Made in Farmville
Farmville, Virginia’s Oliver Anthony sits atop the charts. His music about the struggles of the common man has become a rallying cry for his community and communities like it across the country.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.Revelation 22:1-2
FARMVILLE—Flashing blue lights in my rear view mirror welcome me into Farmville, Virginia, and it’s not a police escort.
From my side mirror, I see a classic looking sheriff confidently striding closer, his lampshade mustache curled up at the corners with a smile. “You’re not from around here are you, son?” The California plates on my Jeep made it obvious to the sheriff, but that wasn’t the only time I would be asked that question during my time in Farmville.
“What’s your destination?” The sheriff asks. “Farmville,” I reply. “Shucks, you’re not but ten minutes away, and you were going under the speed limit not 90 seconds ago; but when you got to me, I had to pull you over because it had dropped,” the sheriff explains, as if he felt bad writing me a ticket. No one is ever happy getting a speed ticket, but it made it easier to take.
“And your reason for traveling down here?” I tell him the purpose of my trip: Since “Rich Men North of Richmond” went viral and shot the previously obscure Farmville native to the top of the charts, a lot has been said about Oliver Anthony’s music and the message it sends. But no one has bothered to ask Farmville what they think about his music, and why someone growing up there might be inclined to think about the nation the way Anthony does.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the videos,” the sheriff replies. “While I have you, sir,” I say, “what’s it like working down here?”
“This is the best place in the world, with the best people in the world. We [law enforcement] look out for folks, and folks look out for us and treat us well. Most get on and get along just fine, and we look after one another, at least in this county”—we were in Cumberland County, which bisects Farmville with the neighboring Prince Edward County. “Other counties, well, I have my own opinions about them, and I’ll leave it at that.”
No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.Revelation 22:3-6
I pull into the gravel parking lot outside of Appomattox River Co., the family business of Brian Vincent, the current mayor of Farmville. His hair is gray and thinning a bit, but he’s a fit outdoorsman—no doubt he could run circles around me.
Vincent moved to Farmville in 2012, after he and his wife, a Farmville native, tied the knot. While she sought a degree as a nurse practitioner in nearby Charlottesville, Vincent could keep himself busy working for his father-in-law.
“For a long time after we got here, I was known as Harriet’s husband,” Vincent says. “I ran for office just so people would know my name,” the mayor jokes.
The property includes a small showroom for top-end kayaks, and two large warehouses, originally built in 1926, that hold the company’s inventory, which can be upwards of 1,000 self-propelled watercraft. Inside the showroom, a framed black and white picture of a storefront that reads, “E.S. Taylor & Co. Prospect Depot, VA. Circa 1895.”
The place has changed a lot since the late 19th century when the family first opened a business in Farmville, which wouldn’t become a fully incorporated town until 1912. Even before the place got the name, it has been backdrop to peculiar and prominent moments in American history.
Prior to gaining the name Farmville, it was simply called “the Farmlands,” as part of the tobacco plantation owned by the Randolph family called “Bizarre.” Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and Robert E. Lee were all related to the Randolphs on their mother’s side. Patrick Henry, who represented Prince Edward county in the Virginia General Assembly, returned to live in the area after finishing his second stint serving as the state’s governor. Founded in 1775, the local Hampden-Sydney College is one of the ten oldest colleges in the United States.
Through the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries, local industry revolved around tobacco production, processing, and shipping from the large plantations in the area like Bizarre. Freed and enslaved black laborers built and operated canals that shipped tobacco products throughout the region. By the mid-19th century, the industrial revolution had brought railroads to Farmville, and the demands of fossil-fuel consuming technologies led to the opening of several coal mines. The era also brought Farmville its second college. Located in the heart of Farmville, Longwood University was founded as a female seminary in 1839. In 2016, Longwood hosted the vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Tim Kaine.
While many of the mines remained operational through reconstruction, the Civil War caused coal production in Farmville to decline. In the final days of the Civil War, Lee’s army retreated through Farmville, where the Confederates hoped to pick up rations as they marched from the besieged Richmond to other confederate forces in North Carolina. The Union Army stayed hot on their heels, however. Lee’s army made a last ditch effort to secure the high bridge that runs more than a third of a mile over 100 feet above the Appomattox river. When they failed to secure the bridge, they made a failed attempt to destroy it. Two days later on April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant in the nearby Appomattox Court House.
Into the early 20th century, rail, coal, and tobacco continued to shape the local economy—though the war fundamentally transformed the structure of these industries on a macro and micro level. Other businesses started popping up, too. From 1884 to 1901, Lithia Springs Water bottled and sold water that was believed to have healing properties from the nearby lithia springs. Tourism also began to play a factor, but tobacco and coal remained Farmville’s bread and butter.
“Right now, we’re on the north end of Main Street before you enter downtown. When you do, you’ll see the big brick buildings,” Mayor Vincent tells me. They used to be tobacco warehouses, operated by companies such as W.G. Dunnington and R.S. Paulette. The dozen or so brick warehouses, which date back to the Civil War and reconstruction era, “are now a successful furniture retailer Green Front Furniture. They anchor downtown.”
The days of manufacturing are mostly over for Farmville. “We’ve got a good tourism industry today in Farmville, thanks to the High Bridge Trail, the Appomattox River and the five state parks located close to town,” the mayor says. “Beyond that, of course, you still have local agriculture, a robust retail sector and small to mid scale manufacturing that give the people here a chance to make a good living.” He names antique stores, bars and restaurants, and a local fishing gear manufacturer as town pillars.
A blend of geography and historical circumstance has helped Farmville stave off some of the worst aspects of decline experienced in small-town America. “There’s been quite a lot of change over the years, but we succeed by working together,” Vincent tells me. “And being a community with open lines of communication.” Vincent started serving on the city council in 2018, and when he ran for mayor in 2022, he walked nearly 100 miles criss-crossing town to try and speak to every Farmville resident. He already knew many of them. In Farmville, everybody knows everybody.
“You always have some people on what I call the crispy edges of the political spectrum. Knocking on doors this election cycle those folks would ask me what I thought of this or that national issue. They asked about issues I have no control over, but I’m always willing to engage,” Vincent tells me. “And when you knock on their door and approach a conversation with good faith, we’re able to talk about what we think is best for our town and how to best serve the interest of the people of Farmville.”
I asked Vincent what motivated him to get into politics, other than so that people would know him as something other than “Harriet’s husband.” “I’m not really interested in partisan politics,” the mayor says, “I’m interested in Farmville. I’m interested in Southside Virginia. I’m interested in doing the most good for the most people. I’m interested in doing good work.” Most local politicians run as independents, Vincent tells me because at the end of the day, they all belong to one party—the party of Farmville.
“I ran for mayor because I’ve been disappointed by the tenor and style of leadership in today’s politics. My wife and I have two daughters, and most of all I want to give them an example of leadership that they can look up to, and hopefully the rest of the town can be proud of,” Vincent explains. “Of course, we’re all fallible human beings, we all stumble. But can you get back on track, with steadfast clarity of purpose, grounded in core, high moral principles—that’s fortitude. That’s the example I want to provide for my daughters and for the town.”
“We must all hold each other accountable to decency and virtue,” Vincent says. Even though he’s the mayor, the ballot box is the last place where Vincent is held accountable. “I see our citizens, my neighbors, at restaurants and the grocery store, and they let me know if there’s a problem, and we work it out.”
He says Farmville resident’s political beliefs vary widely. Prince Edward county, in large part because of the colleges, is a purple county that Biden won by just over 500 votes in the 2020 presidential elections. The families that have been there for a few generations, however, tend to be conservative like the deep red you’ll find in the neighboring counties. But everyone agrees that Democrats aren’t coming to save Farmville, and neither are the Republicans.
“The only people that can save us and keep us together are ourselves, our community,” Vincent explains. “When someone gets hurt, falls ill, falls on hard times, or tragedy strikes, we have to be there for each other. That’s how Farmville operates. That’s why I love this community.”
I ask the mayor for a local bar or restaurant where I could watch the debate and ask some folks what they think. “Many folks won’t be watching the debate tonight. They’ll all be at the concert.”
“Wait, Oliver Anthony is playing tonight?” I ask.
“Yeah, at North Street Press Club just about a mile up the road for about three hundred or so people at six o’clock. The place sold out in minutes when the tickets went on sale,” the mayor responds. “You didn’t know?”
“I had no idea,” I said as he introduced me to Spencer, one of his employees who would go straight from Appomattox River Co. to North Street Press Club to work the door. I tell Spencer what I do and why I’m in Farmville, and that some corporate media organizations said Anthony’s songs should be more patriotic and are trying to connect him to the right, making him a deplorable by association. “They said we have to be more patriotic?” Spencer says. The mayor scoffs and we all have a laugh.
The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”
“Look, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy written in this scroll.”
I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me.Revelation 22:6-8
I left Appomattox River Co. and made the short drive to North Street Press Club. The old brick building that used to print newspapers has been converted into a bar. It is just past three, but the bar is already closed to prepare for the show. I knock on the glass doors, and a confused employee cracks the door open. I tell him why I’m in Farmville and ask if there are any tickets left over for members of the press or otherwise.
“A press ticket?” North Street Press Club has never heard of press tickets. I love this town. I tell him I plan on coming to ask some people questions while they wait in line, which he says is fine.
In the meantime, I head to a barbeque restaurant called the Fishing Pig. There, I strike up a conversation with my server, a young black man who is planning on entering the Air Force upon finishing school. “Do you get a lot of people entering the armed services from around here?” I ask. “Not a ton, but there’s still a strong community of people who are in the service or have served around here,” he replies. “A lot of them come back here to raise families.” I inquire if he plans on doing the same. “Absolutely,” he replies. “I’ve loved living and growing up here. It’s small town America—you just can't beat it,” he says with a big smile across his face.
After I finish eating, I head back to North Street Press Club where folks have begun lining up for the night’s concert. I see Spencer at the front of the line, distributing wristbands and checking IDs.
I strike up a conversation with a group of three, a man and two women, who look to be in their early twenties. They’ve come from Richmond and Fredericksburg to see Anthony live rather than on Twitter or YouTube. “He’s so relatable,” one of the young women, Meredith, says. “It’s what everyone’s been thinking. He just put it into a song, and everyone loves it because everyone can agree with it,” Will, the young man, adds. They’ve frequented Farmville before, and I ask if they think Anthony’s music represents the character of the town. “Yeah, everyone loves Farmville because in a small town, it's not worth fighting with the people you work with everyday about stuff that doesn’t really matter,” the other woman, Zoey, says.
I talk to two men, Ralph and Cody, next. They’ve lived in this part of Virginia all their life, and look the part. When “Rich Men North of Richmond” went viral, “everybody around here just came together. In person, and on social media. That was what I loved about it—the unity that the song brought between both liberals and conservatives,” Cody says.
I ask another two men, who have driven more than two hours to see Anthony, why they’re here and not watching the GOP debate. “Is that happening tonight?” one says. “Is it even a contest?” asks the other with a chuckle. “I'm far away from all that kind of stuff. I believe what I believe, and that's all there is to it,” the first man adds. “This is more about the common man who doesn't have a dog in that fight, but cares about their own lives and what goes on in their community.” I get a sense that it’s not disinterest in politics that leads him to say the common man doesn’t “have a dog in that fight,” but that none of the dogs fight for them.
One middle-aged woman, whose daughter works behind the bar at North Street, tells me the community has rallied around Anthony because “he’s being honest. All of us feel this way, and I just hope that they let him be true to himself.”
“And if he wants to be left alone, leave him alone,” she adds.
As I meander up and down the line chatting with concertgoers, I get a strong sense that some want to be left alone, so I do. Others look suspicious when they start talking to me. I’m wearing a red and blue striped polo, blue pants, and a red hat with the Betsy Ross flag embroidered on the front.
“You’re not from around here,” the voice of a towering man, who looks like he’s eaten sandwiches bigger than me, booms. “Who do you work for?” I tell him and hand him my card. Reading it pleases him, and he slides it into the pocket on his left breast. He and the group of about six others are now more willing to talk. One of the women in the group says her daughter also works at North Street. “We all love Oliver Anthony around here, no matter what people think about politics, because he’s speaking for all of us from small towns who see what’s going on in this country.”
“This is who we are,” one heavyset man wearing a cowboy hat tells me. “If people have a problem with it, then imagine living it. We work the land, we work in the factories, we do anything to make ends meet and put food on the table for our family on our own. We’re the working class that built this country, and we’re tired of feeling disrespected.”
Another man I spoke to built the sign that now hangs above North Street Press Club. “We’ve all been able to get behind Oliver Anthony because his message isn’t right or left, it's the people versus the elites who seek to divide us over anything they can.” A buddy of his says, “It’s great to see the revival of Appalachian music, given most music, pop and country, are just junk these days. These themes have always been in our music, because they’re true. You can disagree or not like the sound, but this is the reality that small town America faces today.” When it comes to the GOP debate, “its all just bullsh*t. Most of them don’t understand what’s going on in places like Farmville, Virginia. They don’t want to, because they’d be implicated in what’s going on here and all over the country.”
But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your fellow prophets and with all who keep the words of this scroll. Worship God!”
Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near. Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy.”Revelation 22:9-11
A few stragglers make their way into North Street Press Club as Oliver Anthony takes the stage to raucous cheering. I’m standing outside the entrance, watching through a window—nobody was scalping the hottest tickets in town. Anthony is wearing blue jeans, a black shirt, and black sunglasses, and carries up a few loose pieces of paper and a brown leather Bible. He nods and smiles, waiting for the crowd to die down, and when it does, he cracks open the leather book at its very end.
Anthony begins his set reading Revelation 22 in full, followed by a chorus of “amens” from the crowd and more cheering, this time, a more thoughtful applause. Later, after the show, when we chat very briefly, Anthony tells me he “just felt compelled” to share Revelation 22. “I just try to open the book, and what I feel compelled to read, I read. It just felt appropriate for the climate we're in, the international climate we're in.”
I hear the first chords of “I Want to Go Home.” The crowd sings with Anthony: “Well, if it won't for my old dogs and the good Lord they'd have me strung up in the psych ward 'cause every day livin' in this new world is one too many days to me. Son, we're on the brink of the next world war, and I don't think nobody's prayin' no more. And I ain't sayin’ I know it for sure. I'm just down on my knees.” Christians know how this world ends, but it doesn’t alleviate all the anxieties and suffering modernity has wrought.
As I watch through the window, Spencer walks up with a “Rich Men North of Richmond” hat and gives it to me. I beg to pay him back but he says no. “This is hospitality. We treat you well, but our only request is that in your story, you treat us fairly.”
Anthony's other hits, “Aint Gotta Dollar” and “Ive Got to Get Sober” follow. As does "Doggonit," which begins, “My head's been hurting, my back's been aching,. The water's drying up and there's a war in the making. People eating bugs 'cause they won't eat bacon.” Every “Doggonit” is screamed by the crowd at the top of their lungs, so loud it echoes down the street.
Anthony raises his voice at one part of the song, too. “And Republicans and Democrats, I swear they're all just full of crap. I've never seen a good city slicking, bureaucrat.” Through the window, I see old and young alike singing along, some have hands raised in the air, some smile and nod their approval, and others struggle to sing the lyrics without keeling over in laughter. I check the clock. It’s 8:05. An hour from now, on the debate stage in Milwaukee, the first question of the first GOP primary debate for 2024 would start with a question about Oliver Anthony’s hit “Rich Men North of Richmond.”
“Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.
“Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.Revelation 22:12-15
“As we sit here tonight,” Fox News’ Martha MacCallum says, leading into the first question of the debate, “the number one song on the Billboard chart is called ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’” The debate crowd breaks out into a cheer. “It is by a singer from Farmville, Virginia, named Oliver Anthony. His lyrics speak of alienation, of deep frustration with the state of government and of this country,” MacCallum says, before Fox News plays a clip of Anthony’s viral performance. The screen splits in two as one camera pans the candidates. Chris Christie looks constipated watching it. Pence has a condescending smirk on his face. DeSantis sways with his eyes closed and mouths the words. Vivek is grooving, too, with a big smile plastered across his face. Nikki Haley smiles blankly, but that is par for the course. Tim Scott trifles with loose papers.
In Farmville, Oliver Anthony’s set ended with “Rich Men North of Richmond” about an hour ago. The staff has since let me into the bar, and Anthony is supposedly coming back on stage to perform a second set later in the night. Instead, most of the bar is still grouped around Anthony, waiting for their turn in line to get a picture, an autograph, and exchange a few words.
North Street Press Club has several televisions. Not one is playing the GOP debate. One is showing the Little League World Series, another a rerun of the Steelers/Bills preseason game. A TV located stage right is playing a nature documentary about the Louisiana Bayou; a small gator trudges across a silty bank. The TV on stage left is on a channel with some kind of paid programming for a new vacuum cleaner.
Oliver Anthony has no idea what was happening in Milwaukee. Nor did North Street Press Club. If they knew, they either wouldn’t care, or possibly would have flipped the TV the bird. A merchandise stand sells hats, t-shirts, and posters. Two signs, out of place and clearly made by fans strategically posted by them behind the merchandise stand, read “Oliver Anthony 2024.”
At the bar, whiskey is flowing and tall cans of PBR crack one after another. I strike up a conversation with a couple a few years older than me. I ask them how they liked the set and when they first heard Oliver Anthony’s music. “We’ve heard his music for years,” they reply. “Years?” I ask. “I went to elementary school with Oliver, and we’ve been friends ever since,” the man says. They show me their wristbands that read “artist’s guests.” They live in Richmond now and came down to hang out with Anthony and see him perform for the first time since he shot up the charts.
“At first we didn’t believe it, because we thought the algorithm was just feeding us his stuff because we already followed him. We just thought, ‘wow, Oliver’s song is catching on around here.’” When he first watched the video of “Rich Men North of Richmond,” it had around a hundred thousand views. “That was really cool. Then I came back a while later and it had millions, which was crazy.” The most shocking thing for them about their friend’s overnight stardom is that “‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ isn’t even his best song,” the man says. They both think “Doggonit” is the best.
Anthony’s childhood friend tells me that Anthony, born Christopher Anthony Lunsford, has been playing music for some time. He did open mic and karaoke nights at North Street Press Club and became a part of Farmville’s community of musicians who mostly do it for fun outside of their full-time jobs. Anthony worked at a nearby mill, and then worked as a salesman selling oxygen tanks for medical use. Anthony was struggling with health issues of his own. His mental health was in poor condition, and he struggled with alcohol abuse. It was a cycle that compounded until he recommitted himself to Christ in July of this year, praying to God that he’d get sober if the Lord directed him in the pursuit of his dream. Just a month or so later, Anthony was atop the charts.
“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.Revelation 22:16-17
“Who are you?” a woman, dressed in a spunky dress with geometric figures, dangling earrings, and a neon headband, asks as I stand in front of the stage listening to a few men pluck “Wagon Wheel” on stage. I didn’t think I’d stick out so much, but I guess I really do. I tell her who I am, where I work, and why I’m in Farmville. “Ohhh," she says. “I thought you were a lost Hampden-Sydney boy.” She asks more about my trip and how I’ve liked Farmville. “Tell me, honestly!” She demands. I tell her that I think the people here are right to love their town, and are right to stick together, because the rich men north of Richmond do, in fact, want total control.
“Did you know this is the biggest event this place has ever had?” She asks excitedly. “I D.J. here and host the hamster races from time to time. Oliver Anthony used to come here and watch me and the rest of us,” she motions to the group she’s with and beckons them over (apparently, I’d passed the test), “and now we're here watching him!”
They are all musicians that play North Street and other local venues, either as solo acts or in bands. She levels with me, “I’m a Democrat. Most of this area, aside from the schools, are pretty conservative. But I love the people here and when we talk and play together, we always end up getting along.” She and the other musicians that have now gathered around are particularly big fans of one member of their group, Russell Lynch. “The kid is like a young Elvis,” one musician says. “I love him, and he’s about as conservative as you can get,” the woman jokes.
Lynch had just finished on stage, and he was in fact phenomenal. Others outside of Farmville have recognized as much, too. He’s won multiple Josie awards—presented at the Grand Ole Opry for independent musicians—such as Outlaw Country Vocalist of the Year. He’s slighter in stature, but has a rough, outlaw look. Get him talking, and it’s obvious why the people around here love him. “Music means so much to this community. Songs tell our stories, tell our history. It’s who we are as individuals and as a community. It gives us hope and brings us together, and it's exciting to see Oliver recognized for doing that and speaking the truth.”
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.Revelation 22:18-21
For the land of Jefferson, Farmville, Virginia, is awfully Jacksonian.
Almost everyone I spoke to identifies as some kind of libertarian, but are nothing similar to libertarians in Washington, D.C. People with similar politics to the kinds one finds in Farmville have been described as folk libertarians, which is certainly true given their suspicion of federal and even state power, their distaste for anything that smells bureaucratic, and anything that might get in the way of how they want to live their lives.
But it’s best to check the term libertarian at the door. They aren’t for creative destruction—that uproots people and places dear to the community and prevents life from carrying on as it has for years. Nor are they for reforming Social Security or Medicare.
The people of Farmville are Jacksonians: they are seriously concerned with state power, but they’re just as skeptical of corporate power. They believe the elites seek to depress, if not destroy, the people and parts of their community that are doing well. The elites’ response to people and places that are struggling and begging for assistance is to stick up their nose and tease them, “We thought you wanted to be left alone.” If they are going to pay taxes, they better be getting their money's worth: programs and services that benefit and strengthen the middle and working class. Those who take advantage of those programs are at best not being neighborly, and at worst are stealing from other members of the community.
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While Republican politicians demonstrate to millions of Americans that they don’t understand the common man on the debate stage, the folks of Farmville don’t bother tuning in, because they already knew, and they already have their champion.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Longwood University hosted the 2020 vice-presidential debate. We regret the error.