Oliver Anthony performs "Rich Men North of Richmond."
In a matter of days, Oliver Anthony’s working-class anthem, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” has gone from viral sensation to legitimate country hit.
The song, which channels the previously unknown singer’s anger at working hard and paying taxes just to “waste ‘his’ life away,” has racked up millions of views on social media in less than a week and ascended to the top of Apple Music’s Top 100 USA chart and the iTunes top 40 US country chart, dethroning Luke Combs’ cover of “Fast Car” and the controversial Jason Aldean single “Try That in a Small Town.”
Anthony’s single has courted controversy, too, for its lyrics referring to politicians, “obese” welfare recipients “milking” the system, and “minors on an island.” Notable conservatives, from US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to commentators like Matt Walsh, have adopted the song.
CNN has reached out to Anthony through the email addresses he’s publicly shared but has yet to hear back. For his part, Anthony has not given an interview with a major outlet about the song. Nor has he commented on the song’s adoption mostly by conservatives.
Instead, he’s thanked his millions of new fans who see themselves reflected in the song’s lyrics.
“I appreciate the compliments, but … I’m not a good musician,” Anthony said in a YouTube video posted on Monday. “I hardly know my way around the guitar. My singing’s OK. That’s not what made this (success). It’s you, and the struggles in your life. That’s what’s made this what it is.”
Here’s what we know about how Oliver Anthony went from a self-described Virginia factory worker to a bonafide star in a little more than a week – and how “Rich Men North of Richmond” became a cause célèbre among many listeners on the right.
Oliver Anthony’s star rose rapidly
Up until last week, the Virginia-based musician, whose real name is Christopher Anthony Lunsford, used his phone to record videos of himself singing his own songs, like “Aint Gotta Dollar” and “Ive Got to Get Sober.”
Anthony said in a recent YouTube clip he started writing his own songs in 2021, at a time when he was struggling with substance use.
“Things were obviously not good for a lot of people, and in some respects, I was one of those people … even things that I did care about didn’t mean anything to me anymore,” he said. “I found an outlet in this music.”
In late January, Anthony’s YouTube channel had just over 350 subscribers, per the Internet Archive, a digital library that archives websites at different points in time. Anthony’s most-viewed video at that time was “Aint Gotta Dollar,” a ditty about making one’s own joy and comfort in lieu of spending, with 1,500 views, according to the archive.
And then, on August 8, the YouTube channel RadioWV, which films and shares outdoor performances by musicians in Appalachia, posted a clip of Anthony singing “Rich Men North of Richmond,” which he later said was his first time playing with a “real microphone.” (CNN has reached out to RadioWV and is waiting to hear back.)
The day before the song was posted online, Anthony shared a 9-and-a-half minute video filmed in his car introducing himself to potential fans whom he hoped would discover the song. (It’s since been viewed over 877,000 times as of Thursday morning).
“Rich Men North of Richmond” touches upon Anthony’s time as a factory worker in Western North Carolina, he said in the video shared before the song was posted online. Its title appears to refer to politicians in Washington, DC, who Anthony said “make life a little more difficult than it should be.”
Its chorus goes:
“Livin’ in the new world/
With an old soul/
These rich men north of Richmond/
Lord knows they all just wanna have total control/
Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do/
And they don’t think you know, but I know that you do/
‘Cause your dollar ain’t s**t and it’s taxed to no end/
‘Cause of rich men north of Richmond.”
The song also includes an apparent reference to Jeffrey Epstein, whose estate was sued after his death over Epstein allegedly trafficking girls and young women to his home in the US Virgin Islands. One line goes, “I wish politicians would look out for miners/And not just minors on an island somewhere.”
Anthony said he felt compelled to speak about human trafficking because he felt it was “becoming normalized.”
Since RadioWV shared the video on its YouTube and TikTok accounts, it’s received a combined 20 million views as of Thursday. Anthony posted the clip on X, formerly known as Twitter, on August 10, thanking those who’d already found it and reached out with their support. And from there, its popularity ballooned even further, with more than 25 million views.
His song has been praised by prominent conservatives
In recent days, the song has been widely lauded by far-right politicians including former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, who called it an “anthem for our times.” It’s also received praise from country stars like Travis Tritt and John Rich of Big & Rich.
Conservative media personality Jason Howerton said he has offered to pay to produce Anthony’s record and that Rich had agreed to produce it. (A representative for Rich told CNN on Wednesday that there “isn’t much to report on” about Anthony and Rich working together. CNN has reached out to Howerton and is waiting to hear back.)
Anthony, meanwhile, said in the video posted the day before the RadioWV performance was uploaded that he sits “pretty dead center down the aisle on politics” and finds fault with leaders on both the left and the right.
A screenshot from Jason Aldean's music video for "Try That In A Small Town." Anthony's song has been compared to Aldean's for their rural perspectives and embrace by conservatives.
The singer parlayed his online success into a live performance on Sunday in Currituck, North Carolina, where hundreds of people attended, and some waited for hours to meet him after the show.
Anthony said in a Facebook post Thursday that he “never wanted to be a full time musician” and is “sitting in such a weird place in (his) life right now.”
Though he did not address his song’s booming popularity among conservatives, he ended his Facebook post, which included comments on his past work and his feelings about his newfound fame, by condemning the way the “Internet has divided all of us.”
“Freedom of speech is such a precious gift,” he wrote. “Don’t let them take it away from you.”
Anthony thanked his millions of new listeners in a video shared Monday and asked them what they could do to “maintain this energy” even after “Oliver Anthony’s long gone and forgotten about.”
“There used to be such a strong sense of community in this country, and you still see it a lot in small-town America, but even there it’s dying out,” he said in the latest video. “I’m no Dr. Phil, but I just feel … it would be wonderful to capitalize on that to help other people in your life – maybe people that are different from you.”
Country music has long been dominated by songs about the working class – including welfare recipients
Anthony’s song is the latest in a long line of anthems that address the challenges of working-class Americans. Country musicians have dedicated songs to working class listeners, particularly those living in the Bible Belt and Appalachia, since the genre was founded.
Many beloved country artists, like Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, were born into poverty and incorporated their early experiences into some of their most memorable songs. But many of those songs also emphasized solidarity with people everywhere who are underpaid and overworked but still persevere (think Parton’s pop-country anthem “9 to 5,” Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and Cash’s “Oney”).
Anthony’s hit is more reminiscent of songs like Tritt’s “Lord Have Mercy on the Working Man,” a more overtly political anthem that apparently decries taxes – “Uncle Sam’s got his hands in my pockets/And he helps himself each time he needs a dime” – and Merle Haggard’s “Working Man’s Blues,” in which the singer proudly says “Never been on welfare, and that’s one place I won’t be.”
The protagonists in many country standards pride themselves on never having been on welfare, and some go as far as accusing welfare recipients of spending their financial aid on luxuries; Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadillac” was written from the perspective of a hypothetical welfare recipient with ten kids who bought a brand-new Cadillac with his welfare stipend.
Anthony’s song has been criticized by some listeners for its depiction of welfare recipients as unhealthy and dishonest: “Lord, we got folks in the street/ain’t got nothin’ to eat/and the obese milkin’ welfare. Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds/taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds.” (Tritt’s song “Lord Have Mercy on the Working Man” portrays “rich” men as “fat” and “poor” men as “thin” in its final chorus.)
So far, Anthony has not said much to media outlets about his song’s rapid ascent and his sudden fame, though he did say in Thursday’s Facebook post that “people in the music industry give me blank stares when I brush off 8 million dollar offers.”
“I don’t want to play stadium shows, I don’t want to be in the spotlight,” he said on Facebook. “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.”