The Nashville-born musician’s ‘Anarchist Gospel’ is a volume of hymns for late capitalist life, taking cues across genres and generations

In a YouTube video uploaded in the spring of 2011, Willian O’Connell sits on the concrete of Venice Beach, California. He’s a community college professor talking to two young people about their lives for a documentary on Los Angeles’s houseless population. One of the two interviewees breaks down his face tattoos—citing anarcho-punk zine Profane Existence as his aesthetic reference—and describes his experience as a “life artist” squatting across Germany and Louisiana and California. The other interviewee is a young woman. She’s quiet and giddy and speaks with wonder about the ocean’s beauty. Prompted by O’Connell, she pulls out her guitar. “What are you going to [play]? ‘Let it Be?’ Some Beatles?” he asks. The girl shakes her head. “I’m going to play some Nashville blues that I wrote,” she says, and a masterful, fingerpicked song unspools from her instrument.

That teenage virtuoso is a young Sunny War. Having moved from Tennessee to California in middle school, the artist—born Sydney Ward—began busking on the pier to save up for Dr. Martens and a longboard. She taught herself guitar by mimicking the banjo playing of a childhood friend’s stepdad, resulting in an idiosyncratic hand position that’s since become her signature. At age 13, War ran away for the first time, catching a train from Tucson to El Paso. The artist holds a sense of reminiscence for her time freight hopping as a teenager: sleeping in the woods, gathering with other street musicians. But it was a lifestyle that soon redshifted into addiction and houselessness.

O’Connell’s YouTube video, entitled “Amazing Venice Beach Homeless Girl on Guitar,” has 9.4 million views to date. It’s a testament both to War’s raw talent and to the music industry’s appetite for struggle. While doing press for her new album this past spring, one interviewer asked War about her experiences with substance abuse point-blank: “What’s your worst memory from that era?” Her history isn’t a subject she shies from, believing openness about surviving addiction can help model recovery for others, but she views the media’s fixation on it as part of a greater mythology of folk musicians. It’s a narrative trap War herself fell into: “I thought heroin was cool my entire life,” she shared. “I was like, One day I’m gonna try [heroin], and I’ll be really good at guitar. It wasn’t true at all.”

Off the heels of this year’s Anarchist Gospel, the artist’s seventh album in a decade, War is now a celebrated folk-punk musician—though to commit her to a single genre would be to compact the artist’s kaleidoscopic scope of sound. She’s cited fellow finger-picker Elizabeth Cotten and Bad Brains frontman H.R. as inspiration in the same breath. As War explains it, she possesses a decidedly 21st-century taste: “Most of the stuff I like is ’80s hardcore, but if I was actually growing up in the ’80s, I would have never [been able to afford] a record collection. I’m a product of the internet, because I was able to access any music I wanted for free.” It helps, too, that she grew up in a musically eclectic household; War’s uncle is a classical bassist and her stepdad belongs to an alternative music group—shows by the latter’s band are purported to feature “nudity, fire, pyrotechs, chainsaws, pinatas, foul language, costumes, jugglers, freeform jazz, the occasional [little person], drugs and alcohol.” Embracing the weird and the eclectic made her a rising star in the Americana music scene, though her artistry extends beyond the label’s already ambiguous gamut.

“I don’t know what Americana is. [Marketing] created the Americana charts to keep country music separate.”

In an age of streaming where fans need not have loyalty to any genre, War’s sundry sound satiates even the most digitally-dilated tastes. The artist’s latest record includes a gospel-choir cover of Ween’s “Baby Bitch” as well as a folk reworking of Van Hunt’s R&B track “Hopeless.” Even the algorithms behind society’s increasingly incongruous musical portfolio are unsure how to define her: Spotify puts War’s music on both its “Sad Folk” playlist and its proprietary alternative blend alongside Steve Lacy, Slowdive, and Beck. Americana music is innately alchemical, aware of the cultural fusion between its progenitors—country and blues—as well as the segregationist marketing tactics that siloed off the twin genres to white and Black audiences, respectively. Still, such pluralist histories are often obscured. A musical polyglot, War is an apt candidate both to be the motley genre’s latest star and biggest skeptic.

“I don’t know what Americana is. [Marketing] created the Americana charts to keep country music separate. And [some new country] is like trap music. Like, how is that even country? That shit is hip-hop, but because [the singer] is white, and he has a cowboy hat, and he sings about a truck and beer, it’s not a rap song. I don’t get it. If you take the [lyrics] away, some of this shit sounds like Gucci Mane.”

A recent New Yorker feature vivisected country music’s unofficial headquarters in Nashville, War’s hometown, describing the city as “a town midway through a bloody metamorphosis.” While some Black artists in the genre like War and her collaborator Allison Russell have enjoyed moderate success, those of the bro-country ilk dominate the charts; Morgan Wallen—a white artist who was briefly chastised for violating COVID protocol and using the N-word—was named 2022’s number one country artist by Billboard’s charts. In a musical landscape where Tracy Chapman became the first Black woman to have a number-one country hit only after her original “Fast Car” was ventriloquized by a straight white man, industry bloodletting might feel cathartic.

“That was a fucking corny move on his part,” War said of Luke Combs, the straight white man in question. “You would think a conservative country dude wouldn’t want to sing that he’s a checkout girl. I couldn’t stop thinking about that. Like, Damn, did you even listen to [the lyrics]? The Black Pumas covered [“Fast Car”], too. So why is [Combs’s] version more famous?” It’s a rhetorical question: Country music has long made its preferred audience demographic clear. As War pointed out, Combs’s cover competes for the top slot on the charts with “Try That in a Small Town” by Jason Aldean, a song that’s popularity is indebted to discourse about its promotion of white vigilantism; its music video features the singer blustering in front of a historic lynching site, draped in stars and stripes. (A lyric from Aldean’s song threatens those who “stomp on the flag” with implied violence; a photo War posted to Instagram on June 30 shows the singer at 13 or 14 jumping on the star-spangled banner while sporting a mohawk and G.I.S.M. tee.)

“Few other artists write so lithely of contemporary malaise while paying equal attention to both its intimate impact and structural perpetrators.”

War’s latest LP has made the artist an unignorable name—Rolling Stone declared her “one of the best new voices in roots music”—and it has made her politics unignorable, too. Against the dominant mawkishness of contemporary Americana (genre superstars The Avett Brothers renounced socio-political art in a 2019 “mission statement”), War takes pride in the genre’s leftist origins. “Anarchism is roots [music]. It’s about peace and love, too.” This admittedly “hippie” sentiment is a nuanced optimism, one informed by her experience with poverty and her activism.

As the contradiction of her artist name makes plain—juxtaposing sunshine with militancy—War’s music confidently straddles the dissonance of everyday life under late capitalism. “Everybody I know is unhappy,” she says—a statement that might be cynical in another’s mouth. In War’s calm intonation, it’s relayed with a resigned factfulness. She continues, “If [money] is made up, then why can’t we just make up a different thing? I know nothing will ever change. I just like to dream about it sometimes.”

This vision of a different world—one that is more just, more equitable—flits across War’s music, even as she wrestles with climate change and private heartbreak in her lyrics. Her songwriting is melancholic and politically charged without surrendering to disillusionment. Few other artists write so lithely of contemporary malaise while paying equal attention to both its intimate impact and structural perpetrators. It’s War’s artistic tolerance for complexity that expands lean, personal songs like “New Day”—a track simultaneously about lovesickness and addiction—to a radical scale.

There’s another YouTube video of War in her Venice busking days. In this one, she’s just 18, proclaiming her prophecy: “I have a plan for the whole world. Watch: This is what’s going to happen. The economy is going to crash, and everybody’s going to be panicking. While that’s going on, I’ll be in Tennessee, starting my own commune.” When we spoke in mid-July, War was back in her home state, preparing to mentor an adolescent rock band in Chattanooga. It’s not quite the commune of her initial prediction—trade the organic farm for a girls’ music camp—but in the midst of an economic recession and the endemic anxiety that teenage War had articulated, it sounded like a refuge nonetheless.

“[The girls] decided yesterday their band is called Jumpscare,” she disclosed. “Their song is gonna be about the horrors of the internet.” War said she wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but her curiosity was infused with legible joy. As the state of Americana—a microcosm of its namesake nation—hangs in flux, one thing is certain: The clear-eyed Sunny War is excited to see what comes next.