Oliver Anthony merchandise at the Eagle Creek Golf Club concert on August 19, 2023 in Moyock, North Carolina. Credit - Mike Caudill—Billboard/Getty Images
Country music is having a moment this summer. The week of August 5, for the first time in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, the top three spots were all filled by country songs: “Try That in a Small Town” by Jason Aldean, “Last Night” by Morgan Wallen, and “Fast Car” by Luke Combs. The week of August 22, another country song, Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond,” shot from uncharted straight to number one. That was unprecedented too—and not just for country songs.
As both a music critic and lifelong country fan, I’d love to celebrate this historic country music summer. But the truth is these songs trouble me far more than they inspire or delight me. The Aldean and Anthony records, especially, lean hard into some of the genre’s nastiest impulses. They feel parochial to the point of bigotry. Easily accessed via streaming, the songs have become sensations with some right-wing listeners, country fans or not—a line in the sand that divides a shared pop culture further into two.
The one good thing I can say about “Rich Men North of Richmond” is that it foregrounds class. “I’ve been sellin' my soul, workin' all day,” Anthony begins in an untutored shout. “Overtime hours for bullshit pay.” Country music once specialized in working people’s lives: Dolly Parton’s “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad),” Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues,” Johnny Paycheck’s “Take this Job and Shove It,” and countless more. This century, though, the genre has mostly passed on economic struggles in favor of mere blue-collar signifiers: I drive a truck; I like beer; I live in a small town. Of course, for most of today’s country fans that small town isn’t T.V.’s tiny Mayberry; it’s a suburb or exurb of some decent-or-giant-sized metro. I wish more country songs would talk about that proximity, how city folk and small-town folk flow back and forth for work and fun—and are very often the same people. I would also love to hear more country songs about how hard it is these days to pay the bills no matter where you live.
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But the song’s interest in class struggle quickly turns from aspirational to punching-down punitive. One of the worst things about “Rich Men North of Richmond” is its nostalgia. I’m not referring to Oliver’s retro-styled singing or playing. (Some listeners apparently find his spare, old-timey performance style and bushy beard “authentic.” To that, I’d say that the adoption of early 20th century-evoking styles and sounds in the early 21st century evokes more artifice than authenticity.) What I mean is the cruel nostalgia in his lyrical choice of enemies—and the way he’s walked into an old trap.
After all, slamming “the obese [who are] milkin' welfare,” as Oliver does, reaches all the way back to “welfare queen” stereotypes of the Reagan era, complete with their ugly racial implications. But if you’re angry about low pay and the high-cost of living, and then point a finger at welfare recipients, you’ve been fooled by a distraction, turning the oppressed against one another instead of fighting together what holds them both down. As British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg argued in “Rich Men Earning North of a Million,” an answer song he posted on August 20 to YouTube, a better bet would be to join a union.
Predictably, “Rich Men” isn’t getting played on mainstream country radio. Anthony isn’t part of the Nashville system (not yet, at least) and his song’s momentary popularity seems more about listeners wanting to own the libs, if only digitally, than it does in any uptick in resonator-guitar fans. Aldean, by contrast, gets played on the radio a ton, and yet, his “Try That in a Small Town” seems to have benefited from similar motives. The song condemns, and lumps together, big city political protestors and violent crime offenders, then threatens vigilantism if those people were to ever “try that in a small town.” The song didn’t really take off, though, until its video, which cuts between Aldean, his band members and scary, violent news footage, was pulled by Country Music Television (CMT). Aldean’s recording was further boosted when Donald Trump defended the singer on social media. As it happened, much of the video was shot in front of the Maury County, Tennessee courthouse, the infamous site of the lynching of Henry Choate, an 18-year-old Black man in 1927.
Lyrical content aside, and whatever the explanation for their popularity, neither song is any good. I appreciate the word play in Anthony’s title, but even that leaves me apprehensive: In American history, Richmond, VA, set in relation to Washington D.C., does not just innocently connote geography. (“Rich Folk North of Norfolk” was right there!) On the other hand, Aldean’s latest hit is characteristically uninterested in word play altogether. “See how far you make it down the road” is as clever as a torch or a club. Musically speaking, both songs are stolid, turgid, and no fun.
Much better is another big song people have been talking about this summer, “Fast Car” by Luke Combs. The song was written, of course, by Tracy Chapman who had a Top Ten pop hit with it in 1988. Chapman, a Black queer woman, was not going to get played on country radio in 2023 any more than she would have in the ‘80s. But a white male country star, doing a nice job with Chapman’s lyrics and with what amounts to the same arrangement, can have a chart-topping country radio hit. In many respects, that story of Black-to-white appropriation is country music in a nutshell. One gift of Combs’ cover, in addition to the bump it will provide to Chapman’s bank account, is the way it underscores how much more inclusive the genre and format could always have been and could still be.
No matter who’s singing it, “Fast Car” speaks directly to this moment in country music. Chapman’s story song is all about being a struggling, working-class American; its narrator is a convenience store cashier. And it speaks with great empathy about the complex reasons some people stay put in their rural or exurban small towns, whether contented or feeling stuck, and why others feel the need to leave. Think of all the great new country songs still to be written about such tangled decisions! The characters in Chapman’s “Fast Car” “won’t have to drive too far” to chase their dreams. “Just across the border and into the city.”
“Maybe, together,” the song suggests to country music fans everywhere, “we can get somewhere.”
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