The country ballads of rural America versus the Washington elites

Oliver Anthony — the voice of the working class, who has resisted being exploited by the Republicans — and the pro-Trump country star Jason Aldean have instigated a political and cultural debate in the United States

Oliver Anthony's
Republican presidential candidates watch Oliver Anthony's video of his song 'Rich Men North of Richmond' at his first debate of the presidential campaign, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 23, 2023.BRIAN SNYDER (REUTERS)
Iker Seisdedos

There’s a new twist to the very American myth of the common man who — fed up with his voice not being heard — raises it against the system. It’s in the form of a big guy with a red beard, armed with a guitar. Oliver Anthony is a country-folk singer who, until very recently, wasn’t doing so well. But his life — marked by mental problems and alcoholism — immediately changed with the upload of a music video on August 11. In it, he can be seen in the middle of the forest, accompanied by two of his three dogs, singing a ballad called Rich Men North of Richmond. He plays with words, criticizing the poor state of the world that the rich men beyond the capital of Virginia are leaving him and those like him. Richmond was also the capital of the Confederacy during the American Civil War (1861-65).

About 100 miles north of Richmond — which forms a kind of mental border between the South and the North — is Washington, D.C. Home of the elites and the capital of the Union. Anthony blames the powerful men of that city for having “sold their souls” and for suffocating common folk with inflation and taxes. He accuses them of doing everything possible to control people.

The song would have pleased Ronald Reagan, who coined the phrase, “The government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.” The Republican president, who governed from 1981 until 1989, was also known for attacking those who benefitted from the social welfare system.

Billy Bragg — the famous British singer-songwriter, who is on the left of the political spectrum — responded to Anthony’s ballad a couple of weeks after it was released, with an op-ed in The Guardian, in which he writes: “Oliver Anthony’s divisive song claiming solidarity with workers only benefits the rich who exploit them.” He also reproaches the folk singer for pitting some oppressed people against others.

The anthem for Republicans

Prominent members of the political and media right rushed to appropriate the message of authenticity (or, at least, the illusion of it) conveyed by the video of Rich Men North of Richmond. They believed they had found the perfect anthem of working, forgotten America against Joe Biden’s “socialist regime.” And this is how Anthony — who unexpectedly went to number one on the charts and accumulated more than 60 millions views on YouTube and 50 million listens on Spotify — was placed at the center of a culture war.

Before the start of the unpleasant skirmish that was the first Republican presidential primary debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the organizers from the Fox News network opened with Anthony’s music video. They then asked the participants for their opinion on why they believed this had touched a nerve in American society. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said: “Our country is in decline… those rich men north of Richmond have put us in this situation.”

Funnily enough, the next day — perhaps in yet another sign that everyone has conspired to oppose DeSantis and his languishing quest for the White House — the musician responded with another video. For 10 minutes, he said that he also considers Governor DeSantis and the rest of those behind the lecterns in Milwaukee to be rich men north of Richmond (or rich women, if you take Nikki Haley into account). “This isn’t about Joe Biden,” he added. “It’s much bigger than him.” And the truth is that the spell of his song has gone beyond the conservative audience: his ballad has resonated with listeners across the political spectrum, who empathize with the idea of the common man and his list of complaints against power.

Anthony’s success has come in the middle of a profitable season for country music in the United States, thanks to another hit by Jason Aldean — a Trumpist troubadour from rural America. A native of Macon, Georgia — and very comfortable with the marriage between country music and conservative values — Aldean recently put out a song titled Try That in a Small Town. It’s meant to be a defense of the life and customs of small American towns, against the liberal depravity and crimes of the cities.

Aldean’s music video has caused controversy. In large part, it’s because it was filmed in the courthouse of a county in Tennessee, where a Black boy was lynched in 1927. The Country Music Television network quickly banned the broadcast of the clip — which reproduces images of riots during the Black Lives Matter protests and of security camera footage of stores being robbed — noting that it spreads racist messages and that it contains verses that glorify armed violence.

Aldean doesn’t hide his sympathy for Donald Trump. He frequently promotes his wife’s brand of T-shirts, which are emblazoned with messages directed at the Biden administration — “Close the fucking border” — or slogans such as, “It’s not conservatism, it’s common sense.” He has defended himself by saying that his tribute to life in a small community has been confused with something else.

Riding the controversy, the singer — who has won five Grammys — also went to number one on the Billboard list for the first time in his career. This is perhaps a signal that digital consumption of music has turned rankings into a rather chaotic and unpredictable affair. Aldean also achieved this during a week in which a historic milestone occurred: the three places in the lead on the charts were all country songs (the second was Last Night by Morgan Wallen and the third was Fast Car, a version of the Tracy Chapman classic, interpreted by Luke Combs).

“The three songs — but especially Aldean’s and Wallen’s — are hits, encouraged not so much by fans of the genre, but by people interested in promoting a certain political agenda,” explains David Cantwell, author of The Running Kind: Listening to Merle Haggard, about the outlaw country legend. The strategy denounced by Cantwell would explain why Aldean’s song plummeted to number 21 on Billboard the following week.

A somewhat schematic view of the matter has traditionally associated country music with conservatism in the United States (with the exception of Dolly Parton, perhaps). “In the last two years, it seemed like [country music] was opening up to other realities, Black or queer artists… but the latest hits return to an old pattern: they are starring angry white men,” lamented Professor Charles Hughes, from Rhodes College, during an interview on NPR. While Anthony has made it clear that there is no political motivation in his heart, the truth is that the Republican Party has long found the formula to channel white anger and resentment against the elites.

In Rich Men North of Richmond, the lyrics include a reference to serial pedophile Jeffrey Epstein — a line that is being scrutinized by those on both the left and the right. But Anthony has been difficult to get a hold of to explain his thoughts further. He has granted a single interview to Joe Rogan. On his social media, the singer claimed that he had rejected an $8 million offer from a multinational recording company.

Anthony hasn’t just been elusive for media outlets and record companies — it’s also hard for his fans to see him live. While his schedule is filling up with dates at festivals spread across Middle America — from Kentucky to Missouri — at the moment, he has only appeared a couple of times in clubs in North Carolina and at a concert (that immediately sold out) in Farmville, Virginia, his hometown — about one hour south of Richmond.

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