The first time I saw David Olney was in Austin, at the South by Southwest Music Conference. He was playing guitar and singing songs populated by unusual characters. Many of them sad. Like the French prostitute in “1917” – Olney wrote this song 18 years before the current movie of the same name – who feels sorry for the young soldier who’s spending the night, because the way the war’s going, he’ll probably be dead soon. Emmylou Harris knows good songs. She recorded that one, as well as Olney’s “Deeper Well.”
So I wrote about Olney, and he must have liked the words, because he put some of them on his web site:
“I saw Olney playing at a festival this spring and thought he looked like a fedora-sporting fiftysomething high-school principal who’d suddenly gone berserk and was using his acoustic guitar like it was a weapon. Love this crazy guy, love this record.”
Olney had a song written from the point of view of a ventriloquist’s partner, “Who’s the Dummy Now?” There’s one about a sorrowful iceberg, sad because it sank the Titanic. And one whose main character is a comedian named Jesus Christ, who travels to Earth, is crucified, and now warns his fellow entertainers that they might want to steer clear of Earth because it’s “One Tough Town.”
I couldn’t wait to get home and tell My Friends Rick and Monica about my new music discovery. I was too late. They already knew about Olney. And soon, they’d booked him for a house concert.
A few songs into that show, the doorbell rang. It was a pizza delivery. “Double cheese with pepperoni, sent by Mr. Steve Earle,” the delivery guy announced, pulling the box from his insulated bag. The packed living room, 50 people, erupted in laughter.
The pizza was a reference to a story Earle tells on a 1995 live album, “Together at the Bluebird Cafe,” recorded with Earle, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. As Earle told the story then, he was a struggling songwriter working in a Nashville pizza place. He’d squirrel away a pizza and, at the end of the night, claim it had been ordered, but no one picked it up. And he’d be allowed to take it home. But his roommate at the time, Olney, would only eat double cheese and pepperoni. And after a few weeks of the night always ending with one double cheese with pepperoni left over, the restaurant owner figured out the scam. Earle was fired.
Of course, Earle hadn’t sent the pizza to Rick and Monica’s house concert that night. It was yet another scam, perpetrated by an Olney fan, a fake pizza delivery guy who hadn’t been able to get a ticket to the sold-out show and was looking for a way in.
You reward that kind of passion. They let him stay.
After Olney had concluded the concert with a song about going to a lamp-shade store to buy one for your head, and after most of the crowd had drifted off into the night, I sat at the kitchen table with Olney, drinking irresponsibly. Red wine. I was prodding Olney for stories about Earle and Clark and Van Zandt. And his pal Eric Taylor.
Taylor and Olney had this intense philosophy about performing live, where they were not just singing songs. They’d slip into their characters’ skin, and tell the story as if the song’s protagonist had arrived in that guitar case sitting off to the side of the stage. I’ve seen Taylor a few times, he haunts his characters. Olney did as well. He could be Shakespearean in tone. At shows, he would sometimes perform an a cappella version of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Other singers and songwriters who knew him, and performed and recorded his songs, called Olney the Bard of Nashville.
Olney wasn’t exactly gossiping that night at Rick and Monica’s, as the wine did its work. He was just confirming what we all knew, or had heard. That brilliant creatures like Earle and Clark – and particularly Van Zandt and Taylor – have a self-destructive streak in them as long as the roads they travel.
And yeah, Olney said, kind of smiling. Maybe him, too.
The last time I saw Olney was a year or two ago, at Fanatics Pub in Lima. He was working on a beard. Over time, a man can get to the Walt Whitman level. Wisdom comes with that.
Sunday morning on Facebook, it was Dave Alvin, a great songwriter himself, who shared the news that Olney was dead. Like his friends Country Dick Montana and Mark Sandman of the band Morphine, Alvin wrote, Olney had died onstage.
It was at the annual 30A Songwriters Festival, in Seaside, Fla. The 71-year-old Olney was playing alongside Scott Miller, who used to be in the V-Roys, a band that was on Steve Earle’s label. And onstage as well was Amy Rigby, who frequently passes through Rochester, most recently last year playing at Bop Shop Records.
Olney was in the middle of a song. He stopped playing, said “I’m sorry,” dropped his chin to his chest, and just sat there on his stool. Dead of a heart attack.
Perhaps still stunned, filled with disbelief, but wanting to share with Olney’s fans what had happened, Rigby and Miller both wrote about it on their Facebook pages. Rigby noted that Olney never dropped his guitar. Olney’s death, Miller wrote, was “as easy and gentle as he was.”
I knew Olney only a little. At about the same level that I knew Col. Bruce Hampton, the brilliantly crazy jam-band patriarch from Georgia who was celebrating his 70th birthday at a concert in 2017 with the Tedeschi Trucks Band when he dropped to the stage. Dead of a heart attack.
Hampton’s death, and now Olney’s, is not a warning to musicians who I might want to interview in the future. I’ve talked to thousands of them over the years. Most have survived. It’s just the odds, I guess.
Tuesday night, I was at The Little Cafe to see The Spring Chickens. That’s the local trio of Steve Piper, Connie Deming and Scott Regan. Olney was on their minds as well. Piper did an Olney song, “If My Eyes Were Blind,” words dwelling on age and loss. Deming went to the piano and played a song she wrote that was inspired by seeing Olney at Rick and Monica’s. A song he played that night, “Women Across the River.” Hers is called “Perfect Sound,” and uses an image she saw while sitting in the front row, the toes of his boots. Her song used lines drawn from a “Deeper Well,” and two more lines she wrote that were pulled almost directly from “Women Across the River.”
Laughing with the women in the rain
as it makes that perfect sound
And Regan recalled having Olney as his studio guest for his morning show on WRUR-FM (88.5), “Open Tunings.” Regan said Olney asked about the baseball stadium across the street. Frontier Field. “There’s a game at 1 o’clock,” Regan said. Olney seized that small moment, and went to the game. On Tuesday night, Regan dedicated one of his own songs to Olney, “The World Doesn’t Owe You a Thing.”
When death comes, especially in the way it claimed Olney, I’ve heard people say, “Yeah, but at least he went out doing what he loved.” That’s a hard sentiment to get behind, dying in front of a room full of people. Country Dick Montana. Mark Sandman. Johnny “Guitar” Watson, that’s how he went as well. Tiny Tim, Piper talked about the falsetto-voice crooner Tuesday night, collapsing after entertaining a women’s club. The dance band on the Titanic. They found ways to tell stories, and live their lives, in ways that are romantic and exciting and sometimes sad.
They live like wild horses, and we watch the beauty of them as they run.
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