There are a lot of threads and tentacles to talk about and run down when it comes to the ultra viral explosion of Oliver Anthony and the video for his song “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Many of these topics are being delved into by Saving Country Music as we speak, and it will take some time to assemble all of the information and report on it accurately.
But one pressing question swirling around the internet is if Oliver Anthony is an “industry plant.” Though this is a sexy idea to some on social media, there is certainly no evidence this is the case, at least not so far. None of the copyrights on his music are attributed to major labels or bigger companies. His music is being distributed by DistroKid, which specializes in disseminating music on DSPs for unsigned and independently-published artists.
Was Oliver Anthony the benefactor of some sort of right-wing conspiracy to get his music to go viral? Unquestionably, one of the things that shot “Rich Men North of Richmond” into the stratosphere was the proliferation of right wing social media influencers and personalities pushing the song when it was first released—something Saving Country Music and others rightfully pointed out when the song first emerged.
But whether it was some sort of underhanded “conspiracy” remains to be seen, and so far there is only speculation and circumstantial evidence that this might be the case. When someone explodes in popularity like this, it deserves a skeptical eye from the public and the press. But there is also an element of conspiracy and cope to some who’ve latched onto the idea that the only reason this song is perhaps the most popular song in the world at the moment is because of smoke and mirrors.
Yes, “Rich Man from Richmond” definitely had some help from conservative personalities out of the chute. But don’t discount how much and how deep this song is resonating with everyday listeners, including many in the center, and even some on the left.
There has also been an effort to expose Oliver Anthony as some sort of fraud by people saying that he’s not even from Appalachia or coal country. But Anthony never claimed that he was. It said expressly in the description of the “Rich Man from Richmond” video that he was from Farmville, Virginia, which is in the Piedmont region of the state, not Appalachia. It was the media (including Saving Country Music initially) that lumped him in with coal country/Appalachian performers without adding clarification. His style is certainly in that Appalachian vein, but he never claimed to be Appalachian.
People have even delved into his personal history, claiming that he “scrubbed” parts of his past before releasing the video. But Oliver Anthony has a right to his privacy like anyone else, and it’s customary for any artist, unsigned or otherwise, to update their front-facing internet information when attempting to launch a career, no different than you might freshen your resume and LinkedIn page before you apply for a new job.
Others are saying Anthony is a fraud because he’s clearly a wealthy landowner with 90 acres. Once again, it says in the description of the video itself, “Oliver resides in Farmville, VA with his 3 dogs and a plot of land he plans on turning into a small farm to raise livestock.” Ask any farmer: 90 acres is a small farm. Most 90-acre farms cannot cash flow. It’s too small. There is nothing that seems underhanded or surreptitious about any of this. Anthony also says that he wrote “Rich Men North of Richmond” specifically when he was working in a factory in western North Carolina. It’s not necessarily meant to reflect his current status.
Some of the more controversial lines in the song are a bit more fair to scrutinize. Where you fall on the “bags of fudge rounds” line has stimulated spirited debate. The specific line seems to be very judgemental of poor people on food assistance, as well as people who struggle with obesity. As others have pointed out though, if you zoom out from that line, it seems Anthony is also talking about poor people who are starving, and how the government is not helping people with food assistance, but helping to keep them down by enabling them. Either way, it’s that line that has made the song more polarizing than it might otherwise be.
A line that should not be as polarizing is the “minors on an island” that makes reference to Jeffrey Epstein. Though some critics of the song and people on the left are couching this as conservative conspiracy, Jeffrey Epstein was a convicted sex offender who plead guilty to sexually assaulting dozens of underage girls—and even after this conviction, continued to do business with world leaders such as Ehud Barak, American Presidents like Bill Clinton who two separate eyewitnesses claim they saw on Epstein’s island specifically, business leaders like Bill Gates, and individuals from academia such as Alan Dershowitz.
This is not conspiracy theory. Jeffrey Epstein had an island where powerful people went to have sex with underage girls. Sure, perhaps the political right likes to glorify and sensationalize this concern to allude that sex trafficking is more prolific among powerful people than it is. But for some strange reason, some on the left seems to be more than willing to couch it as conspiracy.
Regardless of the specifics, hopefully at some point we will be able to assemble a complete picture of how Oliver Anthony and “Rich Me From Richmond” went viral. Saving Country Music has emails and messages out to Oliver Anthony himself, YouTube Channel RadioWV that posted the original video, and others to try and track all of that information down. But as that information is assembled and verified, there is something that seems to be more pressing at this very moment that deserves to be addressed.
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One of the main guys who’s been pushing Oliver Anthony is a right-leaning online media mogul/influencer named Jason Howerton. Late on August 10th as the “Rich Men North of Richmond” was blowing up, he tweeted out, “BREAKING: After offering to cover the cost to produce Oliver Anthony’s album, legendary country producer John Rich has agreed to PRODUCE THAT RECORD!! Dan Bongino offers to assist with distribution. Holy s**t!!!!”
John Rich then tweeted out on August 12th, “I’ve had the pleasure of a getting to know Oliver Anthony on a couple of long phone calls and let me tell you, he’s the REAL DEAL on every level. This man is going to be a force to reckon with! A new voice for The People.”
It’s hard to express in human language what an unconscionably, aggressively, and horrifically stupid idea it is to have John Rich produce a potential Oliver Anthony album. John Rich will take everything that is cool about the Oliver Anthony phenomenon, and crush it immediately.
One of the reasons that “Rich Men North of Richmond” resonated with people is because its populist message reached people across the aisle on the center and the left, despite some of the more debated and controversial lines. It resonated in a way that illustrates how the real divide in America is not actually right vs. left, or Black vs. White, but up vs. down, with the “up” weaponizing identity and meaningless culture war issues to keep the “down” warring with each other, and failing to pay attention how they are all getting fleeced universally.
John Rich is a lock step professional political pundit of the two-party mainstream political duopoly. He is a product and player in the very system that “Rich Men North of Richmond” rages against. That is not to say that John Rich isn’t a talented artist, songwriter, producer, or even political pundit, or to even disagree with John Rich’s politics. It’s just to say that he is not the right man for the job, and for a host of reasons.
Though media influencer Jason Howerton characterized John Rich as a “legendary country producer,” anyone who knows anything at all about country music would never characterize John Rich in that capacity. The albums that John Rich has produced are Big & Rich albums, his own solo albums, a couple of albums from Gretchen Wilson, and a few other one-off projects here and there. No offense to the production work that John Rich has done. But beyond projects not involving John Rich, his production resume is barely notable.
Furthermore, the work that John Rich has done as a producer is so far afield from the sound and style of Oliver Anthony, it’s a catastrophic proposition that he produce the viral star, at least on paper. One of the reasons “Rich Men North of Richmond” resonated so deeply is because it tapped into the vein of appeal for authentic Appalachian voices that has been exploding in popularity through artists such as Tyler Childers, Sierra Ferrell, and Charles Wesley Godwin, as well as raw and earnest songwriters like Zach Bryan.
The reason this music has found such explosive resonance and popularity despite its lack of on-the-surface commercial appeal is because it is the exact antithesis of polished mainstream country the likes that John Rich has been making and producing throughout his career. Similar to the political conflict, John Rich is the polar opposite sonically to what is at the heart of Oliver Anthony’s appeal.
If you fielded a depth chart of country music performers at the moment, John Rich would likely not be in the Top 200. He is not a relevant country music artist in the current landscape. He is a once-relevant country artist who is now known for his political stances and commentary.
Sierra Ferrell and Charles Wesley Godwin are fives times more popular, relevant, and bigger live draws currently in country music than John Rich is. John doesn’t even really tour anymore, because he couldn’t even make it on the county fair or casino circuit. This is why he transitioned to being a political pundit and booking speaking engagements as opposed to performing ones.
Oliver Anthony doesn’t need John Rich. John Rich needs Oliver Anthony. Oliver Anthony is a much bigger, and way more relevant country music star than John Rich.
I get it. If you’re a political person—especially on the right—John Rich looms large in your world because of the fights he’s fought and the stances he’s taken. And you also probably know that he was a country music star at some point. That’s what made him a public figure in the first place. If you’re conservative Arizona politician and influencer like Kari Lake, then you may say something like, “John Rich is the original country music star of the people so if he vouches for Oliver— that means he is the real deal,” like she tweeted out.
But this is not the domain of politics. This is the domain of music. Kari Lake, Jason Howerton, and conservative commentator Dan Bongino should not be the ones making decisions or giving guidance to Oliver Anthony about how should be producing his album, or anything when it comes to the musical realm.
This situation feels very similar to when Billy Ray Cyrus latched on to Lil Nas X for an “Old Town Road” remix. Billy Ray Cyrus was popular as a public personality since he’s Miley Cyrus’s father, but he was considered a laughing stock in the country music world by many at the time (and still is), fair or not. This was underscored when during the wild popularity of “Old Town Road” and Cyrus’s remix, Billy Ray released a new album called The Snakedoctor Circus, and it sold all of 425 copies. Cyrus had 1.6 million Twitter followers at the time (John Rich has 972K), but he was patently irrelevant in country music.
Another example is when they took the “Wal-Mart Yodel Boy” Mason Ramsey, singed him to Big Loud Records, and hooked him up with Nickelback/Florida Georgia Line producer Joey Moi. It absolutely cratered Mason Ramsey’s prospects. What was cool about Ramsey is how he was emulating Hank Williams and classic country, and they tried to transition him to a modern pop country star.
Will a similar fate befall Oliver Anthony? Probably not. If for no other reason, he is an older performer, and seems to be very self-aware about what he’s facing. He said in a followup video that he’s going to take this slow and not hastily sign anything, though we’ll see. It was also heartening to see Jamey Johnson show up at a gig Oliver Anthony played at a farmer’s market in Virginia this weekend. Johnson would be in a much better position to guide this performer in the direction he should go.
But even Jamey Johnson wouldn’t be ideal. He’s an old, retired Nashville songwriter, and more of a classic/traditional country performer as opposed to a raw one in the vein of Oliver Anthony. So who would be a good producer? Dave Cobb maybe, who’s worked with a lot of these types of artists, or Sturgill Simpson, or perhaps Shooter Jennings. These would be the dream team, ideal names. John Rich would not even be in the conversation if it was taken strictly in a sonic/musical assessment. Or, Oliver Anthony could be like Zach Bryan, and produce stuff himself. That seemed to work out for Zach.
And again, this isn’t necessarily anything against John Rich personally. When Jason Isbell attacked conservative songwriters, Saving Country Music defended John Rich, specifically pointing to his song “Shutting Detroit Down” that featured Kris Kristofferson in the video, and hits on some of the blue collar themes Oliver Anthony does.
But the worst part about a collaboration with John Rich is it would immediately set in concrete that he is a political artist. Few if anyone from the political center or left would take him seriously. We’re already seeing this happen due to how so many polarizing political pundits are pushing Oliver Anthony, making him a product of the culture war, fair or not. If he’s smart, he would distance himself from all of these polarizing characters, be his own man, and surround himself with musical people to help him make musical decisions.
In the video Oliver Anthony published right before “Rich Men North of Richmond,” he says, “I sit pretty dead center down the aisle on politics, and always always have. It seems like both sides serve the same master. And that master is not someone of any good to the people of this country.”
He also says in the video that he wants to help people with his music. “I meet people from all across the country, and the universal thing I see is that no matter how hard they push, and how much effort they put in to whatever it is they’re doing, they just can’t quite get ahead. I want to be a voice for those people.”
But if Oliver Anthony’s music is produced by John Rich and distributed by Dan Bongino, it will be inherently political, no matter the lyrical content, or the quality of the recordings. And most importantly, it will not reach many of the people that Oliver Anthony wants to, just like terse political stances and statements from left-leaning performers recuse half of the population from listening to them due to political polarization, and often, unfairly.
Oliver Anthony could truly be a transformational artist in America with a resonant, populist message at a time when there is an insatiable appetite for it, proven by the viral nature of “Rich Men North of Richmond.” But for that to be effective, he needs to cut loose of the political animals who’ve latched on to him for their own selfish reasons, and sing from his own heart, and his own voice, and find the embrace of the music community, not the political one.