August 22, 2023 Reading Time: 3 minutes

Singer-songwriter Oliver Anthony ripped onto the scene last week with “Rich Men North of Richmond,” popularized by a viral video of Anthony howling the song in the dark Virginia countryside.

Anthony’s voice and lyrics grip the listener. Like popular folk-country singer-songwriter Colter Wall, his raw voice and stripped-down style delivers authenticity – and the lyrics stand out in an era where production often overtakes message.

With lyrics referencing inflation, male suicide, welfare, censorship, and taxes, Anthony transforms a general sense of hardship and grievance against government elites into musical form.

The song’s message is simple: government-employed or associated elites in Washington, the “Rich Men North of Richmond,” have made life harder for Americans across multiple fronts.

Simultaneously, the beltwayers north of Richmond thrive. Five of America’s ten wealthiest counties are in the DC area, yet the region’s growth is driven by those who work for or peddle influence to the federal government.

The heartfelt song comes at a moment where American life, from the economy to politics and culture, is downcast, unstable, and divided. And the future looks darker thanks to an ever-growing government apparatus.

Politicians in Washington might gaslight everyone that their policies are solving current problems, but their words ring hollow for those outside the beltway. Confidence in economic leaders and the state of the economy is incredibly low. An inverted yield curve signals a future recession and credit card debt recently surpassed $1 trillion.

Anthony’s song is not overly pessimistic either, though it might seem that way. Instead, “The Rich Men North of Richmond” is an earnest man’s ballad on the state of his homeland, pointing his finger squarely at the perpetrator.

Lyrics like “Cause your dollar ain’t shit and it’s taxed to no end, ‘Cause of rich men north of Richmond” are easy for listeners to identify with high taxes and inflation.

Censorship also gets a nod, “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,” is a spot-on depiction of the Biden administration’s attitude toward suppressing dissent. 

The President’s lackeys have pressured social media firms to censor users throughout his tenure.

The song’s popularity demonstrates how many are hungry for cultural recognition of the burdens the government has placed upon them. They are fed up and angry – and the Rich Men North of Richmond are to blame.

Not everyone is equally captivated by the song’s message. It has predictably struck a nerve with powerful elites. 

“The song’s lyrics revolve around common right-wing talking points such as inflation,” can be found on a recently created Wikipedia page.

Legacy media journalists were quick to denigrate Anthony through guilt by association, writing articles shifting the story away from the song itself and toward the right-wing influencers who enjoy his music. 

One conservative, National Review executive editor Mark Antonio Wright, turned his nose up at Anthony’s song, writing, “My brother in Christ, you live in the United States of America in 2023 — if you’re a fit, able-bodied man, and you’re working ‘overtime hours for bullshit pay,’ you need to find a new job.” 

Not only does this miss the mark (the song is anti-government, not anti-America), but Antonio Wright’s words come across like the scene in American Psycho where Patrick Bateman tells a shivering homeless man to “get a goddamn job, Al.”

Stephen Daisley offers a different critique in the Spectator, claiming that “Right-populism… simply allies itself to bad taste because it is low-status and thus in rebellion against the good taste of those whose views are high-status.” Would Daisley have accepted the Appalachian folk song if it were composed in iambic pentameter? 

Such critiques fall short because Anthony is not trying to be “high-brow.” The song works because it is the opposite: a refreshing depiction of the harms a runaway federal government has inflicted on working Americans, sung by a working American.

“Rich Men North of Richmond” is a cri de coeur against the modern administrative state and its consequences, capturing the day’s sentiment in a way that makes it worthy of a listen. Whether it is part of a larger cultural and political shift remains to be seen.

David Waugh

David Waugh is a business development and communications specialist at Coinbits, a bitcoin investment platform. He formerly served as AIER’s Managing Editor from 2021 until 2023, overseeing the publication of The Daily Economy. He previously worked for S&P Global Market Intelligence.

He has co-authored numerous academic book chapters and journal papers on cryptocurrencies, financial markets, political economy, and higher education. His popular writings have appeared in The Hill, RealClearMarkets, National Review, Commentary, Seeking Alpha, and various other media outlets and publications.

Waugh earned his BA in economics from Hampden-Sydney College.

Selected Publications

“General Institutional Considerations of Blockchain and Emerging Applications” Co-Authored with Peter C. Earle in The Emerald Handbook on Cryptoassets: Investment Opportunities and Challenges, edited by Baker, Benedetti, Nikbakht, and Smith (2023)

The Hyperpoliticization of Higher Ed: Trends in Faculty Political Ideology, 1969–Present.” Co-authored with Phillip W. Magness. Independent Review, (Winter 2022-2023)

“Cryptocurrencies, Blockchain, and Public Choice” Co-authored with Ryan M. Yonk, Cryptocurrency Concepts, Technology, and Applications, edited by Leibowitz (2023)

“Enrollment declines increase pressure on ‘woke’ higher ed” The Center Square, (January 2023)

“Fed’s cryptocurrency pilot opens door for dangerous retail option” The Hill, (December 2022)

“Pandemic Socialism: Hayek’s Critique of Scientism and the Fatal Conceit of Government Lockdowns,” Co-authored with Matt Kibbe in Pandemics and Liberty, edited by Raymond J. March and Ryan M. Yonk (2022)

“Do Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Offices Achieve Their Stated Goals?” The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal (August 2021)

Get notified of new articles from David Waugh and AIER.