Songwriters often try to inject themselves into their music as much as possible. But Nashville folkie David Olney prefers to keep himself out of his songs and turn first-person narratives into third-person observations.
"I'm not that interesting," Olney croaks over the phone from his home. "I've run into people I do consider interesting and almost none of them are in the music business. There's nothing inherently interesting about writing songs; it's just sitting in a room writing things on a piece of paper and performing."
Over the better part of four decades, Olney has entertained crowds with not just a guitar and his booming voice, but biographical story/songs, injecting characters (from Jesse James to John Dillinger to the pony on which Jesus rode) into his satchel of folk/country/Americana iconography. Olney may be among the genre's most dignified oldsters, though riches for him include more golden memories than money.
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"When I was a kid, I used to listen to baseball games on the radio," says Olney, with a grandfatherly tone, yet projecting the enthusiasm of a kid riding a Frosted Flakes rush. "You had to listen really hard to keep track of what was going on, because it wasn't a visual thing. You had to use your imagination. I think that's the case when you see a solo performer."
This year's The Wheel, Olney's eleventh album, features more familiar imagery. "Voices on the Water" and "God Shaped Hole" drink in the Appalachian mountain air, while "Revolution" and "Now and Forever" sound submerged in a Leonard Cohen-like somberness. In typical Olney fashion, the lyrics resonate like classic street-corner literature, although the comparison doesn't sit too well with Olney. "It's the kiss of death, really," he says. "When I see it written someplace that these are literate songs, I'm thinking, 'Who wants to listen to literate songs?' Half of what I do is entertain people, not to impart some great wisdom or anything."
Born in Rhode Island, Olney grew up on a diet of blues and folk artists, including Mississippi John Hurt and Bob Dylan, getting his first guitar at the age of 13 just before he relocated to Atlanta. After a brief stint at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in the mid-'60s, Olney dropped out and pursued music, moving to Nashville during the early '70s. There he toiled for several years as a folk singer, releasing critically acclaimed but commercially invisible albums including Deeper Well, Eye of the Storm, and Roses.
While temporarily holed up in Atlanta, Olney and the late Townes Van Zandt got together at a show in nearby Athens, Georgia. The two formed a tight friendship based on mutual admiration. Van Zandt loved Olney's music, labeling him "a songwriter's songwriter."
"There's an example of a guy who sat on a stool playing guitar," Olney says, "and just opened up entire worlds with his playing and his singing and his lyrics." Though obscure, Deeper Well, Olney's 1977 debut, didn't go unrecognized by his contemporaries: Linda Ronstadt covered "Women Across the River," while Emmylou Harris recorded a version of "Jerusalem Tomorrow," then drastically retooled the title track with producer Daniel Lanois for her 1995 comeback, Wrecking Ball. Harris and Ronstadt would later get together and cover another Olney song, "1917."
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During an early-'80s experimental phase, Olney formed Americana roots-rock band The X-Rays, which released one album, appeared on Austin City Limits, and even opened for Elvis Costello at one point. But three years later, Olney broke up the band and returned to singlehood. "I missed being able to do the really quiet stuff," he explains. "I could do a lot more different things solo."
Solitary touring opened up opportunities -- plus, it was easier. So Olney started playing throughout Europe during the '80s, with more converts on each visit. "At the time, I wasn't getting a whole hell of a lot of work in the States," he says. "And being paid to go to Europe is not a bad deal." 1995's High, Wide and Lonesome was an undisputed high point, with contributions from members of The Band. In 1997, Real Lies featured a slew of his most harrowing tales yet, including the drunken descent of John Barrymore ("Barrymore Recalls"), the killing of a high-priced Hollywood hooker ("Sunset on Sunset Boulevard") and the self-explanatory "Death, True Love, Lonesome Blues and Me."
Forty years of life on the road hasn't worn thin for Olney, and he's not about to seclude himself in the studio or go out playing at the same Nashville coffeehouse every night. "Traveling to a town full of people you don't know and playing songs for them -- that's probably how the music business was 100 years ago," he reckons. "So, in that way, you feel like part of a tradition."
Olney's name lacks much in the way of recognition, but Olney's career hasn't withered with time or, like Van Zandt's, ended too soon. "I wasn't given a whole lot of chances to sell my soul, so I suppose I still have it," he sighs. "It wasn't so much not selling out; it was just recognizing that what I did wasn't going to be incredibly popular. My time was better spent doing what I do as good as I can."