A young man with a thick red beard, who says he currently lives in “a 27’ camper with a tarp on the roof that I got off of Craigslist for $750”, has achieved something that even acts such as Bruce Springsteen and One Direction have never attained: a US number one hit.
On August 8, the Virginia native, who goes by the stage name Oliver Anthony, appeared in a YouTube video. Playing an acoustic guitar with a forest behind him and three dogs at his feet, Anthony wails into a microphone about working “overtime hours for bullshit pay”. The “rich men north of Richmond” are to blame for why “your dollar ain’t shit and it’s taxed to no end”, he sings, growing so impassioned that his face turns pink.
In the span of two weeks, “Rich Men North of Richmond” has shot from anonymity to the top of the Billboard chart, the music industry’s traditional benchmark for success. It is the first time that a musician has debuted at number one with no prior chart history, according to Billboard.
The song’s meteoric rise is the result of a unique confluence of factors: the machinations of the contemporary music industry, working-class angst that has been simmering for the past decade, and the splintering of both media and audiences.
In recent days, the unlikely hit has confounded music executives, while delighting Fox News pundits and other conservative media figures and politicians.
The first question at this week’s Republican primary debate, the kick-off to American election season, was not about president Joe Biden, the economy or even the absent candidate, Donald Trump — it was about “Rich Men North of Richmond”. Ron DeSantis cited the song’s popularity as evidence that “we must reverse Bidenomics”.
Brian Mansfield, managing editor of music publication Country Insider, says: “This is the closest thing to a true overnight sensation that any of us have ever seen.
“It literally did come out of nowhere. Nobody in Nashville knew who this guy was.”
In his own words, Oliver Anthony is “nothing special”, “not a good musician” and “not a very good person”.
Anthony, whose real name is Christopher Anthony Lunsford, dropped out of high school over a decade ago and worked in factories, including a North Carolina paper mill where he laboured six days a week for $14.50 an hour in conditions he describes as “a living hell”. After an accident that fractured his skull, he moved back to Virginia and started working in industrial sales, though he has since quit his job to pursue music full time.
In 2019, Anthony paid $97,500 for the off-the-grid property where he lives and presumably shoots his music videos. Over the past five years, he says, he has struggled with depression and alcoholism. “I have spent many nights feeling hopeless, that the greatest country on Earth is quickly fading away”, he recently wrote on Facebook.
About a year ago, after dabbling in covers of other artists, including a “country twist” on Billie Eilish, he started posting his own music online. It wasn’t until recently that he caught the eye of conservative media stalwarts such as podcaster Joe Rogan, the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh and “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, whose embrace of the country ballad on social media helped power its popularity.
“There has clearly been an organised effort on the part of the conservative influencer community to promote this song”, says Mansfield, though “nobody really knows how much of that, if any, was co-ordinated with the singer”.
Anthony’s ascent is at least partially enabled by a loophole that fandoms regularly exploit to manipulate the music charts.
In the US, streaming has made digital song downloads obsolete. But Billboard continues to factor downloads into its all-powerful chart, giving them more weight than free streams. Savvy teenagers buy these downloads to propel their favourite stars up the charts, sometimes organising co-ordinated campaigns for stars such as Taylor Swift. Now, US conservatives have seemingly joined in.
Some 147,000 download sales helped Anthony rise up the chart, although he was also popular on streaming platforms — “Rich Men” was streamed 17.5mn times during the week, with relatively little radio play and zero traditional marketing.
While Anthony says he is “dead centre down the aisle” politically, some of his lyrics tap into rightwing US themes, such as criticism of big government and a Trumpian scepticism of the establishment.
“If you’re five-foot-three and you’re three-hundred pounds, taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds”, Anthony sings, accusing obese people of “milking welfare”. His success represents “a real thirst for outlaw country”, says a longtime music executive, pointing to the recent popularity of acts such as Zach Bryan and Sturgill Simpson.
That the song took centre stage on one of Fox News’s biggest nights of the year shows the degree to which conservative media fixtures have latched on to Anthony as their Appalachian hero (ironically, given he is not actually from the region).
Anthony on Friday posted a video in which he says he was “aggravated” by how the conservative press has weaponised his song.
“It was funny seeing it at the presidential debate because I wrote that song about those people . . . on that stage”, he says. “So for them to have to sit there and listen to it, that cracks me up”.
In a sign of how fast the discourse moves online, some conservatives had already turned on Anthony, after he championed “diversity” in a recent interview. “Promoted algorithm boosted ‘based’ red beard hillbilly song guy was faking his accent”, wrote X Corp user @Black_Pilled. The post has been “liked” more than 9,000 times.