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David Olney, Inimitable Nashville Songwriter, Dies On Stage At Age 71

Val Hoeppner
David Olney performs at a WMOT event on Dec. 14, 2019.

David Olney, one of the most thought-provoking and independent-minded songwriters of the past fifty years, died on Saturday night, following a heart attack on stage at Florida's 30A Songwriters Festival in Santa Rosa Beach. The 71-year-old Nashville icon was performing in a round with artists Amy Rigby and Scott Miller.

Rigby posted a first-hand account on Facebook: “Olney was in the middle of his third song when he stopped, apologized and shut his eyes. He was very still, sitting upright with his guitar on, wearing the coolest hat and a beautiful rust suede jacket we laughed about because it was raining like hell outside the boathouse where we were playing- I just want the picture to be as graceful and dignified as it was, because it at first looked like he was just taking a moment.” But the songwriter could not be revived.

The Music City community, who's known and admired Olney as a rock and roller and a mystical folk singing sage, reacted with sadness and shock early Sunday morning. Mary Gauthier wrote that “David Olney was a man with genius and wide reaching vision. He was the master of perspective. Point of view in his songs was forever original and brilliant.” She may well have been alluding to his famous song “Titanic,” which features a dramatic internal monologue by the iceberg.

And from Tommy Womack: “We did (I’m guesstimating) somewhere around 40 or 50 gigs together. And I saw him countless times beside that. He was one of the greatest songwriters and performers of our generation. He recorded one of my songs, which was a high honor.”

Quite a few major artists recorded Olney songs, including Linda Ronstadt, Del McCoury and Steve Earle. Emmylou Harris joined with Ronstadt to sing a duet of Olney's poignant period piece “1917,” about a soldier and a prostitute, for an unexpected country hit. Harris recorded “Jerusalem Tomorrow” on her 1993 album Cowgirl's Prayer and made “Deeper Well” a highlight of her landmark album Wrecking Ball two years later. He was revered by his finest peers, including the late Townes Van Zandt, whose sometimes elliptical, literary approach and deep understanding of the blues resembled Olney's.

With a range that allowed him to set his character-rich lyrics to multiple roots genres, from old-time boogie to country to Dixieland, he was regarded as a pioneer in the Americana scene. But he was seen as among the deepest minds to ever haunt the stages of the Exit In, Cantrell’s and Bluebird Cafe. Olney studied Shakespeare and the classic poets closely (a practice that both inspired and vexed him). He composed song cycles based on figures and situations from history and literature, including a time-traveling album inspired by the eleventh-century mathematician and poet Omar Khayyam and an EP about the betrayal of Jesus Christ. And he partook of allegory and magical realism, as in the song “Roses,” which takes the point of view of lightning attacking an oak tree in concert with wind and thunder. “The old oak tree began to shudder/But he held his ground like some old soldier/His ancient pride was burnt and shaken/But something deep inside did waken,” sings Olney, only to bear witness as the the tree “blossomed roses.” His work is full of imagery that sticks with the listener.

David Olney grew up in Rhode Island and studied briefly at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he fell in with founders of the Red Clay Ramblers. Nashville based since 1973, Olney became a local fixture fronting the vital rock and roll band the X-Rays in the early 1980s. They paved the way for other Nashville roots rock outfits like Jason and the Scorchers, playing Austin City Limits among other prestigious shows.

Fellow X-Ray Tommy Goldsmith, who went on to be a career journalist in Nashville and then Raleigh, NC, remembered his friend to WMOT as “a very solid person who operated at such a high level of creativity.” The X-Rays, he said, positioned Olney as somewhere on the musical spectrum between post-punk English pop rock and southern roots and blues. “We were definitely a rocking, entertaining road-house kind of band,” he said. “But (Olney’s) songs were so strong that it was a one-two punch.”

After the band broke up in 1985, Olney launched a solo career that’s spanned more than 20 studio albums and a half a dozen live recordings. In recent years, he’d been especially prolific and diverse in his pursuits. In 2009, he memorized and recited Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” on his YouTube channel. He played the role of Amiens in a 2014 production of Shakespeare’s As You LIke It, while contributing six original songs to the play. As recently as last week, he posted the latest video of his You Never Know songwriting series, where he held court on a variety of topics and announced the Florida shows that would be his last.  

Nashville writer and historian Peter Cooper was a long-time friend and fan of Olney. In his book Johnny's Cash & Charley's Pride, he shared an anecdote of a fan visiting with Olney at the merch table after a “moderately attended concert” in which the fan said he was sorry more people weren't there. A pensive Olney ruminated that he was okay with having a few dedicated fans in the various towns he played. “Not a lot of people like my sh*t,” he said. “But the people that do… I’m the only place they can get it. If they don’t come hear me, they’re not going to get the sh*t they like. I’ve got a monopoly on my sh*t.” 

It was a one-of-a-kind artist finding, as usual, a one-of-a-kind way to speak the truth.

Olney is survived by wife Regine, daughter Lillian, and son Redding. Memorial arrangements are pending.




WUWF Public Media posted what would be one of David Olney's last performances, which starts at 2:59.


https://vimeo.com/385083949">30A 2020 Saturday from https://vimeo.com/user94440970">WUWF Public Media on Vimeo.