Oliver Anthony Became a Symbol of Populist Rage. The Truth Is More Complex


N ITS USUAL HIGH NASHVILLE STYLE, the World Famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge Birthday Bash was rolling. At the renowned honky-tonk on this mid-September night, cover bands and rowdy bachelorette parties ruled. But at around 10 p.m., all eyes were on a stage smack in the middle of the city’s Broadway entertainment district. There, a red-headed and red-bearded guy of six feet six, in a T-shirt and baggy pants, cradled a Gretsch acoustic guitar. He looked more like a member of the stage crew than a Nashville star, but no one doubted that was the night’s main attraction.

Just about a month earlier, Anthony’s song “Rich Men North of Richmond” was posted to RadioWV, a YouTube channel devoted to off-the-grid country and folk singers in and around Appalachia. In his sweat-stained T-shirt and jeans, sporting a beard that almost looked like a bib, the 31-year-old didn’t resemble anything like a modern pop star, and the folkish protest song he sang in an increasingly worked-up twang — about working “overtime hours for bullshit pay” and how “your dollar ain’t shit” — didn’t sound like anything pop or country radio would care about. But in its first two days on YouTube, “Rich Men North of Richmond” had more than 2 million views; within six days of its release, the song had been streamed 17.5 million times. Before anyone in the media or the music business could get a handle on it, a star was born out of left field — in field, to be exact, in the town of North Dinwiddie, Virginia.

As fans downed beer in the street outside of Tootsie’s and watched X-rated country character Wheeler Walker Jr. launch into songs like “Fuck You Bitch,” Anthony huddled backstage on a bus with one of his mentors, outlaw-country star Jamey Johnson. The plan was for Anthony to play a few songs backed for the first time by a band, but ultimately he decided to only try “Rich Men North of Richmond” that way. The rest — like his originals “Cobwebs and Cocaine” and “90 Some Chevy” — he played solo.

But first, Anthony pulled out his Bible. “I’m the biggest sorry sack of shit in this town, so don’t think I’m coming off preaching to you,” . “But I do feel compelled to share something with you.” He turned to Matthew 10:26 and read, in a stentorian voice, “Jesus said, ‘Do not be afraid of them for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight.’”

Then he went into “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Most of the crowd gleefully cheered on lyrics seemingly about convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein (“I wish politicians would look out for miners/And not just minors on an island somewhere”) and welfare recipients (“Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds”). And they lustily joined in on the chorus: “And they don’t think you know, but I know that you do/’Cause your dollar ain’t shit and it’s taxed to no end.” By then, the crowd, including actor Luke Grimes, was fully his. Anthony just grinned, and everyone knew that Nashville had its newest star.

The music business has seen its share of one-hit wonders and blunders. As Anthony himself wrote on his socials in the days after he found himself with one of the most-talked-about songs in the country, “There’s nothing special about me. I’m not a good musician, I’m not a very good person. I’ve spent the last five years struggling with mental health and using alcohol to drown it.” But rarely had anyone seen anything like this: a completely independent artist singing a riled-up folk-country tirade that debuted at on the Hot 100 chart, beating back songs by Taylor Swift, Luke Combs, and Morgan Wallen. Although none of his other songs have connected as deeply as “Rich Men North of Richmond,” some of them, like the plaintive “I Want to Go Home” and his ode to his home, “Virginia,” have pulled in millions of views and streams.

But what exactly was it that erupted in those Virginia woods that day? Was it a pop-culture blip, another one of music’s ongoing viral hits? Was the populist anthem an introduction to an important new cultural voice, one we’ll be hearing from for a long time? It’s too soon to tell; Anthony won’t be releasing a new batch of songs until early in the new year. But what’s undeniable is that whether he intended to or not, Anthony channeled something with implications for country music, the music business, and the country itself. “You arrived at the perfect time,” a follower posted on Anthony’s Instagram account. “We needed this song to tell our story. 2024 will be a tough year. Last shot to save this country.” 

AROUND A YEAR BEFORE his world exploded, Anthony posted his first songs online. For those who’d never heard of him, he was, as he wrote on the music platform Bandcamp, “Just a dummy who writes songs about home. Living off grid on 90 acres somewhere in Virginia.” But his story is more complicated than that.

In Virginia, where he was born Christopher Anthony Lunsford, and North Carolina, where he worked and lived for a time, he spent a chunk of his previous 31 years working factory jobs and getting drunk or stoned, he’s said in social media posts. He claims to have dropped out of high school when he was 17, ultimately getting a GED. Daniel Rodriguez, a former co-worker of Anthony’s, remembers him as the long-haired kid who flipped burgers with him at the McDonald’s in Old Port more than a decade ago. “We just joked around and tried not to make the job seem so bad,” says Rodriguez, who had no idea Anthony had a music-maker side. After McDonald’s, Anthony was hired at a now-closed box factory that assembled fast-food packaging. There, in Anthony’s words, he “worked third shift, six days a week for $14.50 an hour, in a living hell,” but returned to Virginia after he fell on the job and fractured his skull, unable to work for months.

In his home state, he wound up working at the Chesterfield Trading Co. in Richmond, where he sold construction and industrial supplies. In company literature, a polo-shirt-wearing Anthony is shown standing amid fellow employees. Anthony has said he was fine with meeting customers on the job, but taking meetings with a boss about growing accounts was “horseshit.”

Music was lurking somewhere in the distance. After seeing Waylon Jennings on he started plucking on a guitar. He spent his spare time drinking, getting high, and, as he has said, starting to write, but rarely finishing songs.

As he explained on , Anthony had thoughts of suicide due to anxiety, and had an epiphany in the form of chest pains. He was already divorced and had married Tiffany Brogdon, an aspiring veterinarian. But realizing he was unhappy, and wanting to lower his stress level, he persuaded Brogdon to sell their car and their house in Farmville and, with the profits, buy 92 acres in North Dinwiddie in 2019 for, he says, $97,500. According to county records, the property in central Virginia was estimated at $119,800 in 2021 and listed as “agricultural” — which squares with Anthony’s claim on social media that he, Brogdon, and his child from his first marriage lived in a camper he bought off Craigslist for $750.

Anthony’s travails sounded like a series of country songs — which is what they eventually became. When his Virginia-born grandfather Oliver Anthony Ingle died in 2019, Anthony honored him by taking his name as his musical alter ego. Starting around the spring of 2022, he recorded a few of his songs on his property, sometimes on his phone, and used the indie music-distribution service DistroKid, which put this music on Spotify and other services; he also posted songs on Bandcamp. All featured his plain-spoken drawl, his guitar, and lyrics that reflected what he considered his dead-end life. In “Ain’t Gotta Dollar,” he sang about getting stoned and making homemade wine. “I Gotta Get Sober” has a chorus right out of mainstream Nashville (“I gotta get sober/I gotta start livin’ right/I don’t know how it’s gonna go/But it ain’t gonna happen tonight”).

Other songs were far less resigned and more full of piss and homemade vinegar. “Rich Man’s Gold” included a declaration — “You weren’t born to just pay bills and die” — that would become one of his recurring lines onstage. “Doggonit,” a precursor to “Rich Men of North Richmond,” pointed to how the “poor keep hurtin’ and the rich keep thrivin’” and the “needles in the streets/Folks hardly surviving.”

On Aug. 1, everything changed. On that day, Anthony posted a roughly one-minute version of a new song, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” that he didn’t even consider his best. Anthems weren’t his calling card, in his opinion, but an aspiring musician and West Virginia car salesman named Draven Riffe heard it (likely thanks to a mutual friend from Missouri).

Around five years ago, Riffe co-founded RadioWV, the YouTube channel devoted to the type of woodsy, unadorned country songs Anthony made, with titles like “10 Chickens in a Dog Crate,” “Change Is a Fool’s Pipedream,” and “Eat the Rich.” When Riffe heard Anthony’s “Rich Men,” he apparently flipped and wanted to film Anthony singing for RadioWV, but the song was half-baked. “I only had the first half of ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ written,” Anthony in August. “I had posted it online, but it was just the first half. We threw that second half together the day before filming.” With that, the song took flight.

On his Facebook page, Anthony would write that “these songs have connected with millions of people on such a deep level because they’re being sung by someone feeling the words in the very moment they were being sung. No editing, no agent, no bullshit.” But he was also aided by something else: the unrelenting passion of right-leaning personalities on social media. On Wednesday, Aug. 9, a Twitter (now known as X) user named Chase Steely, whose bio identifies him, among other things, as a “Christian,” “Infantryman,” and “Bourbon Enthusiast,” shared the “Rich Men North of Richmond” video on the social network after a friend sent him the song. “Buddy texts me. I listen. I text back. I post …” he wrote on X later. From there, Jason Howerton, an online-traffic consultant and Christian influencer with more than 100,000 followers, shared the song, followed quickly by right-wing commentators Matt Walsh and Dan Bongino (with more than 2 million and 4 million followers, respectively).

Soon, “Rich Men” wasn’t just north of Richmond, but everywhere. John Rich, the conservative country singer, tweeted an offer to produce Anthony. Walsh vowed to “promote it on all my platforms.” “Rich Men” would eventually pull in more than 85 million views, compared with the roughly 100,000 maximum of most RadioWV posts.

LIFE AFTER VIRALITY Oliver Anthony merch sold at a North Carolina performance this summer after his song “Rich Men North of Richmond” caught fire online.

Michael Caudill for “Billboard”

After discovering the video online, Anthony’s ex-co-worker Rodriguez was stunned at the sight of his former McDonald’s pal with a beard and making music. But he wasn’t surprised by the message. “We work endlessly, and we just keep going, hoping that it’s for something,” he says. “It feels like we’re just fighting the current and something is constantly holding us back. And it’s wearing us all out. We’re all going through our own struggles in different ways, and that song hit everybody.”

Given the way the song ping-ponged around the right-wing universe (Marjorie Taylor Greene called it “the anthem of the forgotten Americans who truly support this nation”), it was easy to assume the song had benefited from what’s known as astroturfing — a manufactured effort to suggest grassroots popularity. But in s research, there appears to be no coordinated effort in its online sharing. From “Old Town Road” to the “Baby Shark Dance” and Grupo Frontera’s Latin-pop cover songs, viral hits have become a left-field mainstay of social media. But even in that context, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” with Anthony’s unvarnished-wood voice and fed-up sentiments, struck a lyrical and political chord as much as a musical one. “He’s genuine — he’s real,” says Ginger Morris, who co-owns the Morris Farm Market in Barco, North Carolina, and had booked Anthony to play there in August. “It’s hard to find people like that. That’s what’s resonating with people. He doesn’t want to be owned by anybody.”

It wasn’t the first time those who worked and shopped at the Morris Farm Market heard Anthony. Last spring, Tony Markun, who books local and up-and-coming acts to perform for customers while they shop for pies and veggies at the market, had signed up Anthony, who had impressed him months before at a neighbor’s bonfire. Although only a few dozen watched Anthony play, Markun rebooked him for Aug. 13. That date ended up falling just a few days after “Rich Men North of Richmond” had gone crazy. A colleague asked Markun if it was “ Oliver Anthony” on the bill, and the calls and emails began coming from as far away as Colorado and Australia. By then, Anthony had become a phenom: His song had been streamed nearly 8 million times, was heading toward Number One on Spotify and Apple Music, and was covered on cable-news networks.

Immediately, the Morris Farm Market had to prepare for an invasion. With only a day and a half before Anthony’s post-breakthrough Sunday-afternoon set, Markun and his workers scrambled to secure portable toilets, extra parking, and an ambulance from the local EMS. The first cars began arriving just after 10 a.m., and by the afternoon, the number was nearing an estimated 4,000 to 6,000. The crowd now included reps from record companies and booking agencies, who’d hastily flown or driven to see what all the fuss was about.

Just like in the spring, Anthony arrived with only his Gretsch acoustic guitar and no cord or microphones, but with his two dogs. Adhering to the low-budget feel of it all, Anthony had hired a local guitarist, Joey Davis, to accompany him; they’d just met a few months before at an open-mic night. In line with his newfound image as the voice of the people, Anthony wanted to walk through the crowd to get to the stage, but Markun was concerned about the masses and persuaded the singer to let him accompany him. Markun says it took them “30 to 40 minutes to walk 100 feet.” Markun punched in of the national anthem on his iPad to play before Anthony started singing. But so many people had swarmed the market that the Wi-Fi crashed. No bother: The crowd sang it themselves.

For the next hour, Anthony sang “Rich Men North of Richmond” twice, along with his other songs. Unbeknownst to him, Jamey Johnson had flown in, having caught wind of Anthony. Although Johnson wasn’t planning to sing, he wound up onstage, joining a startled Anthony for a rendition of Johnson’s “In Color.” Afterward, Anthony sat on a wooden chair and spoke with the hundreds who stood in line to take selfies and tell him about their lives, concerns, and family tragedies.

WHILE ANTHONY’S ASCENDENCE may be linked to the in country music over the past few years, a yearning for his type of anti-mainstream country has been building for longer than that. Chris Stapleton’s raw breakthrough performance of “Tennessee Whiskey” at the 2015 CMA Awards helped usher in a less-produced, less-polished, and less-tap-another-keg type of country. It appeared, to use a word often batted around in the genre, “authentic.” But if Stapleton and other more rootsy artists like Eric Church and Sturgill Simpson helped set the table, unplugged-country types like Zach Bryan, Tyler Childers, and Charles Wesley Godwin have grabbed seats of their own. The list now includes Anthony and some of his RadioWV alumni, like Nolan Taylor, who recently signed a deal with Atlantic Records.

“There’s a sort of Appalachian sound to it, and there are a bunch of guys in that vein,” says Nash Osborn, who owns the North Street Press Club in Farmville, Virginia, where Anthony played to a jammed house about two weeks after “Rich Men” caught fire. “It’s not mainstream like bro country. It’s more roots country. They point to Hank Sr. as their influence, versus Luke Bryan.” As Anthony himself told Jordan Peterson in a podcast interview, he grew up with “Nineties country” — Alan Jackson and George Strait — but “somewhere country music and, I think, music in general has really lost a connection with people because it’s become too commercialized.”

But Anthony is tapping into something extramusical as well, even if he isn’t being explicit and is sometimes sending mixed signals. “Rich Men North of Richmond” seemed to peg Anthony as a conservative mouthpiece. Speaking to Joe Rogan, Anthony put forth that “the federal government is never meant to be the size it is today,” a Republican talking point. He also often starts each performance by reading a passage from the Bible, even if, he admits, he hasn’t been to church in a decade.

That connection entered the initial Republican presidential debate in August, when the brought up Anthony’s song. Asked to respond first, Ron DeSantis went so far as to repeat its title in his answer: “We also cannot succeed when the Congress spends trillions and trillions of dollars. Those rich men north of Richmond have put us in this situation.” But in a video he posted just after the debates, Anthony : “It’s aggravating seeing people on conservative news trying to identify with me like I’m one of them. It’s aggravating to see certain musicians and politicians act like we’re buddies, and act like we’re fighting the same struggle here.… That song was written about the people on that stage and a lot more, too. Not just them, but definitely them.”

As that moment captured, determining where Anthony sits on the political spectrum is something of a parlor game. After his fame hit, he’s spoken of the ways that “someone with a more conservative mindset and someone with a more liberal mindset” could work together in some form. As he said in a video post, he “sits pretty dead-center down the aisle on politics and always have.” Then again, as soon as “Rich Men North of Richmond” hit, Anthony told a friend that he only wanted to do two interviews — with Rogan and Peterson. (After initially expressing interest in speaking with Anthony and Riffe, his de facto co-manager, did not respond to a follow-up request. Anthony’s publicist, who came on after “Rich Men North of Richmond” exploded and also reps Johnson, said he’s not currently doing interviews.)

In his friendly conversations with Rogan and Peterson, Anthony talked about grappling with fame, how his song was “about getting fed up with shit,” how he’d had a bad few years and had grown “a lot of pounds of weed” last year, how chain stores make every town look the same, and how maybe he wouldn’t want to be an arena act and might want to open a ministry instead. Asked about the controversial “Rich Men” line “Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds,” he punted, saying he wants the song “to be left open to interpretation for the listener.” As Anthony also told Peterson, “A lot of people understand what it is I’m trying to say, but it has been interesting seeing both sides also attack me, misinterpreting that I’m identifying with the other.”

Thanks to those mixed signals, even the right doesn’t seem to know what to make of him. Anthony’s confusing stances got the better of Nick Fuentes, the proud white-nationalist podcaster and commentator who went after the singer and what Fuentes called “this stupid song.” In one of his videos, Fuentes, clearly fuming, took Anthony to task for not aligning with either political side (“Why is he saying that, because he doesn’t want to offend anybody?”) and mocked what he considered the inauthenticity of the “Rich Men North of Richmond” song and video. “That’s how he’s supposed to look,” Fuentes said in a post. “He’s playing the part of a rube.”

At this point, the only thing that seems clear is that Anthony has bonded with Democrat turned independent presidential candidate and vaccine skeptic Robert Kennedy Jr. With his wife, actress Cheryl Hines, Kennedy visited Anthony on his grandfather’s Virginia property in September. The three posed for photos, and Kennedy later wrote that he and the singer talked about wanting to use the property as a “pilot site” for “free healing centers in depressed communities across the nation, places that help reclaim a generation beset by depression, PTSD, loneliness, addiction, and mental illness.” Their mutual interest in addiction made sense, and soon after, Anthony’s video for “Rich Men North of Richmond” was included at Kennedy’s launch as an independent candidate. In an with , his only non-podcast conversation to date, Anthony maintained, “I was very clear, even when I talked to Bobby, that I don’t want any affiliation with him politically. … As far as a candidate goes, I’m not really interested. I probably won’t vote for anybody.” Still, Anthony palling around with Kennedy, an independent, mirrored a line in his song “Doggonit”: “Republicans and Democrats, I swear, they are just full of crap.”

Meanwhile, the country world, which has itself been increasingly politically polarized in a way it has never before, reckoned with the song that made Anthony into essentially a singing meme. In a podcast, Maren Morris admitted to grappling with Anthony. She thought the “fudge rounds” verse was “problematic,” but in terms of that GOP debate moment, she also said, “These are all getting co-opted by the conservative right, and this is theirs now. And I kind of did appreciate Oliver Anthony being like, ‘No, it’s not.’ I love that he was just like, ‘No, this wasn’t for you.’ That’s kind of badass.” Jason Isbell, no stranger to topical country songs, had similar conflicted thoughts, the “There’s something there,” but feeling that Anthony needed more seasoning and perspective as a songwriter.

In his brief time in the music business, Anthony has connected with a different batch of country acts — outlaw singers like Johnson and vocalist, songwriter, and actor Randy Houser, whose latest single is titled “What’s so funny about him is the left side wants to scream that he’s such a righty and all that stuff, but he’s not,” Houser tells “He’s just calling out how people feel. Do you know how many Democrats feel the same way? We’re being stolen from.”

IN THE WEEKS AFTER “Rich Men North of Richmond” took off, Osborn saw Anthony walking around Farmville as always. “He’s a pretty even-keeled dude, at least on the surface,” Osborn says. “He doesn’t seem rattled by it.” At his show at the North Street Press Club, Anthony asked to open for a local band rather than the other way around, and once again he sat for hours afterward taking selfies with people and listening with a pastor-like focus when they talked about hardships and deaths in their families. “It wasn’t just fighting for the picture, or ‘Let’s sign and move on,’” Osborn says. “He really takes time to listen to people and talk to them. And it takes a lot of his time. He stayed from eight till probably, like, 11:45.”

POPULIST ANTHEM Anthony performed “Simple Man” at the Blue Ridge Rock Festival with Shinedown and members of Papa Roach.

Sanja Parikh

But as his performance at Tootsie’s hinted, Anthony and his team are adjusting to the enormity of his impact and balancing his fame and income stream with his regular-guy image. In the days after the Morris Farm Market show in August, Markun says, he was contacted by managers and booking agents interested in booking Anthony and asking for his direct number (Markun refused to give it out). “Everyone wants to pull me in 10 different directions,” Anthony told Rogan.

In another pointed rebuke of standard music-business practice, Anthony turned not to a polished and experienced showbiz team, but to a few friends for guidance. Initially, those wanting to reach him were directed to the North Carolina plumber who introduced Anthony to Markun at his bonfire party; Anthony also hired a local sign maker to manufacture his T-shirts and merch.

Those growing pains were clear just a few weeks after “Rich Men North of Richmond” went super viral. Cotton Eyed Joe, a club in Knoxville, Tennessee, announced that Anthony would be playing the 1,700-seat venue on Sept. 27. Cotton Eyed Joe owner Chuck Ward says he reached out and was told Anthony’s fee for the show would be $150,000, which Ward called “astronomically outrageous.… George Jones is rolling over in his grave, because he played the honky-tonks and bars for years.” Ward says he talked them down to $120,000, but even then, said he would have to charge $99 per ticket (or $199 for a ticket and meet-and-greet session afterward) in order to break even. According to Ward, no one questioned the plan, and he put tickets on sale in early September.

Almost as soon as the show and prices were announced, Anthony took to social media, posting an irritated video in which he urged fans not to buy tickets and how “pissed off” he was. In the clip, he claimed he “didn’t agree to it.” (The North Street Press Club gig was supposed to be free, but Anthony and Osborn agreed to charge $10 a head in order to keep track of how many they could fit into the 350-seat club.) Ward, who says he sent the finished contract and never heard about any changes, was taken aback. “I know that people are, I guess I’d use the word ‘untrained’ in the business,” he says, “but don’t go on social media and throw us under the bus. You pick up the phone and call us and say, ‘Let’s do something different.’”

When the show was canceled, Anthony gave his side of the story on his social accounts and took some of the blame. “Ultimately, it’s my fault for not being more directly involved with the venues who have reached out.… I am not pointing fingers at Cotton Eyed Joe, I don’t know where the miscommunication took place. I’m just upset seeing those prices.” But the experience left a decidedly bad taste in Ward’s mouth. “People don’t understand how business works — if you pay $120,000 for a show, you have to sell [high-priced tickets] to cover it,” he says. Anthony rescheduled the show not once, but twice, eventually winding up at Smokies Stadium, a minor-league-baseball park in Knoxville, where he reportedly played for more than 9,000 people (who paid a far more reasonable $25 a ticket).

For advice on navigating the world suddenly out to cash in on his instafame, Anthony has turned to heroes like Johnson, Houser, and Shooter Jennings. “I think that’s the biggest thing he’s scared of — he doesn’t want to lose the rawness of what he has to say,” Houser says.

Anthony has reportedly already made a few hundred thousand dollars from streaming royalties for “Rich Men North of Richmond,” and he says he will be recording his “first official album” in January. Whether that’s for a record label remains to be seen (as of late 2023, he has yet to sign a deal). According to Houser, Anthony mentioned some of the big-money offers he received, but he expressed that he doesn’t “want to be one of those people that [think] ‘I’m rich now,’ and don’t have any reality check.” Given he had another child on the way in October, Houser told him that he can still be grounded — but also have money in the bank. This week, Anthony also announced a , starting in, of all places, Stockholm, Sweden.

In a first sign of how Anthony and his team were starting to think more professionally, Anthony made at least one concession to the corporate world: In September, he signed with United Talent Agency, the movie, TV, and music agency that works with Guns N’ Roses, the Jonas Brothers, Demi Lovato, Chance the Rapper, and a slew of other music acts, including Anthony’s friend Johnson. For any other act rooted in a do-it-yourself ethos, a backlash would have been in order, but Anthony’s new congregation — 1.7 million on Instagram, 1.4 million on Facebook, and 2.5 million on TikTok, as of November — applauded the decision, and at Smokies Stadium soon after the announcement, fans sang along to every word of “Rich Men North of Richmond.”

For them, any help Anthony can get in delivering his message to the world is a positive; he’s a vessel for their rage and indignation. “We’re just honestly hoping and praying that he can keep his feet on the ground and stay committed to what he really truly wants,” says Morris. “We’re all rooting for him. Whether you’re a righty or lefty, he’ll criticize it all. He’s like, ‘We have a problem.’ A lot of Americans believe that.”

A few days after his show at the Morris market, Anthony received a text from Markun, thanking him for playing that afternoon. “Everything was perfect,” Anthony texted back. “We’ll work out the bugs on sound for next time. We are going to make sure we have sound monitors for sure. I couldn’t hear a thing but we winged it and it seemed to do okay for the most part.… Yesterday was one of the best days of my life.” The days ahead remain a bigger question.