If you look at Billboard’s latest charts, there’s an anomaly: Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” is No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart … but nowhere to be found on the Country Airplay chart, or Mediabase’s radio rankings. It’s hardly the first time a song identified as country has taken off crazily in streams or downloads without getting much in the way of airplay — see Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” for a prominent previous example — but it does beg questions about whether the format will embrace the biggest musical phenomenon in the nation at the moment or has good reasons for staying hands-off.
Singles typically start out slow on the country airplay charts and take months to make their way into the radio format’s top 10, even with superstars. But looking at adds for the latest chart week, there wasn’t much sign of radio looking to put the song into even the lowest level of rotation. “Rich Men North of Richmond” got eight adds among the country stations that report their playlists to Billboard and Mediabase. By contrast, a new song that programmers are really crazy about, Scotty McCreery’s “Cab in a Solo,” got 120 adds, and Jordan Davis’ “Tucson Too Late” picked up 60. So if anyone was under the impression that stations would look at the insane level of national interest in “Rich Men” and see it as a license to print ad money or instantly boost ratings, those comparative numbers serve as a corrective.
More from Variety
According to Brian Mansfield, editor of the radio tipsheet Country Insider, that doesn’t mean country radio has ignored the smash entirely; he says about a third of the reporting panel did give “Rich Men” at least one spin. But putting it on the air in the context of a news program, as probably happened with many of those stations, is different from going with an official add.
Still, the song could yet become a radio hit — it would be foolish to judge any country tune’s chances solely on a first week. But there are a number of factors that make Oliver Anthony a wholly unique case, whose future in or out of the format is anything but predictable. Mansfield ran through some of the reasons why country radio might be staying hands-off for now, and what it might take for Anthony to overcome those obstacles.
At country radio, it’s all about belief in the artist as a long-term prospect. And Anthony hasn’t really been vetted yet. “One of big differences between Top 40/CHR and country is that Top 40 is much more built around the song, where country radio tends to be more built around the artist,” Mansfield says. “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? When you look at Oliver Anthony, there’s no label and no team around him with any kind of track record, so you go, this song may be gone in three weeks. Even if it turns out to be a ‘Fancy Like’ sort of (lasting hit), there’s no reason to believe that he’s gonna have a long-term career, because just from what we’re hearing him say, he’s not particularly interested in playing that game. So there’s that natural reluctance that always comes in with a new country act — and that’s one of reasons you rarely see a one-hit wonder in country music.”
Stations just aren’t used to playing a record that doesn’t have a label promo person working it. “Not that many people go completely off the reservation and are playing records that no labels are asking them to play,” Mansfield says. “They’re conservative in that sense, probably more so than with Top 40, where if something goes crazy on TikTok they might jump on that. Country radio is so used to working with whatever is being pitched to them at a given moment.” By that standard, then — as opposed to the standard of “Rich Men” being the hottest song in the world — he considers the first-week number to be great. “I can’t think of another time that a record that nobody was trying to get country radio to play at all got eight adds in one week!” Mansfield says.
The politics of it could be at least a small factor. The fact that “Rich Men Up in Richmond” is being widely portrayed as a right-wing anthem (even though Anthony has insisted he’s “right down the middle”) is certainly not going to make it a non-starter at the huge number of country stations based in predominantly conservative areas. Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” has finally cracked the airplay top 10 and stands a shot at going No. 1, so that puts the lie to the idea that a strong expression of ideology might disqualify it. But being viewed as “political” is by no means a boon in and of itself. A piece Mansfield published in Monday’s edition of Country Insider quoted WUSH program director Dave Parker — who is one of the handful of programmers playing the track — as cautioning, “I can see in the news coverage that the political talking heads are jumping on it. That makes me want to play the song less. We’re not here to make a point or take a stand on anything. … But, you know, music is subjective, and people will read into things whatever they like.”
Says Mansfield, “I don’t think that there is a consensus opinion about the politics itself. It probably does line up pretty well with a large portion of the listening audience, so that works to the song’s favor. But if radio learned one lesson from the Chicks issue, it’s that they don’t really want to get in the middle of a political battle.”
Anthony is a gravelly-voiced, Appalachian-sounding guy with a guitar — although that’s not the automatic barrier to entry that it would have been a few years ago. Here’s where it gets even more complicated, and potentially more interesting, because elements of Anthony’s very rootsy sound are things country radio no longer has quite such a total resistance to.
“The format is kind of moving in the direction of Oliver Anthony — just not that far,” Mansfield points out. “Two years ago, it would have been just unfathomable for a record that sounded like that to get on the radio. But when you’re seeing Jelly Roll go No. 1, when you’re seeing Zach Bryan do what he’s doing, when you’re a country radio station and you’re even thinking about playing Tyler Childers [as a select few mainstream stations have], it’s not so far out of the realm of possibility that you would play this record. But you have to be very careful. You don’t want that coming right out of a Dan + Shay record. You’ve got to be very careful how you position that in your playlist because it can’t sound like a train wreck leading into something else. So I think that will limit its airplay, even if it does become a radio hit.”
What’s good for the arguably conservative goose could be good for the liberal-leaning gander, as Mansfield notes the more progressive Appalachian-style artist Childers “had probably his best add date in the format too; some stations added both records.” (His song got seven adds this week on top of six it had previously, for a total of 13 reporting stations having Childers in some kind of rotation.) But it may be a little early to prophesy any picking-and-growling takeover of country radio — notwithstanding the format having proved ready for that Jelly Roll, or Chris Stapleton’s gritty new hit.
The purely technical aspect of adding an un-promoted record is a basic hang-up. Notes Mansfield, “Because there’s no label, the way that programmers would normally receive the music doesn’t apply in Oliver Anthony’s case. They’ve gotta go get the record in some form, by downloading it or stripping it off YouTube, and import it instead of it just showing up in their programming tools, already coded properly. And then they’ve got to edit the language out” — the use of “bullshit,” that is — “or find somebody else that’s already edited the language out. Some stations have been swapping copies that they could play on air.”
There’s a part of the audience that hasn’t heard about the song on the news and is just going to require an explainer… each and every time it plays. Aside from how right it sounds adjacent to Dan + Shay, programmers have said it doesn’t make any sense to put on the air without a DJ’s preceding explanation… and not many jocks are eager to take on presenting themselves as political sociologists as a second job.
So Mansfield isn’t counting out “Rich Men” becoming a country radio hit, just laying out that it’s a long shot — even if that seems counterintuitive to radio outsiders who figure someone generating one of the hugest songs of the year would make it automatic radio catnip.
What does the relative success of the last song to go massive amid a political firestorm, “Small Town,” augur?
Mansfield says the controversy did help the Aldean tune go top 10, though it remains to be seen whether it will go No. 1 in airplay. Before the political controversy erupted, Aldean songs were no longer as apt to move up the chart quite as quickly as those by the new guard of Morgan Wallen, Luke Combs and Bailey Zimmerman. “When the controversy hit, it’d kind of underperformed a little bit compared to other Jason records. It was doing well, and I think under any circumstances it probably would have been top 10, but I don’t think it was obviously going No. 1. The controversy, and more specifically the popularity that came from the controversy, has resulted in it moving faster up the airplay charts than it had been.” He thinks “Small Town” is a good bet — but not a lock — to go No. 1 in the coming weeks, long after it stopped being a national flashpoint, but fairly fast considering the usual slow churn of country radio playlists.
Mansfield notes, however, that there were several major urban stations that didn’t add “Small Town” until recently, and there’s still at least one holdout declining to put it on the air at all, which could be a stumbling block on it reaching the summit. Needless to say, any such resistance at the nation’s big-city country stations could prove a gauntlet for Anthony, ultimately, too.
Right now, anyway, Anthony has to pick up the smaller or deep-red-area stations, first… if he even wants that — by no means a foregone conclusion — and isn’t content to just be No. 1 among cable news outlets and the chattering class.
Best of Variety