Oliver Anthony, complex symbol of viral populism, headlines on Lower Broadway

When Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge holds its birthday bash this Sunday, the outdoor concert will celebrate the longevity of a Lower Broadway tourist draw that plays up its history as a watering hole for starving country songwriters. What stands out most about the lineup for this year’s event is the inclusion of a certain current songwriter, Oliver Anthony. He’s the guy who went viral in early August for an unadorned video of his rawboned, populist anthem, “Rich Men North of Richmond.”

Anthony drew attention not only for expressing anti-establishment views, but for emphasizing that he keeps his distance from both political parties. The reality of how his lyrics have been received and interpreted is more complicated than that; right wing pundits have readily claimed them, while left wing commentators have pointed out that his dismissal of people on welfare actually echoes what’s historically been a conservative trope.

That’s not the only factor driving widespread interest in his seemingly out-of-nowhere chart-topping success. Anthony’s also viewed as a complete music industry outsider, who claims to have turned down multimillion dollar record deals and apologized on social media for mistakenly booking appearances with ticket prices he considers too high. 

The Tootsie’s concert will be Anthony’s first Nashville show, and a free show, at that.

It’s also an example of someone with no ties to the commercial system enjoying newfound headliner status. He’ll join other performers with gritty vocal styles, including Jamey Johnson, who’s sung with Anthony at another recent occasion. But Anthony’s the only one among them who embraces an old-timey Appalachian presentation, doesn’t already have a string of releases under his belt and hasn’t yet figured out his relationship to being a professional musician. That greenness — and his version of working-class politics — make him the type of symbol of “authenticity” that could be good for the country tourist business on Lower Broadway.