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.' "So I was driving back, and the song 'Take It To The Limit' came on the radio. I actually had to pull the car over. When you're looking for your freedom/And you can't find the door/...Take it to the limit one more time. It's kind of weird to have your life turn around on an Eagles song, but when I got back, I handed the car keys over to my girlfriend and said, 'I'm leaving tomorrow. I gotta go back to Nashville.' And I hitchhiked back." Enter the X-Rays. Although he continued to write "quiet" songs, over the next several years Olney garnered a reputation as the leader of one of the stormiest rock 'n' roll outfits ever to set foot on a Nashville stage. According to Olney, his original idea was to start a country band, but the group he put together quickly morphed into something else. "We had rehearsals and stuff, and it seemed like it was a country band, but then the first gig we did was really loud rock 'n' roll," he says. "We had a fiddle player, so he immediately quit, and it became electric guitar rock. We did some ballads, some slow songs, but it would just get loud, all the time." Along with Pat McLaughlin's group, the X-Rays helped pioneer Nashville's new wave movement, and Olney's star was clearly on the rise. The band released an album, titled Contender, on Rounder in 1981 (joining a roster that then included George Thorogood), and even appeared on "Austin City Limits". Various incarnations came and went, but Olney remained at the group's center, penning nearly all the songs and gaining notice as a charismatic frontman. He enjoyed the notoriety, but he also never felt quite at home in the guise of a dyed-in-the-wool rock 'n' roller. "We got popular, and that was wonderful, to have people know who you were," he says. "If I was feeling kind of down, I used to just go for a walk in town, and wait for someone to honk their horn at me. The experience of doing the X-Rays was great, and playing with the people I played with was wonderful. But it made me realize that rock 'n' roll is almost like a religion. You really have to throw yourself into it, and you can't hold any part back. And I realized that there was a part that I was holding back, that I missed -- and that was the quiet, Townes-like songs." If Olney was looking to throw off his rock 'n' roll persona, then Eye Of The Storm, his first solo album, achieved that goal with room to spare. Released in 1986 on Rounder's Philo imprint, shortly after the X-Rays had gone their separate ways, the mostly acoustic album had a tentative quality, as if Olney were looking through bleary eyes at an uncertain future. And in fact that was the case, at least in some respects. Whereas with the X-Rays he had grown accustomed to playing to packed houses, as a solo performer he often found that his audience consisted of himself and the bartender. "That was probably the time I felt most 'down,' in Nashville," Olney recalls. "I was 36 years old -- no spring chicken -- and it was like, 'What's going to happen?' That's where I first recorded 'If It Wasn't For The Wind', which was how I felt at the time. The good thing that came out of that is that I realized I was going to keep writing songs. It didn't make any difference if I couldn't see what the payoff was going to be; writing songs was just something I did." By the time Olney was ready to record his next effort, writing songs was more than just something he did, it was something that had blossomed into a full-bodied artistic endeavor. Deeper Well, released on Philo in 1989, became the pivotal album of his career. In Olney's words, "Everything came together on Deeper Well": the songs, the playing, the production, and ultimately, even the timing. Emmylou Harris was looking for material for her 1993 album Cowgirl's Prayer when her friend Kieran Kane gave her a tape of songs. "Jerusalem Tomorrow", a tune from Deeper Well that had been brought to Kane's attention by Kevin Welch, was on the tape. A prototypical Olney composition, "Jerusalem Tomorrow" tells the story of a Bible-era huckster-turned-Jesus-apostle who might -- or might not -- resume his huckster ways. Olney was in a particularly bad way when he learned, to his great joy, that Harris had chosen the track for inclusion on her album. "At that time I had written another song that had just gotten ripped off," he explains. "A version of it became a minor country hit. And I was so discouraged, thinking I had been in this town for so long, and that's how they take notice of you, by ripping you off. It was very distasteful. Then, about a week later, I found out that Emmylou was doing 'Jerusalem Tomorrow'. At that point it just seemed to me that I had to let this other thing go. Otherwise, I couldn't enjoy the fact that Emmylou did my song." Two years later, Harris made the title track of Deeper Well the centerpiece of her landmark album Wrecking Ball. Her patronage also led to a Linda Ronstadt cover of Olney's "Women Across The River" (on 1995's Feels Like Home). Later, on their 1999 duet album Western Wall, Harris and Ronstadt recorded "1917", Olney's harrowing World War I vignette told from the point of view of a kind-hearted French prostitute giving comfort to doomed soldiers. Throughout the '90s, over the course of four more albums recorded for Rounder, Olney continued to sharpen his gift for inhabiting characters and offering up their stories without regard for tidy moral summation. Whether contemplating the mind of a Depression-era gunslinger ("Dillinger"), examining the psychic turmoil of the pardoned thief who shared Jesus' prison cell ("Barabbas"), or expressing David's regret at slaying Goliath ("If I Didn't Know I Couldn't Do It"), Olney's empathy was such that he often came off as a medium visited upon by haunted souls from an epic past. "I'm 54 now, and having children...you begin to see the circle of life. It happens even more clearly with pets. They're on a different schedule, so you see them as they're born, and as they grow up, and as they die. The older I get, the more precious time becomes." Olney is trying to explain how his new album, The Wheel, came to center on the transience of life and its circular nature. More than any other album of his career, The Wheel forsakes skewed tales, instead focusing on philosophical ruminations about the brief time we're allotted in this mortal world. It's tempting, of course, to ascribe such thoughts to the events of September 11, but in fact Olney penned and recorded nearly all the songs for the album prior to that day. "Some of them were written a long time ago," he says. "I had actually recorded 'Big Cadillac' [the stormy rocker that opens the album] about ten years ago, but I wanted to do it again. And then once I got going I started writing a bunch of new stuff. 'Chained And Bound To The Wheel' is a new song. With that one, I had just read King Lear and wanted to get some of that imagery in." As it turned out, much of The Wheel ended up being made without a record contract in hand. Although Olney is quick to express his gratitude to Rounder for their support, he sensed after his last album for the label that it was time to move on. Omar's Blues, released in 2000 on Dead Reckoning, appeared at roughly the same time the label Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch had put together threatened to disintegrate. For the new album, prior to each recording session at Robb Earls' Sound Vortex Studio, Olney would run the players through a rehearsal of four or five songs, in order to save studio time. Olney handled most of the guitars, while longtime friends Deanie Richardson, Mike Fleming and Pat McInerney fleshed things out on fiddle, bass and drums, respectively. Additional help came from Earls, Mike Henderson and Tommy Goldsmith, with Earls' wife Carole Edwards contributing a couple of beautiful between-song vocal interludes. Edwards also duets with Olney on the final track, a "round" inspired by Moondog, a brilliant and eccentric street musician Olney saw during his brief stay in New York in 1971. "He wore a Viking suit, and he was blind, and it seemed like he was about eight feet tall," Olney remembers. "Later I found out he was an accomplished musician who had had songs recorded by Big Brother & the Holding Company. Anyway, a while back I ran across a used CD by him that had a bunch of rounds he'd written. There were about twenty of them, along with a sort of classical piece, and each one was about a minute long. That got me to thinking that maybe I could do that. It's kind of a cool idea, because you write a melody, and then you just sort of write one line. And then you write another melody, and stick a line in that. You don't have to worry about rhyming or anything." Other high points on The Wheel include "Boss Don't Shoot No Dice", a John Hiatt-style rocker (written with Janis Ian) based on the famous Einstein quote about God, dice, and the universe; "God Shaped Hole" (not the Hayseed song of the same name), a wordplay-rich romp triggered by Sartre's comment that God is dead, but that he left a God-shaped hole in human beings; and "Revolution", a sung-spoken ballad that likens the changing of the seasons to the overthrow of a government. Tellingly, two of the three closing tracks are drop-dead gorgeous love songs, delivered by Olney in a voice that's rough enough around the edges to command authority, but also tempered with more than a trace of vulnerability. As the title implies, the album also exhibits a gemlike symmetry in both theme and structure. "Having [a thematic concept] helps me to stay focused on a project," Olney says, downplaying this rare and distinct talent. "If there's a kind of connection between the songs, when you go into the studio you don't feel you're starting anew every time." It's anybody's guess, of course, whether someone with the profile of Emmylou Harris or Linda Ronstadt will decide to put his or her own spin on any of these songs. It's also likely that Booka Michel -- the respected Austin musician/entrepreneur who picked up The Wheel for release on his Loud House Records label -- wishes simply for as many listeners as possible to become privy to Olney's work. Regardless, Olney himself is content with the way his own wheel has turned. "I've been thinking a lot about how when you're young, you really want fame badly," he says. "It seems like such an odd thing, to crave the approval of total strangers. But you really want it, and for a number of years I was quite disappointed that I didn't get that. "And then I thought, if I had gotten that, I wouldn't have written the things that I did write. I don't know if this is sour grapes, or if maybe I'm getting wise in my dotage, but I feel very fortunate that not many people know who I am. I can go out and do other things, and live a normal life. I write songs because that's what I do. The feeling of finishing a song is one of the most satisfying feelings I've ever felt." Russell Hall lives in Anderson, South Carolina, where four years ago he gave up life in the corporate world to begin writing about music full-time. He's been a fan of David Olney ever since first hearing his superb 1997 album Real Lies.