Why do Oliver Anthony’s songs resonate with so many people in America? As a good friend of mine recently commented, “We have an obsession with authenticity.” He said that Oliver Anthony originally recorded his songs on his $200 phone. Whether that statement is factually correct or not, it is emblematic of what Oliver has come to represent: genuineness, particularly, the genuineness of working-class Americans—including their authentic pain at the difficulty of our times.
Oliver, whose real name is Christopher Anthony Lunsford and whose stage name is an homage to his grandfather, says he is a centrist. Conservatives scramble to claim him as one of their own—despite his attempts to distance himself from them—attesting to the fact of the song’s immense appeal. I’ve watched the video several times now.
His gently passionate voice, the deep v between his brows, the campsite, the gray sky, and the dogs at his feet—these things are real, not staged. We’ve had enough of glitzy, overproduced, and manicured musical “artists”—celebrities who sing about trucks and beer and working in the fields yet haven’t actually ever seen the inside of a tractor cab. It’s phony, and people know it. Oliver is the real thing. His rejection of an $8 million deal from the “music industry” (a contradiction in terms!) proves it—he will not be transformed into a brand. He will remain a man.
So it’s partly the rawness and authenticity of Oliver’s performance that gives it appeal. I almost wrote “product” instead of “performance,” which discloses just how much my own mentality about music has been shaped by the entertainment and music “industry” that seeks to commodify and profit from art. Originally, country music was simply the music of the rural people, created by them and for them, to express human joys and heartbreaks, to celebrate community, to provide true recreation after many hours in the fields in the days before TV—it was not a “product.”
But it’s also the message of his music. “Livin’ in the new world, with an old soul,” Oliver sings. The line expresses a longing for something lost to the smoke and blur of the past, a fading cry to hold on to something in a swiftly changing world. Many younger people, like me, probably can’t remember a time when America was free of the many problems that Oliver touches on in his song, though they have grown worse in our lifetime. In my circle of friends, there are a lot of “old souls”—people who feel born out of their proper time, who have a desire for an America they never actually knew. I long for my country as though I were living, exiled, in a foreign land. But how can you miss something you never had?
There’s a word for this mysterious predicament: anemoia. It’s defined as a nostalgia for a time or place one has never known. In the final analysis, will that be the name bestowed on my generation? Will we be the anemoiac generation? Discontented with the present, feeling robbed of the past?
Of course, historical America was no paradise. But it was decent. It was human. Prior to, say, the 1960s, was a time when children were not systematically harvested and traded for sexual abuse. When teenagers were not surgically mutilated. When over 90 percent of men did not stare into screens in order to gaze at the bodies of women who weren’t their wives. When universities were not projects in postmodern indoctrination. When we still made things and used them responsibly in our own country. When farms still passed from father to son, not from bankrupt old farmers to strangers in suits. When our currency still had some value. Whether America was ever a fully Christian nation is a matter for debate. What is certain is that we are no longer even a natural country, in the sense of a country that obeys the natural law (let alone Divine law). Perversion has become popular and praised.
There’s no reversing the floods of time, of course. History is no utopia, nor did we Americans have everything worked out in the past. But what we can salvage from history is the unchanging principles of truth and goodness that humanity has sometimes more closely adhered to.
Paradoxically, Oliver’s success, at least at the rate at which it occurred, would not have been possible in that “old world” I am trying to describe. Only the age of mass, instant communication could enable someone to transform from “nobody” to “celebrity” in a matter of days, or even hours. There’s something almost unnatural and unhealthy about it.
Yet the lightning speed of modern communication has also allowed Oliver to receive over 50,000 messages and emails since his eruption into fame—and they confirm the underlying sadness, discontent, and despair in our country. “The stories that have been shared paint a brutally honest picture. Suicide, addiction, unemployment, anxiety and depression, hopelessness and the list goes on,” Oliver wrote on Facebook.
This is not a healthy nation.
I imagine that change for the better will develop at least in part through individual and community responsibility, the shouldering of duty, the labors of unseen and unsung men and women living ordered lives, in spite of the sacrifice that entails.
Nine months ago, by the grace of God, my daughter was born into this world. What I do, or fail to do, will profoundly shape the life of this woman-to-be. When she is 60 years old and I am no more on this earth, will she feel gratitude for the life that has been hers in part because of my actions? Or will she regret the weakness of her father? Will she flourish less than she could have … because of me? Will the state of our country be better or worse? Will she be yet another anemoiac? I fear she may be.
Still, off the main roads, in quiet places, in the hush and slumber of a country valley, like a clearing in a dense forest where the light comes suddenly cascading down, there are good things happening. In the circles I move in, I see much to be hopeful about. Maybe, with enough “old souls,” we can recover some wisdom from the past—not naively, believing in some romanticized version of what America was, but with an understanding of the goods we have lost and how they might be recovered and set up as bulwarks against further decay, and even seeds for the future.