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Oliver Anthony, And The Answer To The 'Authentic' 'Hick-Lib' Country Sound
Against The Hollywood-Nashville Narrative Encircling Country's Smalltown Fans
I cultivated my devotion to country music as a teenager learning to play guitar. My music teacher was oriented toward folk and classic rock, but at my request, he taught me Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and John Denver songs, as well as guitar licks from Jerry Reed and Roy Clark.
As my likes and tastes became self-directed, I gravitated toward traditional and neo-traditional country music. These singers and musicians were attached to a specific place, culture, and landscape. But by the time I reached my teenage years, mainstream country music had become unmoored from the more rooted music I had grown to love. George Strait’s reliable pedal steel/fiddle sound had given way to drum machines, distorted guitar solos, and auto tuned singing.
I’m on the political right and tend to associate a more traditional sound with traditional values. Surely Alan Jackson was more conservative than whatever new, produced act was coming out of Nashville, right?
Nashville’s famous Ryman Auditorium. Photography by Isaac777/Wikimedia Commons.
So I was very surprised when I heard several years ago that Texas country singer Ryan Bingham, whose music I really enjoyed, was a Beto O'Rourke supporter. For the life of me, I couldn't understand how someone associated with rural West Texas could be on the left. Around the same time, I heard Kacey Musgraves’ breakout album. I loved (and still do) her authentically Western sound and style, as well as her songwriting ability, but the album’s final track, "Follow Your Arrow," made her leftist persuasions plain.
The next few years revealed the varying levels of dedication to leftist causes held by a number of country artists–many of them mainstream–including Marren Morris and Sturgill Simpson. One of the best examples of country music’s increasing leftist political colonization came in 2020: Luke Combs and Marren Morris participated in an awkward Zoom struggle session where Luke ostensibly apologized for his associations with the Confederate flag and the friends who displayed it.
In a recent, particularly heinous example, Kelsey Ballerini performed her newest single at the Country Music Television Awards accompanied by dancing drag queens. Performing with such accompaniment was already tasteless enough, , but this was just days after a transgendered individual murdered small children in a Nashville Christian school.
Surprisingly, mainstream country music is often more subversive than the off-brand, hipster, "authentic" country. Snap tracks and hip-hop beats with accompanying dobro is country music’s current marketing vehicle, but it doesn’t tend to market progressive politics. Among the endless truck, dog, and beer cliches you will still hear traditional values advocated and celebrated.
The "raw," "real," and "authentic" music of coffee house country is where leftwing activists’ social-political goals really shine the brightest. Its adherents see this stripped-down, folksy, regional, traditional instrumented crooning as "the real thing." Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell, both products of Appalachia with legitimate connections to much of their song material, are poster children for this hipsteresque, traditionalist country. Unlike corporate country, their music often actually features ties to land and history. Childers sings all about coal miners and Isbell sings about life in rural, Northern Alabama.
Millennials and zoomers who vehemently dislike country music often make special exceptions for the likes of Childers, Simpson, Isbell, Musgraves, or on the more "based right" side, Colter Wall and Cody Johnson. They don't tend to play big stadiums, opting instead for "art houses" and old theaters in downtown Lexington, Charleston, Birmingham, Richmond, Charlotte, and Knoxville. But it's impossible not to notice a significant leftist trend among much of the "musically authentic," rurally focused musicians.
The State Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee. Jeff/Flickr.
“Hick-lib,” “authentic” celebrities would have us believe that Appalachia and rural Oklahoma is home to covert gay coal miners and queer cowboys, but the overwhelming majority of those they claim to represent can be found at large stadiums cheering Kenny Chesney and Luke Bryan. The “hick-lib” fan base is typically more limited to either younger progressives living in blue pockets of red states or more conservative-minded music appreciators who are oblivious to their far-left political advocacies.
There is some political variation in the specific regions within the red states that Childers, Isbell, Simpson, and Bingham come from, but Kacey Musgraves’ hometown represents what’s fairly typical, a town that had a whopping 91% showing for Trump in 2020. Kacey might maintain that Golden, Texas is still both backward and racist, but then does she really represent the people who live there?
So obviously, someone like Tyler Childers who looks, sounds, and claims to be thoroughly representative of his Appalachian roots is, on a social level, not close to fully representative because his ethics are a form of leftist colonization. He is from,but no longer of, Appalachia, at least not in terms of values and a basic moral vision.
Kentucky coal miner Jenkins in October 1935. Photography by Ben Shahn. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.
It’s worth noting though that the hick-lib is not necessarily a modern phenomenon. There’s a long history of leftist activism in country music. Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson have long been left-wing icons for their support (and practice) of marijuana use and legalization and partnerships with progressive politicians. Merle Haggard seemed to lean farther left the older he got, eventually even publicly supporting Hilary Clinton for president (though his political leanings became increasingly contradictory and impossible to classify as he got into his 70s).
The left often claims Johnny Cash because of his association with other, left-leaning artists like Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, because he sang songs about the plight of Native Americans and the poor, and because he went out of his way to entertain convicts. Loretta Lynn recorded a song about “the pill,” Don Williams crooned that he didn’t believe that “right is right and left is wrong,” and John Denver advocated for environmentalist causes.
But do these classic country artists deserve to be classified with the modern representation of the “hick-lib” progressive? They don’t, for two reasons. For one, artists like Cash, Nelson, Denver and Kristofferson were not attempting (at least in any obvious way) to subvert or discourage the culture and people from which they came. They weren’t fighting upstream against centuries of moral values and traditions. Johnny Cash singing about the downtrodden “livin’ on the hopeless, hungry side of town” was perfectly in keeping with his own experience and Christian values. Whether branded left-wing or not, caring for one’s own people isn’t an instinct progressives can claim as their own.
Likewise, John Denver’s tireless advocacy for maintaining and preserving America’s wilderness may have been seen at the time (and even now) as left-wing, but prioritizing “mother earth” over people did not motivate the conservationist’s concerns as much as maintaining the distinct ways of life that the regions’ people had been living for decades or even centuries did. Again, you could argue that this is more a conservative instinct than a progressive one.
There is another classic “hick-lib” musical artist motif, but it’s very much in the folk/rock/roots tradition. Artists like Steve Earle, Neil Young, James McMurtry, and in an earlier time, Woody Guthrie, pushed (and continue to push) the progressive agenda in full force. But these are not mainstream country artists. These were singers and songwriters with distinctly left-wing appeal who often had much more commitment to communist and socialist dogmas than to their small hometowns. Perhaps the modern “hick-lib” is more of a descendant of the folk-rock progressive singer from the ‘70s and ‘80s than the Highwaymen and Loretta Lynn.
Johnny Cash. Photograph by Joel Baldwin, LOOK Magazine, April 29, 1969. p.72. Wikimedia Commons.
So how should we think about "hick-libs?" What do they represent? Why are Hollywood, Nashville, and many leftist institutions (i.e. most institutions) pushing a narrative and trying to manufacture a feeling that coal miners, cowboys and country fans are secretly San Francisco homosexuals? It’s worth thinking of the hick-lib as a collaborator—someone who stands to gain socially, gain financially, and gain opportunities by helping the regime make the normal, sensible population of the country’s rural, red regions feel surrounded, discouraged and despondent. Collaboration has a long tradition in revolutionary movements, whether in Soviet Russia, Maoist China or during the French Revolution. Native residents of colonial powers who willingly associated with and helped the mother country colonize were often referred to as collaborators as well.
But there’s good news: the demand for real, authentic, American, Christian, rural-based music is currently extremely high. The opportunity to provide excellence as an alternative to both corporate country music and progressive coffee house country has never been more needed and wanted.
A very recent example (and an extraordinarily valuable comparison) of just how hungry the market for legitimately authentic country music is came in the form of a young man from Farmville, Virginia named Oliver Anthony. After releasing a simple strum-and-sing video from his farm in which he performed a song he had written in response to Covid-era madness called “Rich Men North of Richmond,” Anthony became an overnight phenomenon. In his song, Anthony laments the cost of living, the abandonment of coal miners, abused welfare funding, and the drug-and-suicide epidemic that’s hollowing out the United States. He is more than merely a sensation; he has become, at least for the moment, an icon and a stand-in for the American common man.
Only three weeks before Anthony posted his song, Tyler Childers released his big-budget, Hollywood-produced, gay coal-miner celebration music video to the cheers of hick-libs–and to jeers of nearly everyone else. But then came “Rich Men North of Richmond.” As of this writing, Oliver’s song has nearly 13 million views on YouTube to Childer’s 4.5 million.
The lesson is clear: if you have the skill and drive to strum a guitar and sing the truth about what is, what was, and what ought to be, then today is your day. Put the pen to paper. Sing about the old, sing about the new. Write about struggle, joy, heartbreak, and victory. You'll be a rare breed. And the people are hungry for someone to sing their songs.