Mr. Music Sells His Soul: Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond”

A song of protest has made it to the front page of The New York Times and to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. For the first time in history, the “artist” holding that number one spot has arrived there without ever having had a song on the charts before, as if airdropped onto the summit of stardom.

Recorded not in a studio but in a rustic backyard with big dogs lolling in the unmown grass and flies buzzing behind, Oliver Anthony Music posted “Rich Men North of Richmond” on YouTube on August 1st. By the 17th, he had tens of millions of hits, 17.5 million streams, and 147,000 downloads—and the attention of the nation and the world. It must be scary up on celebrity’s vertiginous peak for a provocative song and its angry singer, exposed to winds from all sides—conservative gasbags and lefty preachers.

His real name is Christopher Anthony Lunsford. He drew his nom de plume—which with the ensuing media attention and controversies soon became nom de guerre—from his grandfather, a child of the Great Depression. The young singer had never recorded anything before, just came to music when God came to him and helped him beat alcoholism and find himself through song.

Anthony has a bushy red beard, a proud and penetrating voice, and a shiny resonator guitar that retails for around $650 and goes for half that on eBay. He stepped up to the backyard mic and let loose. By orders of magnitude, it’s the most cheaply made chart-topping single ever.

Anthony’s voice pushes high into his register—a tessitura of complaint, even rage. Indeed, it’s more accurate to call “Rich Men” an anthem of anger than a protest song.

His bushy red beard matches his inflamed diction. The guitar is his battle axe, the song a war cry. The deer blind in the tree behind him in the YouTube video gives the production an embattled air, singer-songwriter under siege. If the dark forces he rails against try to track him down and silence him, he’ll climb that tree and sing from the ramparts, defending himself with guitar and maybe a gun too.

The first sound Anthony makes on “Rich Men” is not fierce strumming or the keening plaint of melody, but a barely voiced “well.” Even before the music starts, something speaks from deep within, rising up irrepressibly to his full singing tones and naming the source of his anger: “[Well] I’ve been selling my soul, workin’ all day / Overtime hours for bullshit pay.” The spirit has moved him, armed his voice for the struggle.

As Thomas Knapp argued in CounterPunch earlier this week, this searing truthfulness contrasts with the overproduced posturing of Jason Aldean in “Try That in a Small Town,” another angry song that many have seen and heard as being lit by the same far-right, racist spark as “Rich Men.” Aldean’s crooning moral enforcer wears a black hat and stands in front of the supremely white façade of a Tennessee courthouse infamous as the site of a 1927 lynching. For all the flames licking behind Aldean in the video, Anthony’s is a much scarier, wilder sound and message. The fury of his singing is focused, but with a frantic, desperate edge.

Anthony’s voice ascends to meet the violence of his words. He takes up simple musical means to convey his anger at the crushing weight of capital over labor. Anthony deploys the three chords that any guitarist must know and that are crucial to so much folk music—indeed, music of any kind. Music theory describes them with Roman numerals: I, IV, and V, or, more highfalutin, as tonic, subdominant, and dominant.

Yet the song’s dogged melody clings to the notes of the home chord even when the harmony moves away from it. I hope I’ll not have to forfeit my interpretative license when I claim that this hard-bitten musical resolve undergirds the song’s message of resistance. Anthony’s music will not be bent by the rules handed down by elites.

The only departure from these three building-block chords, inexhaustible and endlessly exploited musical workers that they are, is the turn to a bittersweet “deceptive cadence”—a minor chord built on the sixth scale degree (vi; the submediant!). Here Anthony’s lyric lands on another profanity that leads into the chorus: “It’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to.”

He’s not wrong there, but he is wrong elsewhere.

The problems with Anthony’s protest are already advertised by the title of his hit. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, seceded from the North. He waves the Bloody Shirt before he sings a note.

After directing his fury at unnamed oligarchs (“These rich men north of Richmond”), Anthony focuses his indignation on made-up demons: oversized welfare queens using government handouts to buy candy, and international pedophilia rings (“I wish that politicians would look out for miners / And not just minors on an island somewhere”). That line is apparently a reference to Jeffrey Epstein and also the independent film Sound of Freedom. This summer’s hit about child trafficking scored big with the Christian right and QAnon. Like Anthony’s “Rich Men,” the movie bypassed the studio system and thrived at the box office thanks to social media platforms and fan-powered funding strategies (e.g., the increasingly antiquated purchase of downloads, a metric that is given extra weight in tabulating chart positions).

Resisting cooptation, Anthony insists that politically he’s “right down the middle.” He presents himself as a working man of God, a prophet of discontent. In a  live appearance this week in his hometown of Farmville, Virginia, he sang, “Republicans and Democrats, I swear they’re all full of crap.” Conservative pundits and politicians have tried to shackle him to Jason Aldean. Marjorie Taylor Greene lashed his song to the grille of her GMC Yukon SUV. But Anthony’s latest comments embracing “diversity” have the right-wing nuts fleeing his standard.

Anthony claims that he’s just “an idiot with a guitar.” He’s not. His music unleashes that most dangerous of all forces: authenticity. Anthony’s latest offering, “Brink of War,” posted to YouTube on Wednesday, is born of dismay and disgust at militarism. Prayer is his answer, the call of home a bulwark against insanity and death. The lyric’s protagonist soldiers on because only he is left to look after his dog. The song gives voice to a larger economic and ecological critique:

Seven generations farmin’ the ground
Grandson sells it to a man from out of town.
Two weeks later the trees go down
Only got concrete growin’ around.

This week the English singer-songwriter and activist Billy Bragg generously provided his own song in answer to the anger of Anthony’s “Rich Men.” Bragg took Anthony to task for directing his resentment at unfortunate folks rather than the billionaires of his song’s title. “Woody Guthrie has been whispering in my ear ‘help that guy out’,” Bragg told The Guardian earlier this week, then followed up his song with his own opinion piece about the protest tradition of “answer songs.” Like his younger Virginian colleague equipped with only his voice and guitar, Bragg’s brilliant and biting transformation of Anthony’s title to “Rich Men Earning North of a Million” proclaimed this call to action: “Unionize!”

The targets that Anthony wrong-headedly lashed out at helped propel him to the top of the charts, fame and infamy now wrestling in and for his soul. But the young singer has bigger and better messages to impart, ones that should rightly frighten the parties in power and the war machine they nourish, that enriches them, that impoverishes working people, and that wrecks the natural world.

Here’s hoping that Anthony listens to Bragg. A duet would be truly dangerous.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com