On Oliver Anthony & His Viral “Rich Men North of Richmond”

In the independent country music world, we’re living in an era when the dog has caught the proverbial car, and the next question is, “What do we do next?” Only a few short years ago, there were just a few top spots for independent artists to squeeze out success in between the margins of the mainstream, and most independent artists were resigned to waiting tables and taking out bids on construction contracts between tours.

Now thanks to the massive commercial success of guys like Zach Bryan and Tyler Childers, earnest songwriters with raspy voices are getting signed to major label deals through their own subsidiary publishing companies so they retain creative control, and are receiving six and sometimes even seven figure signing bonuses on spec. It’s insane.

We’re already a few years past the point where plucking a Virginia or Kentucky native out of the holler, propping them up in front of a microphone in the patch of woods behind the Piggly-Wiggly, and having them bray about coal, cocaine, and how there’s coal in their cocaine started to feel a bit overdone. Tyler Childers was a transformational artist, but the dopplegangers are coming out of the woodwork, and at some point it begins to become to domain of parody.

What’s happening right now is like what happened in Haight-Ashbury and Laurel Canyon in the ’60s with psychedelic music, or Seattle in the ’90s with grunge. It’s a feeding frenzy. And though it’s an amazing time in country music amid this resurgence of authenticity, it comes with serious risks of oversaturation, and perhaps, unsustainability.

Just this week I was speaking to a prominent record label chief who said they’re pretty much done with this segment of authentic Appalachian music and unpolished singer/songwriters. The sweepstakes to land the next Zach Bryan has gotten so rich and ridiculous, the price of poker has basically priced them out. There are still some winners out there to be signed. But if it this stuff gets too sensational, everyone could end up losing if it becomes a craze and a crash, like the Mumford & Sons era.

Enter Oliver Anthony, and the super-viral recording of his song “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Undoubtedly, it is quite a remarkable song and performance. He’s a songwriter from the Piedmont town of Farmville, Virginia who lives with his 3 dogs on a plot of land that he’s planning to raise livestock on. Oliver Anthony channels all the rage of the American working man and articulates it excellently into a song that’s resonating palpably with people for very real reasons.

This isn’t the first song and video from Oliver Anthony either. Searching through YouTube, there are a host of similar performances, and each one showcases sincere sentiments, honest emotion, while displaying gifted songwriting chops backed by a strong voice that deserves to be taken seriously. Whatever hype happens to be behind this particular viral moment involving “Rich Men North of Richmond,” there is substance and body behind what Oliver Anthony is doing.

But it is also fair to point out that a significant portion of the virility of this song is due to it getting pushed very specifically through political channels. This truth isn’t pointed out necessarily to say it’s problematic. It’s just a large part of why this song and this artist is going so crazy at this moment in time while others are going ignored.

As great as Oliver Anthony and “Rich Men North of Richmond” is, it’s a fair question to ask if it’s significantly different or better than certain viral videos from Logan Halstead, Cole Chaney, Drayton Farley, or the dozen other earnest Appalachia-esque songwriters that have emerged in the Tyler Childers era.

Some will say “Rich Men North of Richmond” is sort of a thinking man’s version, or an authentic Appalachian version of Jason Aldean’s “Try That In A Small Town.” Though the working man sentiments in the song will be well-received more universally, it’s lines criticizing the government like … “they want to know what you think, want to know what you do, and they don’t think you know, but I know that you do. And your dollar ain’t shit, and it’s taxed to no end…”

…and “…the obese milking welfare. If you’re 5’3”, and 300 lbs. taxes ought not pay for your bags of fudge rounds. They’re putting themselves six feet in the ground, ’cause all this damn country does is keep on kicking them down” that are finding favor with a specific online demographic.

If Jason Aldean’s “Try That In A Small Town” is any indication, it will take about two months for the mainstream media to catch up to “Rich Men North of Richmond,” and claim it’s full of dog whistles. Oliver Anthony can only hope. Because if you think this song’s going viral now, wait until the press declares it verboten. Then it will really be sent into the stratosphere as the press continues to grossly misunderstand the power dynamics of the zeitgeist.

Will Oliver Anthony become the next Tyler Childers or Zach Bryan? Only time will tell. But it’s also worth distinguishing the difference between Tyler Childers’ ascent and Zach Bryan’s, despite Barstool Sports claiming, “Oliver Anthony Is An Appalachian Country Artist In The Same Vein As Tyler Childers and Zach Bryan.”

Last time I checked Zach Bryan was from Oklahoma. But this is what you get from these viral moments: all kinds of uninformed media jumping into the feeding frenzy for clicks. People also wondered after the Jason Aldean controversy if it would lead to either similar copycat songs, or an increased appetite for leaning to the right. Again, comparing the two songs is probably not fair, but they do overlap in some respects.

Despite this moment of roots resurgence in country music being so incredibly rewarding in so many ways—and so many of the hopes that a website like Saving Country Music had when it was launched in 2008 are being realized—it’s bittersweet as well. There are many artists that deserve the attention Oliver Anthony is receiving now that won’t receive 10% of it, or even 1% of it since their careers were established before this current Appalachian and singer/songwriter craze, and because they’re not bearded dues from Appalachia.

You think about a songwriter like Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory, who in his prime and perhaps still today could write circles around the current crop of performers. You think of Joseph Huber and his original band the .357 String Band that never got the due they deserved, and were forced to disband. These were generational talents who got summarily overlooked because they came up at a time when there was no support for this kind of music. Now, a viral video will get managers, label heads, and booking agents slipping into an artist’s DMs, and promising them the world.

You think of Appalachia women like Angela Autumn who in some respects reminds you of Sierra Ferrell, and has every bit of the talent of Oliver Anthony and others. What the YouTube algorithm latches onto and the general public gets behind sometimes feels so capricious and mercurial, and it’s not always talent that determines who and what is graced with attention. It’s often just timing. Timing and the political quotient is definitely at work behind Oliver Anthony’s moment. Perhaps the difference though is talent is too.

None of this is Oliver Anthony’s fault. He wrote a song that is resonating with people, and has perhaps a whole album of them ready to be recorded. That will be the next step as he takes this viral moment and attempts to monetize it and turn it into substantive returns.

But it also feels like this moment deserves a clear-eyed assessment from everyone involved: fans, artists, and industry. This week started here at Saving Country Music with serious thoughts and conversations about the sustainability of this whole movement and the concern of it overheating. Then here comes Oliver Anthony with a viral moment to underscore this concern.

It feels like we’re just a “Wagon Wheel” or “Achy Breaky Heart” moment away from Appalachian songwriters going from the coolest thing in country music to being cool to hate on because of the popularity and omnipresence of these dudes.

Appalachia songwriters singing about the struggles of themselves and their neighbors is the very bedrock of country music and will always be relevant to some portion of the country audience. But if originality, innovation, and authentic talent is not part of the quotient, it could cause this current moment to flame out quickly, with this music cascading back to obscurity. This would probably be welcomed by some fans. But it would also put the support for these artists on a perilous footing.

These were my thoughts when listening and looking into Oliver Anthony and “Rich Men North of Richmond.” And now, for the love of all things holy, please God, stop emailing me en masse about it.

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