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 these devices 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, finger-picking 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 flat pick. 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 writers, that he began to
sense there was something in his writing which distinguished it from
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 next go back to Nashville,
to the point where I was living with a girl and needed to get a job,"
he recalls. "Once 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 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
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 front man. 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
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
"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 l 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
or four more albums recorded for Rounder, Olney continued to sharpen
his gift for inhabiting characters and offering up later 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
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 artist-driven label that 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 long-time 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, down-playing
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 be- come 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. l
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!"
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.