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Remember late summer? When the biggest thing people had to argue about was a
three-minute video of a guy in the woods playing a Gretsch resonator guitar and belting out an angry lament for the working class?
In all the fuss over “Rich Men North of Richmond,” too many important people misunderstood the song’s true nature. They assumed it was a rant, when it's really a testimony.
Oliver Anthony’s detractors cynically tried to reduce his song to ideology; they were quick to denounce him for being too “right-wing” (he’s against welfare cheats), too liberal (he’s for diversity), and not authentic enough (he fakes his southern accent). But “Rich Men North of Richmond” is art, not an editorial. Implicit in the indignation Anthony channels is hope for the future and faith in the transformative power of music. It’s something we badly need at the moment.
Good news, then, from Anthony’s hometown newspaper: The singer plans on spending November and December writing new songs for release early next year. Oh, and he and his wife, Tiffany, welcomed a healthy baby boy (their third child) this past weekend.
Anthony articulates a yearning that is as much spiritual as it is material. It roots him in a rich musical tradition. I’ve put together the following playlist, which you can find in its entirety here, to give a sampling of that tradition while tiding us over until the follow-up to “Rich Men.” It’s not a ranking, although I do recommend listening to it sequentially.
“Thoughts on Greetings from Amarillo” by Hayden Pedigo
Our starting place seems quiet, but it’s not. As a poem by outlaw-country legend Terry Allen, as a kind of summation of Hayden Pedigo’s lovely album of country-western ambient resplendence.
“Pray for the USA” by the Clark Sisters
In 1985, a supergroup of pop artists drew attention to the plight of starving Africans with the vague, feel-good appeal to unity “We Are the World.” One year later, the biggest-selling female gospel group of all time had the audacity both to bring the focus back to our own messed-up country and to propose an explicitly Christian solution. Those drums, those vocals, each melody and lift – it all gives the lie to the notion that the most effective art must abandon God in favor of “universality.”
“Atlantic City” by Bruce Springsteen
Few songwriters can tell the story of an American nobody like Bruce Springsteen. And "Nebraska," as an album full of stories about broken and emptied Americans, an album so dark that Springsteen declined to tour on it, is the finest example, with its four-track electricity replacing the E Street Band, a howling skeleton of an album bursting with tracks like “State Trooper,” a cop-killer ballad inspired by the band Suicide.
The Boss described this period of his career in his autobiography, "Born to Run": “I had no conscious political agenda or social theme. I was after a feeling, a tone that felt like the world I’d known and still carried inside me.” Similarly, Oliver Anthony has repeatedly — unequivocally — made it clear that his animating force is in no way political. The important connection between “Atlantic City” and “Rich Men” arises from the lyrics as much as the churn of their animating spirit, the discomfort of loving and hating this country at the same time.
“The Message” by Grandmaster Flash
In many ways, “Rich Men” is just a cover of “The Message.” For one, the visceral and shattering images: broken people who rob their way to prison, where their "manhood [gets] took" until they're a "Maytag" until they get Epsteined. Like "Pray for the USA" and “A Country Boy Can Survive," the framing of the world described by Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, and Duke Bootee is diseased by double-digit inflation and political turmoil that has shoved its way onto the streets and clogged up the train station.
“The Message,” like “Rich Men,” is an anthem for the anthem-less. Few songs are cooler than “The Message,” which only adds boldness to the lyrics (tragic, despondent, bitter, even angry) to craft a song that is both firmly alive in 1984 and unstoppably timeless. Grandmaster Flash’s vivid, unsparing depiction of urban crime and violence doesn’t patronize the poor with narratives of oppression and victimhood. Instead it invokes older, less fashionable notions of responsibility and agency, with a grittiness that keeps it from being preachy. Flash’s use of the second person makes it clear that none of us, no matter how rich or poor, are immune to the greed and delusion it depicts.
“Natural’s Not In It” by Gang of Four
Gang of Four’s 1979 debut “Entertainment!” finds the Leeds-based quartet already in peak form, with wry, political lyrics wedded to the pounce of funk and the snarl of punk. Their outlook is generally labeled “left-wing,” but that word hardly means the same thing now as it did 40 years ago.
Consider the surprising biblical reference in “Natural’s Not In It”: “Remember Lot’s wife / Renounce all sin and vice / Dream of the perfect life / This heaven gives me migraine.” Ironic? Maybe, but I hear the same exhaustion “Rich Men” conveys. If it’s clever, it’s because total indignation occasionally spills into humor, however fleeting.
“That’s All Right” by Håkan Hellström
Released in 2016, “That’s All Right” is Håkan Hellström’s remix of an a cappella from a compilation titled “Been in the Storm So Long: A Collection of Spirituals, Folk Tales and Children's Games from Johns Island, SC,” sung by obscure Gullah gospel singer named Laura Rivers, a member of the Moving Star Hall Singers, a movement grounded in its own fascinating history. This version is itself, beautifully, a rendition of “Seat in the Kingdom,” a gospel song commonly shorthanded to “That’s Alright” (sic).
Of all the songs on this list, “That’s All Right” shares the deepest emotional essence of “Rich Men.” The heartbreak, the lostness, and yet the hope lurking below all of it, as evinced by its central focus on Jacob’s Ladder, the wild story of a broken man.
“People” by J Dilla
“People” is far more than a reimagining of “My People … Hold On” by Eddie Kendricks, itself a deeply political song, on the solo album that differentiated him from the Temptations. It’s also somehow more than one of the finest tracks on “Donuts,” a truly flawless album with a poignant, beautiful, heartbreaking backstory.
The connection to “Rich Men” rises from Eddie Kendricks’ voice, which Dilla clipped perfectly and wove into one of his finest beats, as Eddie Kendricks announces, “People, the time has come.”
“Wichita Lineman” by Glen Campbell
Few songs are as good as “Wichita Lineman.” It’s like “God Only Knows” for flyover-state nobodies. “Rich Men” is the voice of the Wichita lineman, praying for rain so he can take the day off.
A write-up in the Independent hailed it “the first existential country song." Bob Dylan described it as “the greatest song ever written.” Every time I hear “Wichita Lineman” again, for the millionth time, from perfect twang to that weird little drum solo shuffle that concludes this masterpiece, and the Jimmy Webb-composed story that thrives throughout it, I think Dylan could be right.
“Psalm 23” by Poor Bishop Hooper
Augustine said that “every visible thing in this world is put under the charge of an angel.” Proof: “Psalm 23” by Poor Bishop Hooper, a “cover version” that somehow conveys the solace and mystery of a song written 3,000 years ago. The husband-and-wife duo Jesse and Leah Roberts have recorded all 150 psalms for their EveryPsalm project. To listen is to understand that the tradition of “protest music” begins when man contends with God. I mean, just check out this backstory. (Charming coincidence: Yesterday, as I paused from assembling this list, a few months in the making, the Responsorial Psalm was Psalm 23.)
“Unsatisfied” by the Replacements
It took some spine for these alt-rock pioneers to rip off the Beatles for the title of their third album, “Let It Be.” Then again, what better answer to the self-satisfied Boomer serenity of the Beatles’s penultimate single than the restless, rebellious “Unsatisfied”?
“If We Forget God” by the Louvin Brothers
Even before their classic 1959 gospel bluegrass album “Satan Is Real,” these country music legends weren’t hesitant to point out the existence of true evil. This early song shares many things with “Rich Men,” like a sorrow for the sins of a great world and the ruin that lurks behind the spectacle of modern existence. But it also shares its hidden mission: “So many are climbing fame's golden hill / By singing of evil that gives this world a thrill / But I sing of Jesus and though they won't hear / God will bless me for doing His will.”
“You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” by Funkadelic
Like everything on 1971’s “Maggot Brain,” this track is political in the slyest, funkiest, wildest way. While “Rich Men” couldn’t be more different stylistically, the showmanship with which Anthony gets his message across makes him Funkadelic’s spiritual heir.
“A Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams Jr.
Life on the margins has its advantages. You can do what you want, and a little self-sufficiency will come in handy when SHTF. Leave it to Bocephus to stick it to the urban elites in style. Hillbilly poetics at their finest.
“Have You Been Good to Yourself” by Johnnie Frierson
This is basic Jordan Peterson “clean your room” stuff, as laid down by an obscure Memphis R&B genius decades before “12 Rules for Life.” “If you’re not gonna be good to yourself, then you’re not gonna be good to others.” Doesn’t this idea sound oddly familiar? To certain people in 2023, the sheer simplicity of this advice offends – as does the suggestion to keep faith in God and follow the Ten Commandments.
“Waitin' Around to Die” by Townes Van Zandt
If this song doesn’t punch you in the gut and rip your heart in two, you may be a Replicant. Especially if we’re talking about this version. The way that the older man reacts, that’s the secret of “Rich Men.”
“B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth) by GZA
Of the many great Wu-Tang solo albums, GZA’s “Liquid Swords” might be the best. And this deeply personal chronicle of one man’s spiritual quest as he navigates the snares of this world is a big reason why. “I loved doing right but I was trapped in hell.”
“Annabelle” by Gillian Welch
If you were looking for a female counterpart to “Rich Men,” it would be this strange and beautiful gem. “And we cannot have all things to please us / No matter how we try / Until we've all gone to Jesus / We can only wonder why.”
“Dream On” by Robyn
“Dream On” by Robyn is one of the strangest examples of a non-Christian song that captures the total essence of Christianity.
The third verse gets me every time. It captures all of us — if it doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, then what could? It’s the kind of song that can make the lowest nobody feel like a someone: “Freaks and junkies / Fakes and phonies / Drunks and cowards / Manic preachers / Rest your weary heads / All is well / You won't be pushed or messed with tonight / You won't be lied to, roughed up tonight / You won't be insane, paranoid, obsessed / Aimlessly wandering through the dark night / So dream on.”
This is the only version of the song, as far as I’m concerned.
“Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos” by Judee Sill
This lesser-known masterpiece by the quintessential 1960s Jesus freak is convincing evidence that Christ lives outside our concept of time, constantly new and alive, always and forever. And while the spiritual warfare that characterized Sill’s work and life is often poetic enough to be philosophy, it’s kin to “Rich Men North of Richmond” in its untamable God-devoted wildness.
Sometimes, in order to survive, we only need to be told that our pilgrimage is strange and bitter. That the weight of our troubles is not minor. That for all the love and beauty that we receive and cherish, heartbreak and rejection and depravity are enough to break a person open.
So — in a world of people who have almost entirely given up on freedom, who can never regain all that they’ve lost, who have made giant sacrifices so that the powerful people can enjoy a life without inconvenience — there’s tremendous hope in the popularity of “Rich Men.”
Obviously, this should have been the story all along: Human freedom can still be awoken and possibly even revived, if only as the stirrings of heartache delivered by song.
Because despite the braying of our professional loudmouths, “Rich Men North of Richmond” has nothing to do with a world of their making. Politics is all too often merely a tool of a deceiver. But ultimately it should only be considered a veil. A veil only has power in its ability to mask truths or enhance the hunger for the mystery of faith, hidden in songs of true resistance.
Thank you for reading. Feel free to send corrections, rants, notes, and outpourings to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on X
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Kevin Ryan is an opinion contributor for Blaze News.