It's not often that country music songs grab the attention of largely city-based name-brand media, but Oliver Anthony's "Rich Men North of Richmond" did exactly that with anti-elite, anti-tax, anti-welfare lyrics—and his undeniable singing talent. Even more remarkable, Anthony's tune bumped the similarly earnest anti-urban "Try That in a Small Town" by Jason Aldean from the top of the charts. If you add in Austin Moody's lefty-taunting chart-climber, "I'm Just Sayin'," you have a cluster of songs grabbing popularity with a shared sense of populist outrage. Call it the return of the country protest song.
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Urban-Rural Tensions Aren't New
These songs represent the long-standing tension that exists between rural areas and small towns on the one hand, and denser urban and suburban communities on the other. Buck Owens wasn't exactly breaking new ground when he sang "I Wouldn't Live in New York City" over half a century ago. Forty years ago, Hank Williams Jr.'s "A Country Boy Can Survive" came pretty close to the tone of the trio of songs getting listened to this summer. But that tune was more of a rejection of city life and an expression of pride in what the singer (and his audience) considered a better way of life in the country where people "catch catfish from dusk 'til dawn." By comparison to their predecessors, the recent songs bare more teeth and bristle at perceived threats from elsewhere.
"These rich men north of Richmond, lord knows they just wanna have total control," calls out Anthony. "Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do. And they don't think you know, but I know that you do."
"Got a gun that my granddad gave me, they say one day they're gonna round up," similarly taunts Aldean. "Well, that shit might fly in the city, good luck."
Moody's sentiments are equally defiant. To my ears, they're the most libertarian in tone.
"I believe in live and let live, we're all free to each their own," he sings. "If you were born a he, but wanna be a she, do your thing but leave my kids alone."
Country/Folk Protest Songs Have a Long Tradition
All three songs are explicitly political, in opposition to what the artists see as intrusive, smug, urban elites who want to dictate terms to the unwilling. By any reasonable definition, they're protest songs from a long tradition of similar music. That's especially true if you consider that country music is just folk music for righties (and folk music is country music for lefties). But music critics don't want to put Aldean, Anthony, and Moody in the same tradition as Woody Guthrie because times have changed, name-brand media types overwhelmingly like today's elite establishment, and the protest songs come from a different direction than Guthrie's socialism. But not approving of a protest doesn't mean it's not a protest. Times have moved on, but the gap between rural and urban, populists and elites, remains.
"Republicans have consistently been more likely than Democrats to express a preference for communities with larger houses," reports Pew. "Currently, 72% of Republicans and Republican leaners, compared with 43% of Democrats and Democratic leaners, would opt for this type of community."
Americans have been self-sorting for decades along lines of preferred lifestyle and the politics with which they correlate. "America is growing more geographically polarized — red ZIP codes are getting redder and blue ZIP codes are becoming bluer," NPR noted last year a decade and a half after Bill Bishop literally wrote the book on the phenomenon. "People appear to be sorting."
Evolving Positions Breed Evolving Grievances
Whatever their political beliefs in the past, people who prefer the spread-out life available in small towns and rural areas—the kind of people who tend to be country music fans—tend to the right, politically. Or maybe (Oliver Anthony describes himself as "pretty dead center down the aisle on politics") it's more accurate to say that they find themselves in opposition to institutions, including government, media, academia, and large corporations that they see, with reason, as dominated by urban progressives who sneer at them and their way of life. It doesn't take too many denunciations by political candidates of "deplorables" or a whole lot of big-media contempt-porn about the supposed miseries of life behind the (stories suggest) corn-silk curtain before the message is received.
The political turmoil of recent years "has consolidated progressive norms in almost every institution susceptible to pressure from activists (or activist-employees), and it's pulled the entire American establishment leftward," conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote in 2021 for The New York Times.
Populist country songs attacking elites necessarily sound like they're coming from the right because the elites of today are largely on the left. And the divide between right and left is wide and growing.
"Over the past two decades, partisan gaps on all of the issues included in this analysis have either remained roughly the same or expanded," Gallup reported earlier this month. "The issues and topics on which the partisan gaps have grown the most since 2003 are (predictably) the issues that have been at the forefront of the political and ideological battleground in recent years and that have gained high visibility in the media. These include views of government power, global warming and the environment, education, abortion, foreign trade, immigration, gun laws, healthcare, and income tax."
And it's no secret that America's political tribes are divided not just by their views, but by hostility—even to the point of violence. "America is grappling with the biggest and most sustained increase in political violence since the 1970s," according to Reuters.
Prime Time for Protest
It's not a shock to find this particular moment producing protest songs; it just offends some journalists that a few of those songs come from the right, backed by twangy guitars.
It's tempting to over-parse protest art if you disagree with its messaging. It's easy enough to point out that a song misstates policies, overlooks flaws on its own side, is logically inconsistent, or whatever. But musical protest represents an expression of anger and, potentially, a peek at what matters to a segment of society. The fact that these songs are finding large audiences is an indication that they tap into popular sentiment. That matters whether or not anybody else agrees with that sentiment. People act on what matters to them, not on what others think should matter or even on what makes sense.
Enjoy Oliver Anthony, Jason Aldean, Austin Moody, and their peers for their music if you're so inclined. But even if you don't enjoy it, their work represents a new round of country protest songs expressing the sincere concerns of their creators and their listeners.