How 'Rich Men North of Richmond' and 'Try That in a Small Town' took over the charts and ushered in a summer of conservative country hits

It's been a blockbuster season for country singers Morgan Wallen, Jason Aldean and Oliver Anthony.

Republican U.S. presidential candidates onstage below projected image of Oliver Anthony holding guitar.
Republican presidential candidates listen as a video is shown of Oliver Anthony singing "Rich Men North of Richmond" at the first Republican debate, in Milwaukee on Aug. 23. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Last week’s inaugural debate of the Republican presidential primary opened with a question about “Rich Men North of Richmond,” the viral country song by previously unknown singer Oliver Anthony that shot with astonishing force to the top of the Billboard singles chart.

Even though Anthony later criticized Fox News for using his song in a political context, “Rich Men North of Richmond” has been embraced by conservatives.

The song’s popularity comes at a time when country music dominates the Billboard charts — but also as the genre’s long-standing relationship to conservative politics receives new scrutiny.

Read more on Yahoo News: Country music is at a crossroads. Two of its most viral songs show why, via CNN

Small-town values or coded racism?

Jason Aldean onstage wearing a cowboy hat and holding an acoustic guitar.
Jason Aldean at the CMA Fest in Nashville on June 10. (Monica Murray/Variety via Getty Images)

Last month saw country singer Jason Aldean take the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 charts with “Try That in a Small Town.”

The song’s lyrics suggest that small towns have little tolerance for the crime and disorder of big cities: “Around here, we take care of our own,” Aldean sings. “You cross that line, it won't take long.”

Some thought the song implicitly celebrated so-called sundown towns of the 20th century, where Black people were not allowed to live and were encouraged not to linger.

Even more controversial was the video Aldean recorded for the song, which was set in front of the Maury County courthouse in Tennessee, where a Black teenager was lynched in 1927. It also included recent footage of Black Lives Matter protesters.

“Jason Aldean’s ‘Try That in a Small Town’ Is the Racist Anthem White Folks Have Been Waiting For,” read a headline from the Root, a publication that focuses on issues related to the Black community.

Country Music Television pulled the video, though it is widely available online.

The backlash from the left led — unsurprisingly — to a counter-backlash from the right. Former President Donald Trump, not known as a country music fan, eagerly dived into the culture war over the song. “Jason Aldean is a fantastic guy who just came out with a great new song,” he wrote in a message posted to Truth Social, his social media site. “Support Jason all the way. MAGA!!!”

By the end of July, “Try That in a Small Town” was atop the charts. “The controversy has been a boon for the song,” the Hollywood Reporter noted.

Read more on Yahoo News: Sheryl Crow slams Jason Aldean’s ‘Try That in a Small Town,’ says it promotes violence and is ‘not American,’ via NBC News

‘This is exactly who country music is’

Morgan Wallen.
Morgan Wallen at the CMA Triple Play Awards in Nashville on March 1. (Jason Davis/Getty Images)

As the controversy over Aldean’s song brewed, fellow country singer Morgan Wallen enjoyed the success of the single “Last Night,” which had a historic stay atop the Billboard Hot 100 throughout the spring and summer. The song was included on Wallen’s third album, One Thing at a Time, a hit in its own right.

In early 2021, Wallen became the center of controversy after video surfaced of him using a racist slur outside his Nashville home. He said he had merely intended to be “playful” and apologized.

The incident focused public attention on the long history of anti-Blackness in country music but did not necessarily engender the reckoning some thought was long overdue for the famously white genre.

“When I read comments saying ‘this is not who we are’ I laugh because this is exactly who country music is,” Black country singer Mickey Guyton wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, at the time.

Despite the controversy, Wallen’s double album Dangerous continued to enjoy blistering sales throughout 2021. This year, One Thing at a Time took (and maintained for several months) the top Billboard spot, leading Variety to call him the “undisputed champ” of Billboard’s charts.

Read more on Yahoo News: Morgan Wallen’s label CEO shuts down ‘drunk’ accusations after cancelled show, via The Independent

A viral star from rural Virginia

Oliver Anthony.
Oliver Anthony. (Mike Caudill/Billboard via Getty Images)

Oliver Anthony, a bearded native of central Virginia, seemed to truly come out of nowhere. But praise from conservative pundits helped “Rich Men North of Richmond” — a populist anthem that takes Washington elites to task — debut at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 list.

Some observers took issue with Anthony’s anger at people who needed government assistance. He was even accused of mainstreaming the QAnon conspiracy theory.

“Depending on your politics, he is either a voice sent from Heaven to express the anger of the white working class, or he is a wholly constructed viral creation who has arrived to serve up resentment with a thick, folksy lacquering of Americana,” a critic for the New York Times wrote.

Read more on Yahoo News: Oliver Anthony slams politicians co-opting his viral hit: 'I wrote the song about those people,' via Entertainment Weekly

Anthony has denied that the song has any political message; he seemed especially aggrieved that “Rich Men” was used in last week’s Republican debate.

“That song has nothing to do with Joe Biden,” he said. “You know, it’s a lot bigger than Joe Biden. That song is written about the people on that stage and a lot more, not just them, but definitely them.”