floors, seven kids, hard times.” It’s the setting of many country songs, like Loretta Lynn’s early hit, Coal Miner’s Daughter (1969).
Anthony shared some of his personal story with his new followers. He dropped out of high school at the age of 17, and worked a number of factory jobs in North Carolina, his last being at a paper mill. “I worked 3rd shift, 6 days a week for $14.50 an hour in a living hell. In 2013, I had a bad fall at work and fractured my skull. It forced me to move back home to Virginia. Due to complications from the injury, it took me 6 months or so before I could work again.” Since 2014, he has worked in sales for a manufacturing company, traveling all over Virginia and the Carolinas, and meeting other blue collar workers. “People are SO damn tired of being neglected, divided and manipulated.”
After going viral, Anthony reflected on his newfound fame and what it means to him. “I never wanted to be a full time musician, much less sit at the top of the iTunes charts... People in the music industry give me blank stares when I brush off $8 million offers. I don’t want 6 tour buses, 15 tractor trailers and a jet. I don’t want to play stadium shows, I don’t want to be in the spotlight.” Then he confesses, “There’s nothing special about me. I’m not a good musician, I’m not a very good person. I’ve spent the last 5 years struggling with mental health and using alcohol to drown it.”
Many Americans have associated the song with right-wingers who often share the opinions and complaints expressed in Anthony’s lyrics. Issues like high taxes, abuse of the welfare system, and mistreatment of veterans, patriots and working-class people. In one part of the song, Anthony says politicians should focus on miners instead of “minors on islands,” a clear reference to millionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s private island in the Bahamas.
The song and its message have been touted by MAGA supporters like Marjorie Taylor Green, Matt Walsh and Kari Lake, election deniers like Donald Trump. Lake was endorsed by Trump in her race for governor of Arizona, and made baseless claims of election fraud when she lost. Despite the right-wing’s adoption of his song, Anthony will only say his political position has always been in the center. But his position on the Billboard Hot 100 is undeniable.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition