To many people, the most significant thing about the viral emergence of folk-country songwriter Oliver Anthony this month wasn’t his raw voice or melancholy tunes — it was the character of his newfound fan base.
I first came across the red-bearded Virginian on the feed of fascist-friendly Pizzagate theorist Jack Posobiec, who enthusiastically shared a video of Anthony singing “Rich Men North of Richmond” by saying he couldn’t “remember the last time a new song hit me like this.”
The song, a backcountry lamentation about obese welfare cheats, taxes, Jeffrey Epstein, and the titular shadowy rich men who seek to control the working man’s thoughts, was catnip to the MAGA crowd. Reps. Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Green hailed it as an anthem for the victims struggling in Joe Biden’s America.
Coming on the heels of the wildfire success of Jason Aldean’s “Try That In a Small Town” and the QAnon-themed movie “The Sound of Freedom,” starring right-wing actor Jim Caveziel, Anthony’s popularity seemed to mark a watershed moment for MAGA cultural power.
As if to push back against that moment, critics began to rise up with qualms. The Washington Post worried that “Rich Men” “signals a mainstreaming of ideas that were once fringe.” New York magazine subjected it to a comically intense 2,000-word interrogation, summoning economic data and historical analysis to conclude that its “gripes” are “ill-founded.” The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie accused Oliver of giving “comfort to those with the boot on his neck.”
I share the skepticism of any shiny new bauble being celebrated by the likes of Greene and Boebert. But here’s the thing: “Rich Men North of Richmond” is… not bad.
Sure, the fact that Anthony chooses the capital of the Confederacy as the dividing line between the good guys and the bad guys is a red flag.
But as a song, it is simple and unadorned, giving plenty of running room for Anthony’s clear baritone, which manages to be sharp and vulnerable at the same time.Most important, as a songwriter and musician, Anthony is a vast improvement over his peers in the pantheon of celebrated right-wing musicians. That’s not saying much, given that the competition is dominated by Ted Nugent and Kid Rock. But whether you think Oliver is Trojan-horsing crypto-racist ideology into the cultural conversation or not, you have to admit that his success represents progress over the dick-banging, posturing schlock that counts as “conservative music” these days.
A glance at Oliver’s available online catalog — which almost exclusively consists of solo arrangements, with Oliver accompanying himself with a mournful, unamplified Gretsch resonator guitar — makes clear that he is capable of a level of subtlety and self-awareness that escape the likes of Kid Rock and Nugent. As a songwriter steeped in the Appalachian tradition, Oliver is as concerned with sin, self-doubt, and the struggle to be a good person in a fallen world as he is with tribal politics.
Although “Richmond” is more of a blast of rage than a self-lacerating hymn, its narrator still laments that he is wasting his life away. “I Want to Go Home,” which was praised by Sen. Ted Cruz as “a song for our time,” is more explicitly melancholy. The narrator is lucky not to be “strung up” in the “psych ward,” and finds himself beseeching the lord when he reaches the end of his rope: “I don’t know which road to go / It’s been so long / I just know I didn’t used to wake up feelin’ this way / Cussin’ myself every damn day.”
It feels closer to “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” than “God Bless the USA.”As a songwriter and performer, Oliver is clearly positioning himself as an inheritor to the straight-country tradition of Hank Williams and the Louvin Brothers, whose themes of sorrow, regret, self-doubt, and redemption don’t mix well with uncomplicated MAGA triumphalism.
“I Gotta Get Sober” is a slow minor-key waltz with a delightfully tight classic-country chorus: “I’ve gotta get sober / I’ve gotta start livin’ right / And I don’t know how it’s gonna go / But it ain’t gonna happen tonight.”