For several breathless weeks, the national media has compared one of the music industry’s titans — a polished multi-millionaire — to an unknown man from rural Virginia with a ragged beard who had recently gotten sober. Saying, essentially, they stood for the same thing.
If that sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is.
What the first guy (country music megastar Jason Aldean) and second guy (viral music sensation Oliver Anthony) had in common was that they both scored hit country songs that rode waves of controversy to the top of the charts. And Anthony actually seemed to max out the outrage machine Aldean had been throttling before him, when his song was played at the top of the Republican presidential ebate in Milwaukee to tee up questions on frustrated Americans.
The problem: these two are actually showing completely opposite things about rural America, whether it’s Wisconsin farmland or fading industrial towns or the mountains of Appalachia. And getting that wrong is what’s really dividing our country.
The first mistake was seeing these songs as the same.
Jason Aldean's 'Try That in a Small Town' video looked like political ad
Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” is filled with scenes of the city he says small-town America would never tolerate. Its music video may as well have been a political ad, spliced with footage of crime, vandalism, and protests. With his establishment country music juggernaut behind him, including the money it takes to get promoted and onto mainstream radio, Aldean picked a fight. Soon enough conservative media and influencers were taking his side, and the mainstream media was reporting on the outrage. I first heard about it when the media told me I needed to know about it.
Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” is a spare song about working hard, falling further behind, and the hardship, addiction, and resentment so many people experience as a result. The only thing selling it was Anthony’s voice, stark and haunting, over his resonator guitar. He did get a boost from conservative influencers, and eventually the mainstream media reaction to his anger over high taxes and welfare. But Anthony has fled the political debate. I first heard about him when a friend, also from rural Wisconsin, sent me his song. Then another friend sent it to me, and then my sister — who runs our family farm in Sauk County — did too.
The difference? Authenticity. Anthony didn’t need to sing about what small towns won’t put up with, because he’s lived among the rural drug crisis and other problems gripping our country. He didn’t need to score political points, because he wasn’t trying to win a political fight. In fact, when he was asked about the firestorm, he said his song was about politicians on both sides.
Spotify charts show Anthony's authenticity beats Aldean's outrage
Here's the mind-blowing part: The charts show authenticity beats outrage. After its big industry boost, Aldean’s song faded. After his record-breaking rise, Anthony remained atop the charts, despite the fact that he has no record deal. As of Friday, his hit had 10 million more Spotify streams than Aldean’s. (And yes, it’s possible for rich backers to inflate streaming, but even if that happened Anthony is still out-performing industry giants wielding those tricks and more.)
It's a shocking coup for the music industry, but not for the people Anthony is singing about. I don’t agree with everything he’s saying, and I doubt his fiercest fans do either. But in rural communities it’s not about agreement, it’s about authenticity. When you grow up far from the rest of the world, you learn to figure things out for yourself. And you appreciate people calling it like they see it.
At a time when our urban-rural divide is at an all-time high, anyone trying to understand rural America—media, politicians, and music industry alike — should pay attention to that. It would be a shame to say so much about one song, and miss the point.
This column first appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Brian Reisinger is a writer who grew up on a family farm in Sauk County. He contributes in-depth columns and videos for the Ideas Lab at the Journal Sentinel. Reisinger has written for a wide range of publications and tells the hidden stories of rural America, including the drug crisis, past and future of Wisconsin farmers and adventures in the outdoors. Reisinger works in public affairs consulting for Wisconsin-based Platform Communications. He splits his time between a small town in northern California near his wife’s family, and his family’s farm here in Wisconsin. Reisinger studied journalism and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and has won awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Seven Hills Review literary magazine, Wisconsin Newspaper Association, and more.