The late Townes Van Zandt was the best songwriter in the whole wide world, Steve Earle said in an oft-cited quote, “and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Seventeen years after Van Zandt’s death, the Americana artists who followed in his wake still speak of him the way rockers invoke John Lennon or Jimi Hendrix — as a standard bearer who represents a pinnacle of credibility and craft.
Had he been the coffee-table orating type, however, whose name would Van Zandt have declared?
“Anytime anyone asks me who my favorite music writers are, I say Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bob Dylan, and Dave Olney,” Van Zandt wrote. “Dave Olney is one of the best songwriters I’ve ever heard — and that’s true. I mean that from my heart.”
The words are excerpted from a letter typed and signed by the Americana icon for use in the liner notes for Olney’s album Roses, released in 1991. But Americana music, as a genre, can be tricky to identify and even trickier to use as a springboard to commercial success. At the time, the genre was in its infancy. With little support from radio stations that prefer fairly narrow playlists, there was no established pipeline to inject even the most accessible stars of what was then called “No Depression music” into the national consciousness.
If David Olney were less of a leader and more of a follower, he might have had an easier path commercially. More than 30 years ago, he fronted one of Nashville’s most incendiary New Wave-era live acts, but it would be years before the city’s rock scene started to draw national attention. By that time, Olney was often overlooked as focus settled on the Rock Block. It’s not surprising that he would be recording Americana music before the term had even been devised.
But as with Van Zandt, the varied and hard-to-summarize gifts that make Olney a marketer’s challenge make him a hero to other songwriters and musicians.
“When I met him, he was a rocker, but he was also this sensitive songwriter,” says Billy Block, longtime host of the radio show, webcast and TV series The Billy Block Show and a session drummer. “He’s got more soul than everybody I can imagine. He embodies what Americana is.”
Olney is a talented musical enigma, and he is unquestionably a founding father of Americana music. And yet, perhaps reflective of his career as an invisible giant, Wikipedia doesn’t even list him among the 135 artists it associates with the genre.
“He’s not a household name,” says producer and music writer Tommy Goldsmith, who played lead guitar in Olney’s early-’80s rock band the X-Rays. “But, my God, look at what he’s done over the years. It’s a really impressive body of work.”
There likely hasn’t been a better chance to explore its riches, or the many facets of Olney’s talent, than the coming month. On top of a weekly Wednesday-night residency through Sept. 10 at East Nashville’s The 5 Spot, as well as a most unusual gig — a musical role in the current Shakespeare in the Park reimagining of As You Like It — he’s just released a customarily strong new album, When the Deal Goes Down. He’ll play selections from it at a Sept. 9 concert in Nashville Public Library’s downtown courtyard, joined by two other rockers of a literary bent, Marshall Chapman and RB Morris.
Household name or not, Olney’s audience certainly knows who he is and where to find him.
“When I played the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco two years ago, there were 50,000 in the audience,” Olney says, seated on a sofa in the corner of his sunny living room. “I remember looking out and thinking this is more people than I’ve ever played in front of. Then I realized that this is more people than I’ve played in front of if you add them all up.”
That’s not completely true. In 1982, several years before his style would mature into what would become textbook Americana music, David Olney and the X-Rays killed on the YouTube-searchable final episode of the seventh season of Austin City Limits. That night, public-television audiences across the country watched as he snarled his way through the band’s concert-closing crescendo, “Contender.”
It’s one of Olney’s signature songs — the agonizing story of a prizefighter who falls one punch shy of his life taking a different path. In the clip online, you can see Olney feeling every body blow and jab, his head whipping back as the punches land. You can see the audience hanging on his words as his contender stays planted, bloodied but standing. And you can see their faces fall along with the hero’s as Olney slumps the floor in a fetal position, crumpled by a single blow, “and the lights go out.”
“That was a very dramatic moment,” says Goldsmith, who was on stage when Olney stepped into the audience. He was there when Olney leapt back to his feet, railing the song’s climactic cry, “I could’ve been a contender / Now can you say the same?” as the crowd cheered. “The album Contender and our appearance on Austin City Limits was a vindication of David as a major talent.”
Olney’s place in the pantheon of Nashville songwriters is secure, yet he’s rarely felt the heat of a national spotlight. He has toured the world time and again, yet he could hold the door for T-shirted tourists at The Bluebird and they’d be too busy taking pictures of the empty stage to notice. (This despite the fact he’s penned songs for the TV show Nashville, which features the revered venue with regularity.) But at 66 he’d probably be too wise, too stubborn, and simply too far past the point of caring to take much notice of them either. He seems content to let his body of work speak for itself.
It helps that the word’s been carried by his many admirers, from Van Zandt and Earle to Johnny Cash. He penned multiple moneymaking songs, including “Deeper Well,” most memorably recorded by Emmylou Harris on her Grammy-winning album Wrecking Ball. The single, which rose to No. 94 on the Billboard Top 200 chart in 1995 and saw international chart activity as well, is indicative of Olney’s poetic gravitas:
The sun burned hot, it burned my eyes
Burned so hot I thought I’d died
Thought I’d died and gone to Hell
Lookin’ for the water from a deeper well
Other Olney hits include “Jerusalem Tomorrow,” also recorded by Emmylou Harris, and the song “1917,” which Harris and Linda Ronstadt recorded as a duet that reached No. 6 on Billboard‘s country singles chart. Bluegrass legend Del McCoury recorded Olney’s “Queen Anne’s Lace,” which also charted. Ronstadt took “Women Across the River,” one of Olney’s most requested songs, to No. 75 on Billboard‘s Top 200 in 1995.
Even so, in its review of his 2003 release The Wheel, the Los Angeles Times suggested Olney to be “the best songwriter you’ve never heard of,” and compared him favorably to Tom Waits. The comparison is apt. Olney’s songwriting is frequently dark and deep, much like Waits’ — bleakly funny, populated by a wide range of nighthawks and sojourners whose perspectives we’re invited, often uneasily, to share.
It’s also much like Van Zandt’s, whose most famous song, “Pancho and Lefty,” ends in betrayal and death. Toward the dark end of his songwriting spectrum, Olney slow-drolls his way through the chilling story of an iceberg that actively lures an ocean liner to its icy grave in “Titanic,” from his first solo album, Eye of the Storm, released in 1986:
I reach for you alone
Come to me, Come to me, Come to me
It’s creepy, macabre, and beautiful. And despite its being a reliable crowd-pleaser at his live shows, it’s also hard to imagine it getting spins on the radio.
Perhaps his greatest gift is for creating characters of literary complexity, whether the subject is a remorse-free millionaire who leaves a trail of death in his furious pursuit of wealth and power (“Millionaire”) or a French prostitute who comforts a World War I soldier on three-day leave (“1917”). He grants the same imaginative empathy even to inanimate objects. In his classic “Roses,” an aged oak tree battles a conspiracy of wind and lightning only to remain standing at the war’s end. Roses blossom from within its timber as a result.
“The song ‘Roses’ is a high-level piece of poetry with a kind of classically based musical structure,” Goldsmith says.
Olney lives in a well-settled, two-story house near Hillsboro Village on a shaded corner lot atop a short, steep hill. It has a surprisingly deep front porch with a half-dozen or so chairs, a few tables scattered on its painted concrete floor, and art projects at various stages of completion. To get to the porch, one must climb steep stone steps hidden beneath a canopy of juniper trees that, ever since an ice storm years ago, awkwardly fold inward. The resulting tunnel of green encases the entirety of the steps.
The room inside is large and lived in; varying styles of furnishings and accessories conspire to create its funky feng shui. His college-age daughter painted at least one of the portraits on the wall, and the large dog named Nina that very much enjoys the attention of strangers belongs to his son, who recently returned home while he plans his next step after graduating college this spring.
Other than a guitar in the corner, there are few clues to Olney’s career as a successful musician. There are no gold records on the wall or Grammys on the mantle. The fact is, he has no such mementos. What he has is a catalogue that exceeds 1,000 songs, the admiration of his peers, and what appears to be a pretty good living as a songwriter and touring recording artist.
Olney is well-read and book smart, and he is as Nashville as Nashville can be. But he doesn’t wear cowboy boots or a stage Stetson. His belt buckle is more Banana Republic than rodeo runner-up, and he wears stylishly contemporary horn-rimmed glasses. The fedora that sits atop his more-salt-than-pepper haystack looks like it belongs there.
In conversation, he tosses off literary references so naturally you wonder why more people don’t do it. He has an enviable gruffness that sometimes comes out in his singing voice — especially when when he downshifts into a Waits-esque song-speak cadence, as he does in “Jerusalem Tomorrow” off his 1989 solo masterpiece, Deeper Well.
He grew up in New England — Lincoln, R.I., to be exact, where his parents gave him a childhood he described as “idyllic.”
“The world I grew up in was close to those old ‘Our Gang’ films that they used to make,” he says. “I had a paper route, and I had 10 times more freedom than kids do today. I might go a whole day without seeing an adult. In school, we had sock hops and dancing classes. It seems incredible to me now.” He cut through the woods on a daily basis to get to his best friend’s house when he was only 8.
“Who would do that, now?” he asks, with his palms turned upward, punching the word “do” for emphasis.
Olney traces his performer’s roots to junior high school, when he won the lead role in a student-written play. But first he had to quit the basketball team to make time for rehearsals.
“There was this weird scene where I had to go tell the basketball coach that I had decided to be in the play,” he recalls. “And I remember him saying, ‘Well, some boys want to play basketball, and some boys want to be in plays.’ It was an unnecessarily stupid, blockheaded, asshole thing for him to say. I saw that right away as bullshit.”
The night of the play, Olney had an awakening the moment the curtains parted.
“I saw that the 30 parents in the room were looking at me on the stage, and they were waiting for me to say something, and this was like, this doesn’t happen in any kid’s life: A roomful of adults waiting for you to explain something to them,” he says. “And I just went: Shazam! My direction went to music, but it was the lure of the stage that got me there.”
When Olney was doing what one might imagine middle-class kids in New England doing in the 1950s — going to school, playing sandlot baseball, listening to Fats Domino and Little Richard on transistor radios — his father worked in a textile mill. In 1965, Olney’s life changed radically when the plant closed, costing his father his job. The family moved a few times on the promise of employment, but each opportunity proved to be a closed door.
Olney graduated high school in 1966. Idle talk about Houston’s new state-of-the-art Astrodome was pushed aside for conversations about the Viet Cong, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and President Johnson re-escalating U.S. troops in Vietnam. After seeing a doctor “with a certain sensibility,” Olney received a 4-F deferral for a cyst, which got him out of the draft.
“I probably could have gone in, and [the cyst] never would have bothered me,” he says. “But I couldn’t see the justification for the war. There were people that went, and I, you know, still wrestle with that. It’s almost like if I didn’t take my place, someone was going to take my place, and then they would be in harm’s way.”
Olney briefly studied English literature at the University of North Carolina, more interested in beer and the burgeoning folk music scene than classes. This was the mid-1960s, and Bob Dylan was emerging as a one-man cultural heavyweight. This notion intrigued Olney, who jumped at the chance to play guitar professionally with Bland Simpson, an emerging folk performer who later formed the acclaimed Red Clay Ramblers. But Olney’s father died before commercial success with Simpson developed.
Olney doesn’t talk much about regret. Nor is he terribly nostalgic about the successes that would soon come his way — generally speaking, he exudes a laid-back contentedness. But a long shadow still stretches from his father’s grave.
“I’m seeing the music business for the first time, and suddenly my father is sick,” he remembers. “All he saw me do was drop out of school and kind of flounder around. And now I’m getting involved with something and we’re going to do an album for CBS, and things are going in a good direction, then he dies. I never got a chance for him to see me in a successful light. It was tough.”
The effect of his father’s passing combined with the cultural tension of the day shaped his transition into young manhood.
“That’s the kind of crap that was going on,” he says. “Then there was this stuff with my dad. You had to feel there was a little bit of desperation going on in your life.”
If his dad could see him now. Today David Olney hustles social media like a Nashville newbie, which he decidedly is not. His extensive catalog includes 22 studio albums and EPs and a half-dozen live albums, but if Facebook posts and iPad-quality weekly videocasts help him sell a few albums and book his next gig, so be it.
Olney draws deeply from classic poetry and literature in his songs. When introducing his song “God-Shaped Hole” at a performance in Pegram, Tenn., earlier this month, Olney managed to name-drop Jean-Paul Sartre without sounding like a hole of a different sort. And when he set out to write a love song for his eventual wife Regine, a German immigrant who was married to another when she began dating Olney, what came forth was “Millionaire.”
At first blush, it seems impossible to imagine the song as a romantic overture. But Regine’s favorite book at the time was Wuthering Heights. To impress her, Olney wrote what is essentially a missing chapter that supposes how Heathcliff might have accumulated his wealth before returning as the novel’s antihero. The tactic proved effective. The pair married 27 years ago and have two grown children.
After ghost-writing Emily Brontë, what remained but the ultimate Nashville mission impossible: a co-write with Shakespeare. That was the daunting task the Nashville Shakespeare Festival presented Olney with for its current Shakespeare in the Park production, an As You Like It updated to the Depression days of the New Deal and hobo jungles. (See the review on p. 47.) Yet rewriting the Bard from Stratford-Upon-Avon proved natural for a man who added a chapter to Wuthering Heights, who served up a punch list to God about how to run the universe more effectively, and who reassigned the mythological Sisyphus to perform his never-ending task on the new album’s guitar-heavy blues grinder “Roll This Stone.”
“He’s taking those lyrics and and making 1930s language out of them.” says As You Like It musical director Stan Lawrence. In the NSF production — billed as “O Brother, Where Art Thou? meets the Marx Brothers” and running through Sept. 14 at the Centennial Park Bandshell — Olney plays the character Lord Amiens. He will reportedly sing quite a bit. He was originally slated to take part in a big dance number, too, but …
“Watching these actors makes me realize some of the skills I don’t have,” Olney says. “I tried for a while to learn these dance steps, and it was just humiliating. All these people are getting into it, but to me it’s the equivalent of trying to ride a bicycle backwards.”
He’s on surer footing with his 2014 release When the Deal Goes Down, out now on Nashville’s Deadbeet Records, another arresting assemblage of weighty themes and bold characters. Released in July, the album might not have come about without the help of his fans. They may not fill arenas, but they helped his Kickstarter campaign surpass its target goal of $24,000 by $2,000.
The album is no sunset project; it’s Olney at top form — the songwriting is stellar. In “Big Blue Hole,” he name-checks Kurt Cobain, Cleopatra, Amy Winehouse, Genghis Khan and Marilyn Monroe; he plucks a suffering man from the pages of the Old Testament and drops him squarely in the title of “Job, Servant;” and Olney takes the Almighty himself to task in the album’s title cut for not running the universe to his personal satisfaction.
That song, “When the Deal Goes Down,” is a foot-stomping rocker he wrote in 1980 after a hit-and-run accident left him with a severely broken hand and a banged-up knee. It typifies a strain of spiritual inquiry in Olney’s writing — humble and abased in some songs, accusatory in others. Here, East Nashville guitar virtuoso and longtime collaborator Sergio Webb interjects stinging Telecaster licks among Olney’s furious lyrics, which all but ask for a good smiting:
You don’t have to raise the dead
Give wine or give me bread
Just tell me you’ll be there when the deal goes down
“Christianity, through the accident of geography, is the religion I deal with. When I got hit by that pickup truck, I just needed to know that it had meaning,” he says. “There’s an emphasis on the virgin birth, and all that stuff — those are parlor tricks. At the crisis points in your life, that’s not what people need. People need to feel their life has meaning and that they’re loved and accepted when the deal goes down. That was a song giving helpful advice to God about how to run the universe.”
The song “Sad Saturday Night,” co-written with Ad Vanderveen and John Hadley, quietly brings forth an earful of contradictions. In it, Olney sings about loneliness. The song is a waltz, has no drums or keyboard, and features a 20-bar sousaphone solo. And in a category-defying feat of songwriting stuntwork, the music doesn’t change from chorus to verse. The song is sad, but it’s also lovely. Like many songs from his expansive body of work, it has a lullaby quality.
“The song is long and repetitive, and there is no reason why it should work, but it does,” he told American Songwriter in June, trying to explain what makes the song so unorthodox. “There is a weird combination of comedy and pathos in it.” As in these lines:
This town is as empty, as empty as my broken heart
I could tell you my story, but why even start
Everything’s changed since you and I drifted apart
On a sad, sad, sad Saturday night
The video, nearly seven minutes long, is impressively simple. In it, a forlorn Olney ambles beneath the street lamps of a largely vacant Hillsboro Village, accompanied only by his shadow. Well, that and multifaceted Aussie musician Anne McCue, who marches behind him blowing into a sousaphone.
“When you’re sad, the world knows it immediately,” Olney says. “You might as well have a girl walk behind you playing with a tuba everywhere you go.”
By Skip Anderson, Photo by Gregg Roth
This article originally appeared on the cover of The Nashville Scene, Aug. 21, 2014.