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A young man with a bushy red beard, who says he currently lives in “a 27-inch wagon with a tarpaulin on the roof that I got off Craigslist for $750,” has accomplished something even artists like Bruce Springsteen and One Direction have achieved. Never Achieved: The First US Hit.
On August 8, the Virginia native, who goes by the stage name Oliver Anthony, appeared in a YouTube video. Anthony plays acoustic guitar with a forest behind him and three dogs at his feet, sobbing into the microphone saying he works “overtime for a pittance”. “Rich men north of Richmond” are responsible for why “your dollar ain’t bad and taxed endlessly,” he sings, getting so excited his face turns pink.
Within two weeks, “Rich Men North of Richmond” rose from anonymity to the top of the Billboard charts, the traditional benchmark for success in the music industry. This is the first time that a musician has debuted at No. 1 without any previous record in the charts, according to Billboard.
The song’s rapid rise is the result of a unique combination of factors: the machinations of the contemporary music industry, working-class anxieties that have simmered for the past decade, and the division of both the media and audiences.
In recent days, the unexpected hit has bewildered music executives, while delighting Fox News pundits and other media figures and conservative politicians.
The first question in this week’s GOP primary debate, which is the start of the US election season, wasn’t about President Joe Biden, the economy, or even absentee candidate Donald Trump – it was about “the rich guys north of Richmond.”. And Ron DeSantis cited the song’s popularity as evidence that “we have to reverse Biden’s economy.”
“This is the closest thing to a real overnight sensation any of us have ever seen,” Brian Mansfield, Country Insider’s managing editor, says.
He literally came out of nowhere. Nobody in Nashville knows who this guy is.
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 more than a decade ago and worked in factories, including a paper mill in North Carolina where he worked six days a week for $14.50 an hour in conditions he described as “a living hell.” After an accident that fractured his skull, he returned to Virginia and began working in industrial sales, although he has since quit his job to pursue music full time.
In 2019, Anthony paid $97,500 for the off-grid property he lives in and supposedly shoots his music videos. He says that for the past five years he has suffered from depression and alcoholism. He recently wrote on Facebook: “I have spent many nights feeling hopeless, that the greatest country on Earth is fast fading away.”
About a year ago, after becoming involved with other artists’ covers, including Billie Eilish’s “Country Evolution,” he began posting his own music online. It didn’t catch the eye of conservative media stars until recently, like podcast host Joe Rogan, the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh and “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, whose embrace of the country song on social media helped boost its popularity.
“There was clearly an organized effort on the part of the conservative influencer community to promote this song,” says Mansfield, although “nobody really knows how much, if any, of that was coordinated with the singer.”
Anthony’s rise has been enabled at least in part by a loophole that fans regularly exploit to game the music charts.
In the United States, streaming made downloading digital songs obsolete. But Billboard continues to include downloads in its strong chart, giving it more weight than free airplay. Savvy teens buy these downloads to push their favorite stars to the top of the charts, sometimes orchestrating campaigns for stars like Taylor Swift. Now, American conservatives seem to have joined them.
The album’s approximately 147,000 downloads helped Anthony climb up the list, although it was also popular on streaming platforms – “Rich Men” was streamed 17.5 million times during the week, with relatively little radio play and no traditional marketing.
And while Anthony says he is “dead center at the bottom of the aisle” politically, some of his lyrics tap right-wing American themes, such as criticism of big government and Trumpian skepticism of the establishment.
“If you’re five foot three three hundred pounds, taxes shouldn’t pay for your bags of candy,” sings Anthony, accusing obese people of “milking care.” His success represents “a real thirst for outlaw country,” says a longtime music executive, pointing to the recent popularity of acts like Zack Bryan and Sturgill Simpson.
That the song took center stage on one of Fox News’ biggest nights of the year shows how much the conservative media has clung to Anthony as an Appalachian hero (ironically, he’s not actually from the area).
But in a sign of how quickly the rhetoric can move online, some conservatives have already turned on Anthony, after he defended “diversity” in a recent interview. “The promoted algorithm boosted Redbeard, the Song of the Hills guy was faking his accent,” X Corp user @Black_Pilled wrote. This post has been “liked” over 9,000 times.