David Olney – Character study
In her fine new biography of the great Sandy Koufax, writer Jane Leavy describes a poster of the legendary pitcher that former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky used to keep pinned to the door of his office at the University of California at Berkeley. Capturing Koufax at the midpoint of his delivery, the poster contained everything Pinsky wanted his students to know about the act of writing: “balance and concentration; a supremely synchronized effort; the transfer of energy toward a single, elusive goal.”
An avid baseball fan himself, David Olney would probably appreciate the exquisite power inherent in Pinsky’s analogy. One of Nashville’s most literate storytellers, Olney has spent the better part of three decades fusing his particular brand of country-blues and roots-rock with a novelist’s eye for detail. Indeed, to hear a David Olney song is to experience a sort of soulful symmetry, a balance of theme, plot, and imagery usually thought to be the province of the playwright or poet. One Olney trademark involves placing a well-known historical figure in a newly-imagined context. He’s also adept at recasting familiar tales in perspectives that haven’t been considered before.
“I started out doing that with Bible stories,” he says. “It’s difficult for me to buy those stories, in a religious sense, but the stories themselves have a whole lot of power. I wanted to go back and look at them from a different angle, and not worry about the moral aspect of it, or the religious part. I just wanted to present the story, and see if I could still convey the power of these things. I found that that worked pretty good for me, because I didn’t have to worry about revealing the details of my personal life. Instead I could ask myself what I might do if I were that person, in this situation.”
Indeed, over the years Olney has cast his songs with such unlikely characters as Omar Khayyam, John Barrymore, Barabbas, King David, and even the donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem. And while his new album, The Wheel, mostly eschews this device, it nonetheless marks a high point in Olney’s talent for bringing a maverick spirit to themes of Shakespearean dimension. In the past decade, in the process of covering Olney’s material, artists such as Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt have introduced that gift to a wider audience, but such peer recognition was a long time coming.
Born and raised in tiny Lincoln, Rhode Island (it’s a dot on the map northwest of Providence), Olney came south in 1966 to attend school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His original idea was to study English, but that goal was soon abandoned as he threw himself into the area’s then-burgeoning folk scene. Mostly he performed cover songs in the local clubs — Marshall Wilson’s newly-opened Cat’s Cradle was a focal point — but occasionally he would slip an original into the set. “If no one noticed that it was my song,” says Olney, “then I figured it was a success.”
After a brief detour to New York in 1971, where he recorded an album with North Carolina musician/writer Bland Simpson, Olney relocated to Atlanta in 1972. By then he had written a handful of songs, and though at the time he believed they were good, he now says he had yet to find his own style. That changed in January 1973, when Olney got a job opening a show for Townes Van Zandt at a bar called the Last Resort in Athens.
“I remember specifically hearing ‘Pancho And Lefty’, and being just floored,” Olney recalls. “I suddenly realized that there was this whole other way of writing. I would say that his songs were clearly in the folk tradition, but the quality of the lyrics, and the poetry in them, was so stark, and unembarrassed. Hearing that gave me the courage to write things that came directly out of me, instead of trying to write things that sounded like old folk songs, or soul songs, or songs that sounded like somebody else. I saw that not only might that not embarrass me, but it might be really cool, because clearly that’s what was going on with Townes.”
Duly emboldened, Olney headed for Nashville later that same year. Sleeping on the apartment floors of such friends as Tommy Goldsmith and Steve Runkle, he at first sought work as a country music composer on Music Row, fingerpicking his tunes in front of publishing company executives. No one was interested.
“They would say, ‘Well, that’s folk music, and that’s not happening,'” says Olney. “That forced me to go back and re-learn all these songs, using a flatpick. After that I went back to the publishing companies, and they still didn’t like them. It wasn’t discouraging, because there were so many other people who were going through the same thing. But it was frustrating not to make any money at it.”
Olney took jobs bussing tables, installing motel furniture –anything he could find that would help pay the rent. He also got a gig playing at a “pass-the-hat” bar called Bishop’s Pub, where he performed every night for a year. It was there, while sharing the stage with other aspiring songwriters, that he began to sense there was something in his writing which distinguished it from everyone else’s.
Nonetheless, a crisis of confidence eventually ensued, and he found himself back in North Carolina. Strangely enough, it took an Eagles song to shake him to his senses.
“I was there [in North Carolina] for about six months, and I was thinking I might not go back to Nashville, to the point where I was living with a girl and needed to get a job,” he recalls. “So I drove to Raleigh to find work, and went to a Red Lobster, to see if they needed a dishwasher. And the guy started interviewing me like I was going to be part of upper-management or something, starting as a dishwasher. And I just thought, ‘This is not for me.’