Oliver Anthony’s viral country folk hit “Rich Men North of Richmond” rocketed to fame online — but is barely getting played on country radio stations across America. So why has country radio ghosted the new star?
“Rich Men North of Richmond,” the breakout hit from Oliver Anthony Music, the moniker of Farmville, VA-based singer-songwriter Christopher Anthony Lunsford, has been blazing up multiple charts in America. The track has topped both the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Country Songs for two weeks straight and has been a viral sensation on YouTube for longer.
This is a monster hit, yet country radio has failed to get behind the colossal track. Not only has country radio had little to do with Oliver Anthony’s breakout success, the format has resolutely lagged behind and refused to play this song.
Most major country radio stations are essentially ignoring this song and artist. But despite not being promoted to radio, one programmer is supporting the song: Bo Matthews, the program director at Alpha Media’s KBAY in San Jose, California. The track quickly ranked among the station’s most popular songs — and listeners were demanding to hear the track.
“We haven’t gotten any negative feedback for playing it, and I think we are merely meeting the expectations of our listeners,” Matthews recently told Billboard. “In fact, I have been impressed and proud of the positive feedback we’ve received from people in the industry and the record community expressing their thanks that we’re supporting it. Finally, it’s obvious that radio listeners are becoming the real gatekeepers for the music we decide to play.”
But why is KBAY essentially a lone wolf?
This isn’t the first time a track identified as predominantly “country” has had a slow start on the Country Airplay charts. Lil Nas X’s breakout hit, “Old Town Road,” also comes to mind. Both were viral smash hits, despite nonexistent traditional radio support.
So what’s going on? With country radio, one metric is whether an artist is believed to be a “long-term prospect,” perhaps more than any other genre. And despite his rapid rise to fame, Oliver Anthony is still pretty green around the gills.
“One of (the) big differences between Top 40/CHR (contemporary hit radio) and country is that Top 40 is much more built around the song, (whereas) country radio tends to be built around the artist,” Brian Mansfield, editor of the radio tipsheet Country Insider recently told Variety. “So when you have a new artist, one of the questions that country programmers ask themselves is: How likely is this act to still be around in two or three years?”
Country music isn’t known for producing one-hit wonders for precisely this reason—labels want to make big bets on major stars like Garth Brooks, Luke Combs, and Morgan Wallen. Not the guy who is turning down millions waved at him because he says he doesn’t want to start a career in music. Building radio airplay around someone who may not produce a full album just doesn’t make sense for most.
The Variety piece also raised another issue: country radio stations just “aren’t used” to playing a record that doesn’t have a label or promotional outfit backing it. Still, the political angle might also be a deterrent for some stations. “Rich Men North of Richmond” is widely portrayed as a “right-wing anthem,” despite Anthony’s opposition and insistence that he’s “right down the middle” politically.
Nevertheless, Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” recently broke the airplay Top 10, which may put to bed any notions that a politically controversial song might be an airplay killer.