The ballad “Rich Men North of Richmond” has not budged from its No. 1 position on the Billboard chart. But it’s also the center of political controversy.

Belted out by Oliver Anthony, aka Christopher Anthony Lunsford, the song went viral after it was uploaded to YouTube. Since then, it’s become the first song to top the charts by an artist with no chart history, according to Taste of Country.

It also drove the first question at the GOP presidential debate, when the moderators asked the candidates about why the song “strikes a nerve” with the country.

Related
Perspective: What ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ and ‘The Blind Side’ have in common

That’s just one of the ways the song has become a political flashpoint. After all, the phrase “Rich Men North of Richmond” is a reference to politicians in the country’s capitol.

Some think the ballad is an anthem that correctly diagnoses the plight of the working class. Others see it a song that punches down on welfare recipients and parrots right-wing talking points.

Some of the song lyrics include, “These rich men north of Richmond / Lord knows they all just wanna have total control / Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do / And they don’t think you know, but I know that you do / ‘Cause your dollar ain’t (expletive) and it’s taxed to no end / ‘Cause of rich men north of Richmond.”

As for Anthony, he sees himself as an equal opportunity critic and said he didn’t mean it as a partisan critique.

“‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ is about corporate owned DC politicians on both sides,” Anthony wrote on Facebook. “Though Biden’s most certainly a problem, the lyrics aren’t exclusively knocking Biden, it’s bigger and broader than that. It’s knocking the system collectively.”

Referencing the song’s appearance in the GOP presidential debate, Anthony said the song is also about “the corporate owned conservative politicians that were on stage that night.”

“It’s aggravating seeing people on conservative news try to identify with me like I’m one of them,” Anthony said, per The New York Times. “I see the right, trying to characterize me as one of their own. And I see the left trying to discredit me.”

“If anything,” Anthony told The Free Press, his music is “more about the right than the left.”

Anthony also addressed the criticism around his language about welfare recipients. “We live in a country where, like, food is ridiculously expensive. Commercial agriculture has encapsulated most of North America’s land,” he said to The Free Press. “Even the food that a middle-class American buys from the grocery store — a lot of it is just, it’s terrible for us, you know?”

When the song debuted, it seemed like Anthony had become a conservative darling. Jamelle Bouie described him as the “musical spokesman for conservative populism” in the pages of The New York Times. And right-wing media personalities and politicians embraced the song, CNN reported.

But not all reception of the song fell neatly on partisan lines.

Democratic media consultant Dane Strother told the Washington Examiner that he doesn’t agree with all the song’s lyrics. “What I do know is that he is speaking for a lot people,” he said.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., also thought the folksy song fell flat on a few notes when it came to “anti-welfare and anti-tax tropes,” but was still struck by it. “To just ridicule and dismiss the things that he is saying is a real lost opportunity. I worry that we are entering a world where we don’t talk unless people are 110 percent in alignment with us,” Murphy told Michael Powell for The Atlantic.

For Murphy, the “anguish” expressed in Anthony’s song is worth listening to and it’s representative of a broader trend among the working class.

Related
Working class voters want politicians who will focus on the economy

A Deseret News/Harris X poll found that the working class is pessimistic about the direction of the country — much more so than the upper-middle class or the upper class. “I think that it’s a failure (of Democrats) to take into account the extent to which people are pessimistic, and that pessimism does relate to real stuff, it’s not like they’re just being manipulated by Fox News. The economy really hasn’t been that great for working class people,” Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute, previously told the Deseret News.

Beyond concerns with the economy, the working class and working poor were the most likely to say they feel their personal financial situation is worsening with time, according to the Deseret News/Harris X poll. People who identified themselves as part of these classes were also more likely to say that politicians don’t care about the working class.

Murphy thinks there’s “a realignment afoot out there in America that is not recognized by the elites.” He told Powell, “Tackling this metaphysical crisis for the working class may involve elements of the Bernie Sanders coalition and the Trump coalition.”

Public intellectual Sohrab Ahmari told Powell that Murphy “takes seriously the dealignment of the rural working class and the Democratic Party,” and, “He’s right to insist on more from his party than sneering.”

Related
A fight for agency amidst a prison of poverty
God plays an important role in hillbilly country, but not in the way you'd expect

Some have compared Anthony’s song to J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” in the sense that assuming the political identity of disgruntled working class people may not prove fruitful.

“Hillbilly Elegy” is Vance’s memoir about what it was like to grow up in a poor area and it’s “an effort to make sense of what’s gone wrong in the perpetually poor Appalachian region of the country and share what institutions like churches need to do differently to help,” as Kelsey Dallas put it for the Deseret News.

“They saw something was wrong and they weren’t political at all,” Paul Sracic, a political science professor, told the Washington Examiner about Vance and John Edwards. “They weren’t tied to it. So we want to put our template on everybody, but that template, I think, doesn’t really fit. People are just trying to figure out how to fix what’s wrong. And they’re screaming out that something’s wrong.”

It’s worth pointing out that before Vance’s political career took off, “Hillbilly Elegy” was described as “a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election” that was written “in a vocabulary intelligible to both Democrats and Republicans,” according to The New York Times. But it, too, was later politicized.

Politicization of media about the working class aside, Deseret News/Harris X polling data indicates that the majority of Americans in nearly every economic class except for the upper class believe “the working class is under threat due to many ongoing changes in the United States.”

Anthony said he experienced anxiety and depression for years. “It wasn’t any one thing so much as an accumulation of things over many years of working dead-end jobs and feeling increasingly hopeless,” The Free Press reported.

In his 20s, he started drinking and developed a feeling of “being cut off from any community.” He suffered a six-month injury in 2013 and had to take six months off of his job at a corrugated paper mill where he worked 12-hour days on the overnight shift, per The Free Press. Eventually, Anthony was able to buy some land, where he lives in a camper. He also developed his Christian faith after he “battled” with it.

Now, as music deals to the tune of $8 million roll in, Anthony is trying to keep his authenticity because it’s what launched him into fame. He prays before going on stage, recites a Bible verse or two and then sings his soulful music.

“I’m not important. I’m just the vessel,” Anthony told The Free Press. “People are trying to put me on a pedestal and that’s not in any way what I want. I’m just the messenger.”