Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The Plots Thicken

Olney's prodigious talent grows

By Michael McCall

AUGUST 11, 1997:  Local singer David Olney recently visited Hollywood for the first time. For him, the experience was wickedly thick with irony: Here he was, a songwriter and performer in his 40s, making his first trip to the entertainment capital of the United States. "If you're in the songwriting business, and you've been doing it for 20 years, and then you go to Los Angeles...," he says, pausing to flash a wry smile, "well, that may be an indication of how stupid you are."

For those who consider Olney one of the most powerful and most fiercely principled songwriters of his generation, his West Coast journey seems significant for an entirely different reason: It suggests that maybe the world at large is ready to hear this talented man's work. It's not surprising that Olney has avoided Hollywood all these years: He cares little about self-promotion or about the sort of career positioning required of successful American artists and entertainers. What's surprising is that the bright bulbs from the land of neon have yet to exploit his songs. It may be a clich to compare a songwriter to a screenwriter or a playwright, but if anyone deserves such praise, it would be Olney. His songs are rich with complex characters, unpredictable plot twists, and grand tragedies; they dramatize the brutality of evil and the quiet dignity of goodness.

"It sounds hokey, but a song is successful if it's a good song," Olney says. "Whether or not it makes you a lot of money is a whole 'nother issue. The job becomes either to write good songs or to write songs that make a lot of money." He mentions his friend, the late Townes Van Zandt, a performer whose artistic reputation loomed large even though he never recorded for a major record label. "I like to think Townes felt his job was to write songs as best that he could and let everything else take care of itself. I feel that's my job too."

In truth, Olney's work has gained some recognition in recent years. Emmylou Harris helped by recording the songs "Deeper Well" and "Jerusalem Tomorrow." She also introduced his work to other performers, including Linda Ronstadt, who put his "Women 'Cross the River" on her recent Feels Like Home album. Olney was also the subject of a well-circulated quote by Van Zandt, in which the tunesmith said his favorite songwriters were Mozart, Lightnin' Hopkins, Bob Dylan, and David Olney. Moreover, Olney received some exposure after taking part in a musical adaptation of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, which was performed by the Opera Memphis company and at annual gathering in Faulkner's honor in Oxford, Miss.

Word-of-mouth may be a slow way to build an audience, but with Olney, once he's got a listener's attention, he'll never lose it. Indeed, Olney's work provides the kind of pleasures that make the search for interesting new music worth the trouble. "One thing I hear from people who listen to my CDs is, `Well, I didn't get that song at first. But after a while I got it,' " Olney laughs. "I'm not sure that's such a good thing to hear from someone. In our culture, where it's about getting things easy and fast, I'm not so sure that people want to wait and get it the second time. But the good side, I hope, is that the songs have a certain depth you have to go after, and hopefully it's a rewarding experience even after you've heard the song a few times."

Unsung David Olney, who celebrates the release of his new record with a show at the Bluebird Cafe Aug. 27. Photo by Ben Pearson.
With the ar-rival of Real Lies, Olney's latest album, listners have a whole new set of messages and plots to delve into. Olney continues to expand upon conventional songwriting, stretching the song structures with two-way conversations, with stories unfolding from different points of view, and with a crowd that refuses to let a song end. As on 1995's High, Wide and Lonesome, he seems to be taking cues from his experience adapting the work of William Faulkner; he continues to challenge himself and the basic conventions of his craft.

"In writing songs, there's a tendency to want to make it more and more dramatic," he says. "It takes more of a jolt to set you off. When I first started doing this, any song that I was about to stumble through and get done was a miracle to me. Now the hardest thing is not to be contriving situations. I think that's why I've been writing a lot about situations that already exist, just so I don't tamper with that part. But I might try to sneak around the back and look at it in a different way."

On Real Lies, Olney takes on several American icons, including sports (one song is called "Baseball," another "Basketball"), Hollywood ("Barrymore Remembers," "Sunset on Sunset Boulevard"), and outlaws and the old West ("Robert Ford & Jesse James"). "Thirty Coins of Gold" draws on the Bible and the Italian Renaissance, while another song, "Death, True Love, Lonesome Blues and Me," takes an existential look at power, romance, and fate in a setting that's part Wild West, part '40s-era film noir. This last song is built around a familiar story, one that involves a threatening club owner, the beautiful singer he loves, and the charming rogue who steals her away. Only, in this case, the violent heavy is named Mister Death, the beauty is known as True Love, and the rambler is Lonesome Blues. Olney has a blast unfolding the tale--"Mister Death/He plays roulette/He never loses," one line goes. The tune is set to a Dixieland arrangement that allows the singer to exaggerate his deep, strong voice and to show off his theatrical capabilities.

Despite Ol-ney's self-deprecating remarks about his career choices, he still believes he made the right decision when he moved to Nashville more than two decades ago. A Rhode Island native, he started performing while attending college in North Carolina. His move to Nashville, he says, was influenced by his love for Southern music. "All the music I love is from this part of the country," he says. "When I came to Nashville, I wasn't thinking about country music. I was thinking that I wanted to stay close to where all the music I love originally got made."

Despite his occasional doubts, he's glad he chose to stay. "The thing about Nashville is that it is so conservative that it keeps you from going overboard--in songwriting and in other things," he says. "If I'd gone to Los Angeles, there are things there that probably would have been bad for me. In songwriting, I can think of some real weird stuff, but I still try to make it fit into a regular song format. If I'd gone to L.A. or New York, I think I would have become really obscure and weird."

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