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Oliver Anthony Is No Anomaly

State of the Union: Populist lament runs throughout country music in recent decades.
Country star Alan Jackson. Cindy Funk / Wikimedia Commons

Any time I get to talk about country music is a welcome occasion, so I was pleased to devote the opening segment of this week’s TAC Right Now to Oliver Anthony’s viral song “Rich Men North of Richmond.” As I mentioned on the episode, I couldn’t help but feel Anthony might have been talking about me, at least geographically. After all, I’m from that part of the Commonwealth north of Richmond that’s dominated by those rich men.

I still love the song, as do millions from every corner of this country, because as my colleague Micah Meadowcroft wrote earlier this week, it gets to the heart of what and whom this political realignment is all about.


One point I made on the podcast is worth expanding here: I’d argue that Anthony’s populist anthem is not the exception it may seem to what’s come out of Nashville in recent decades. If you listen closely enough, you’ll find plenty of songs channeling similar economic populist themes over the past few decades, often scrambling neat partisan divides, and often recorded on major record labels.

Take, for instance, Alan Jackson’s 1998 hit “Little Man”. The lyrics lament the loss of locally owned shops that were once the backbone of small towns throughout the country:

Now the court square's just a set of streets

That the people go 'round but they seldom think

'Bout the little man that built this town

Before the big money shut 'em down

And killed the little man

It’s the music video that really hammers the point home. Jackson’s opening narration puts a fine point on it:

I went through a lot of small towns that reminded me of where I was raised, and it was sad because I realized how much they’d changed...A lot of them seemed dried up. A lot of the small town businesses and mom and pop stores and the independence of some of the people who built those towns, they were having trouble staying alive, staying in business because of all the big chains coming in taking over everything these days.   


A decade later, the 2008 financial crisis inspired more populist anthems from Nashville, often taking aim at the Bush administration’s bailouts—which, unlike the Dixie Chicks’ criticism of Dubya earlier in the decade, earned applause rather than cancellation from country music’s conservative fan base.

John Rich, who has now offered to produce Oliver Anthony's music, is one of the more outspoken conservatives in Nashville. Yet his single “Shuttin’ Detroit Down,” released in January 2009, puts the Bush administration’s bank bailouts squarely in the crosshairs. Like “Little Man,” it’s the music video for “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” that really shines.

Now I see all these big shots whining on my evening news,

About how they're losing billions and it's up to me and you

To come running to the rescue.

Well pardon me if I don't shed a tear.

They’re selling make believe and we don't buy that here.

Because in the real world they're shuttin' Detroit down,

While the boss man takes his bonus paid jets on out of town.

DC's bailing out them bankers as the farmers auction ground.

Yeah while they're living up on Wall Street in that New York City town,

Here in the real world they're shuttin' Detroit down.

Rich wasn’t the only country star reckoning with the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. Ronnie Dunn, who rose to fame as one half of the country super-duo Brooks & Dunn, was moved by the 2011 closure of a Goodyear tire factory in Union City, Tennessee. The closure put nearly 2,000 Americans out of work, and devastated the small community in western Tennessee. It came on the heels of Goodyear investing $500 million dollars to open a plant in Dalin, China, in 2008.

So in response, he co-wrote “Cost of Livin’”, which narrates what the now-ex-employees of that plant might be facing as they seek new work:

I work sunup to sundown

Ain't too proud to sweep the floors

The bank has started callin'

And the wolves are at my door

Four dollars and change at the pump

The cost of livin's high and goin' up

One more: in his 2011 song “Good Ole American Way,” Justin Moore, another outspoken conservative, lamented offshoring manufacturing jobs—and took a shot at high levels of immigration along the way:

I watch them shut the factories down

Then the foreigners flood into town

They take what's left for half the pay

We can't stand by and just let it fade away

The good ole American way

Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” has captivated the country because it’s the perfect distillation of the working class discontent of our current moment. But it’s not the first country song to do so. Even some of Nashville’s biggest stars will occasionally paint an accurate picture of the mood of the country.

Listen to country music. You’ll know our country better when you do.


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