Media reports continue to describe the viral hit “Rich Men North of Richmond” as a country song.
One recent article in The Atlantic went so far as to juxtapose its singer, Oliver Anthony, with country music star Zach Bryan — a Grammy-nominated artist whose latest studio album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
Since 2019, Bryan has released four studio albums and has won the Academy of Country Music Award for New Male Artist of the Year. (On Thursday, he was arrested for obstruction of an investigation, according to CNN. The singer apologized on X.)
Anthony has one charted single and it’s “Rich Men North of Richmond,” which has held a No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Billboard classifies it as a country song.
There’s just one problem.
“Rich Men North of Richmond” is not a country song. It’s a folk song.
While there seems to be a cultural perception that everyone who strums an acoustic guitar from rural America is playing country music, that’s not the case. This ignores other important genres like folk and bluegrass, which are, in fact, different than country music.
Making these distinctions may elicit an eye roll or two, but lumping these genres together under the label of “country” is a symptom of larger issue — seeing everyone in rural America and flyover country as the same.
Here’s a look at the distinctive traits of country, folk and bluegrass and some reasons why you should care to know the difference.
What’s the difference between country, folk and bluegrass music?
Country music has been influenced by folk music, but the two are not the same. Folk music is played on instruments like guitars, banjos, harmonicas and others. The songs have easy-to-remember lyrics and a repetitive chorus or common refrains. They’re the type of songs with an ability to pass down from generation to generation.
Folk music often draws on common tunes and the subject matter of songs in this genre is decidedly about the common folk. The genre focuses on what the common folk in an area believe and experience.
Where country music and folk music have some overlap is in the subject matter and instruments of the songs. Guitars, banjos and other instruments are used in country music, and both genres have similar themes about the difficulties of life, love and family, faith and more. Country music, however, deviates in some important ways.
Country music employs more modern instruments. While an electric guitar wouldn’t be used in folk music, it’s often used in country music. Modern percussion instruments also find their way into country music. By contrast, folk music is simpler and is about using the instruments common people would have access to. While folk music does use the occasional percussion instrument, they tend to be washboards and spoons as opposed to drum sets.
Anthony uses a resonator guitar, which is used in bluegrass music because of its loud sound without amplification. He also does not use backing instruments — it’s just him and his guitar, which is not characteristic of country music. Modern country music employs amplification and backing instruments, owing to rock music influencing the genre.
Even though country and folk share some similar themes, country music tends to be more personal than folk music. Since folk music is intended to be more universal, some of the stories in the songs are more archetypal than personal, while country music has become more personal.
Bluegrass music is a different genre altogether, even though it also was influenced in part by folk music.
This genre of music does use acoustic instruments like the guitar, but “combines elements of old-time mountain music, square dance fiddling, blues, gospels, jazz and popular music,” according to the Library of Congress. It results in a different sound: with a greater focus on acoustic instruments, a less structured rhythm and more of a focus on three-finger banjo playing and harmony, bluegrass has more of a jazz sound to it than country music does.
Bluegrass music tends to be more complex and upbeat (again: the jazz influence) than folk music. While these fine distinctions might be difficult to hear at first, after regular listening, the genres are distinct.
Here’s an example of each to listen to, so that you can better hear the difference:
- Bluegrass: “Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Bill Monroe.
- Country: “Starting Over” by Chris Stapleton.
- Folk: “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan.
The case for caring about these genre differences
“Oliver’s arrival can’t help but bring to mind another white working-class hero in country music,” writes Spencer Kornhaber in his article for The Atlantic, referencing Bryan.
To be clear, Kornhaber aptly describes Anthony’s music. “These are classic country-music wishes, but Anthony’s lonely, scraping voice creates a more apocalyptic mood than what Nashville tends to promote,” he writes.
The “more apocalyptic mood” Kornhaber detected in “Rich Men North of Richmond” is actually part of the reason why the song isn’t country. The moodiness, the universality and the style of music Anthony uses sets apart from what’s coming out of Nashville because they’re actually different genres.
Virtually no coverage of “Rich Men North of Richmond” classifies the song as anything other than country. The A.V. Club referred to the song as a “controversial country hit,” The Independent called Anthony a “country artist” and NPR situated Anthony with country music stars like Luke Combs.
So why should we care?
On a basic level, accuracy, especially in reporting, is important. There’s another reason, too.
The majority of people living in rural areas, where country and folk music were developed, feel misunderstood and looked down upon, per Pew Research Center. That’s true of people in urban and suburban areas as well.
There are unique issues facing rural communities, like higher rates of poverty and a shrinking job market, per PBS. But people in these communities still are the brunt of jokes at awards ceremonies and lumped together, even when it comes to something as simple as genres of music.
While the difference between country, folk and bluegrass on its head is myopic, it’s symptomatic of a larger issue: elitism, even if unintentional. Ironically, it’s the same issue folk artists sing about.