Fear & Loathing North of Richmond

Inside Oliver Anthony’s sold-out homecoming show in Doswell on May 17.  

Last Friday, I traveled the 30-odd minutes north of Richmond to Atlantic Union Bank After Hours at the Servpro Pavilion in Doswell, Virginia, next to Kings Dominion amusement park. Not my typical weekend excursion, but I was on assignment to cover the Oliver Anthony Music concert, billed tonight simply as Oliver Anthony (the Music part inferred, I guess). The show marked the kickoff to the bank’s summer concert series and the Farmville singer’s de facto homecoming show. So where’d he go, you might ask? Where does anyone you’ve never heard of before go to make their mark? The place is called Viral … surely you’ve heard of and seen it before, or scrolled past it repeatedly in a near-constant, death-spiral loop. Eventually you stop and have a look, like it, maybe send it to a friend.

Last summer, Anthony went viral – big-time – from his original song “Rich Men North of Richmond” that he uploaded to YouTube [and which now sits at 140 million views]. In the process, he made pop music history as the first recording artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts without previous appearances on any chart, let alone an album to his credit. Dude came out of nowhere by way of Farmville and found a massive audience. At the sold-out concert, I wondered if he had family and friends among the roughly 10,000 in attendance? People that know him by his given name, Christopher Anthony Lunsford, or just Chris. If so, I trust they had an easier time getting through the crawling procession of every make and model of truck — and at least one stretch-limo SUV tail mounted with an American flag — to the proceedings at Gate 1, past the Quarter Horse show at Gate 6 and Gaff-N-Go rodeo at Gate 3.

Anthony’s overnight success with “Rich Men North of Richmond” spread through political punditry more than the standard music press or broader fanfare, promptly inviting controversy and closer examination to explain and untangle the phenomenon. On the one hand, Anthony was made famous for becoming famous. On the other, he’d unwittingly become a political mouthpiece. Conservatives seemingly embraced the song’s message of working-class struggle brought by an ineffectual and, if you’re following the lyrics, pedophiliac government, so much so as to namecheck Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” at the first Republican primary debate. Meanwhile, liberals (and generally anyone else responding directly to the song’s lyrics) took umbrage with Anthony’s punching down at welfare recipients writ large, and his strangely specific jab at anyone measuring 5’ 3” and 300 lbs.

At the time, Anthony responded by distancing himself from any partisan affiliation, asserting that the song is about both parties, while not for either [at a time when independents constitute the largest political bloc in the U.S]. As per his negative and dismissive lyrical content, Anthony deflected to muddled effect.

“You know the English language is interpretive, so I do understand there may be some people who misunderstood my words in ‘Rich Men North of Richmond,’” he said. “But I’ve got to be clear that my message, like with any of my songs, it references the inefficiencies of the government because of the politicians within it that are engulfed in bribes and extortion.”

A look at the sold-out crowd for kickoff to the Atlantic Union Bank After Hours concert series. Photo credit: Matthew Whiting

The above baggage came with me as I parked in the golden hour-lit field – after all, it’s an election year. Below the rollercoaster-crest treeline, I made my way toward the Servpro Pavilion for the promise of music and enjoyment outdoors. Any chance of rain in the forecast was wrong, and as I headed through a metal detector, press credentials in hand, I found myself briefly charged by the machinery of it all, the forward momentum of the giddy crowd. But the feeling fizzled and thoroughly faded once through the gate, when I spotted the steadily growing lines in every direction. A horror vacui of concession stands were arranged in a phalanx and covered all the typical fair fare for a less-than-fair fare: funnel cake, Italian ice, chicken fingers, burgers and hot dogs were all well represented, and there was at least one designated lemonade stand amid many a beer tent. For the culinary name-brand fan, Buffalo Wild Wings and Papa John’s were at the ready, so long as you were prepared to wait and pay a premium.

But it was the serpentine lines for the porta-johns that stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t need to go at that moment, but if I did [anytime soon], it’d spell trouble. So in the name of preparedness — or fallen prey to the fear — I went ahead and joined the line for the loo and while waiting, spoke with the gentlemen on either side of me.

Ahead of me, Clive Hoffman from D.C. shared that he had heard Anthony’s music for the first time last September.

“I loved the sound and the passion he sings with just drew me in. I like the message. But if somebody sings with that much passion it just gets me,” he said. “We’re all kind of struggling and it seems to be a worldwide message, and when you know other people are struggling with you, you feel empowered. I think that’s his message. We’re all struggling, but if we all ban together, we can make something happen.”

Behind me, Ken Wright from Stafford County was a more seasoned fan. He had first heard Anthony last August and found himself drawn to what he described as “the sound … that mixture of bluegrass with country.” And then after that, “listening to the lyrics, it really struck a chord like with so many others. I’m a Virginia boy too, reddish hair, what I have left. The songs he sings just have that hometown vibe no matter where you’re from.”

By the time I’d relieved myself and bought a 16 oz. Bud Light aluminum bottle for north of $10, opening sets from Levi Foster and Joey Davis with Caleb Dillard had concluded and it was time for the main event.  As the sun set, concertgoers variously removed and stashed their sunglasses, many turning them around backwards, balanced behind their ears, for an optical illusion incarnate. Excitement and vape vapor commingled at dusk.

Paula Dean, a Charlottesville resident — not THE Paula Deen — had traveled with her teenaged son to the show and was growing restless. “The first time I heard Oliver Anthony’s music was from my sister-in-law, from the internet. And when she showed me, I was just overwhelmed with it,” she recalled. “I loved the songs. I agreed with every word he said, so it sort of warmed me from the inside. I’m very excited for tonight and right now he’s late so …”

The show felt imminent when an emcee figure commenced with introductory glad handing from the bandstand. I wasn’t surprised when he asked everyone to raise a glass to the members of the armed forces, only after he informed the crowd that tomorrow was Armed Forces Day. I was surprised, however, when Anthony kicked his set off with scripture followed by “Amazing Grace,” and didn’t realize our politically provoking troubadour skewed evangelical (but surely would have had I been paying him any attention). In hindsight, the writing was on the wall. Anthony’s debut album, “Hymnal of a Troubled Man’s Mind” was released earlier this year on Easter Sunday and includes numerous readings from Ecclesiastes throughout. On the subject of religion, Anthony remained noncommittal when he performed at the Beacon Theatre, after attending Beacon Hill Church’s Easter service: “I kind of had religion shoved down my throat as a kid. I just didn’t like the politics and the theatrics at a lot of churches. They just kind of turned me off to it. I cut God out of my life for a long time. It was good to be back in a real church.” Now it continues to be part of the show.

Cant banter aside, Anthony eased into his set with competence and confidence, backed by deft players on lead guitar, upright bass and fiddle/violin (socioeconomic distinctions notwithstanding). Other than mentioning his family during a humble brag about turning down a $2 million dollar record contract, and later his wife’s request that he pen a love song when he introduced “Always Love You Like a Good Ole Dog,” the only time his homelife entered into his homecoming performance was an appearance by his friend Little Ozzy, a dwarf Ozzy Osbourne impersonator, to lead the band in an impromptu rendition of Black Sabbaths’ “War Pigs” that amounted to unrehearsed theater. Further reliance on covers, namely 2 too many chestnuts from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s songbook, gave weight to my doubt that Anthony was ready for headlining gigs outside of the folding-chair variety. I started to slink away toward the parking lot during the first five seconds of “Free Bird.”

On the cover of his “Hymnal” album, an acoustic guitar rests next to Anthony on a stand in profile with decals that read: “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.” It’s a quaint message compared to the slogan scrawled on Woody Guthrie’s guitar back in 1943: “This machine kills fascists.” Or even Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello’s in the ‘90s: “Arm the homeless.” I wonder, in the case of Anthony, if the nation are the sheep, and the government are the wolves, what is the singer?

During “Rich Men North of Richmond” I found myself on the other side of the chain link fence demarcating Servpro Pavilion’s official proceedings, but still in clear view of the stage when zoomed-in to-the-max on my phone; and I could see Anthony fall silent during the second verse of the song when he stepped back from the mic as the words resounded in a uniform chorus from the crowd.

But let’s give Anthony the last word on his music:

“I wrote the music I wrote because I was suffering with mental health and depression. These songs have connected with millions of people on such a deep level because they’re being sung by someone feeling the words in the very moment they were being sung. No editing, no agent, no bullshit. Just some idiot and his guitar.”

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