Lately, as evidenced by the popularity on the charts and YouTube views, plenty of people find themselves drawn to the faux-populist country and folk music by the likes of Oliver Anthony and his new song Rich Men North of Richmond. He wrote this song that aggressively misunderstands class struggle and willingly performs it. His song includes the lyrics “Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothing to eat/And the obese milkin’ welfare/Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds/taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds” But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to hear that kind of punching down from someone who shares videos claiming the Jewish people committed 9/11. As someone who has relied on food stamps for my survival and who even had fudge rounds on occasion, I take issue with his characterization of poor folks. Why does he begrudge desperate people a box of cookies that can provide a tiny bright spot in their lives? Calorie-dense food such as snack cakes are often used by the poor as a means of meeting nutritional needs to get through the day. Is it the healthiest choice, no. But sometimes it’s the best option in a food desert or with limited funds. Why dump on people who are trying their best to survive?
Oliver Anthony’s song has spawned an entirely new genre of memes with pictures of his face singing with slogans such as “when you see a poor eating something other than bread crusts and their own feces.” Or a folding chair (that recently became iconic with the Alabama boat dock fight) swinging to hit him in the face with the text “class unconsciousness.” One meme mocking shows him singing in 3 separate images, each one drawing closer to his face. The text next to the first image says, “Times are tough for working-class people” The text on the second panel says, “We need to address inequality” The text on the third says “The problem is fat people on welfare.” Yet another meme shows a fudge round with a black star overhead and the text “come and take it” in a mockery of a right-wing slogan.
If you listen to current country music, you just might find yourself unintentionally enjoying racist dog whistles from artists (I use that term loosely) such as Jason Aldean or find yourself supporting musicians who use racial slurs like Morgan Wallen. Why listen to fake populist music by men like Jason Aldean, Morgan Wallen, or Oliver Anthony (who many speculate is likely an industry plant), when you could listen to the real deal by tuning in to some bluegrass? Bluegrass is authentic populism at its core. Born out of Appalachia in the 1940s, bluegrass music is heavy on banjo and other acoustic instruments making a distinct lonesome sound with many of the songs being about the struggle of the common man. Another option if you are interested in something other than the milquetoast, pop country that’s playing on the radio waves these days is the outlaw country from the 1970s and 80s. Country music used to be all about drinking and doing drugs and was anti-cop and anti-establishment. That all changed after 9/11 when people decided it was un-American to question the status quo. Then came songs like Toby Keith’s Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American) with lyrics like “Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American Way.” That mostly brought about the end to the anti-establishment country songs and ushered in an era of boot-licking bro country which has further devolved into openly racist, anti-poor, hateful lyrics.
Here are a few bluegrass and bluegrass adjacent songs to get you started on the path to enjoying real populist music:
Tyler Childers- Long Violent History: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_I3Rp1CQak
My Life in Black and White-Bombs on Blair Mountain (Not necessarily bluegrass but it gets the spirit of the Appalachian region’s history): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTIN6b5ZzMg
Billy Strings- Dealing Despair: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRnNDd6_Im0
Gangstagrass- Barnburning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vwFciHiWlk
Sarah Gunning-Come All You Coal Miners: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_TqxrZpkQU
Dr Ralph Stanely- Man of Constant Sorrow: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mndlk0qbIbE
Hazel Dickens-Coal Miner’s Grave: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JiGnquxhc-4