The following is an excerpt from Peter Cooper’s forthcoming book, Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music, out April 25 via Spring House Press. Get 20% off your pre-order of the book using the code AS217 here.
David Olney is the kind of Nashville songwriter that other Nashville songwriters sit around, listen to, and either praise him for being a wondrous original or curse him for being a wondrous original.
Olney doesn’t write like other people. He wrote a song called “Titanic,” a rhyming love story, from the iceberg’s point of view. He wrote a song called “Jerusalem Tomorrow,” a spoken-word epic in the voice of a Bible-times religious huckster (“I’d hire a kid to say he was lame, then I’d touch him and make him walk again/ Then I’d pull some magic trick, I’d pretend to heal the sick”) who joins up with Jesus Christ. One time, Emmylou Harris told a great songwriter named Kieran Kane that she needed some songs for an upcoming album. Kieran made her a tape that had “Jerusalem Tomorrow” on it. He could have loaded the tape up with his own songs. But he couldn’t bear to have “Jerusalem Tomorrow” go unheard.
Of course, Emmylou recorded “Jerusalem Tomorrow.” And Olney had a nuanced reaction.
“I hear that Emmylou Harris, the greatest female voice of our time, is recording one of my songs,” he said, one hotel room night. “So it’s, ‘Great. What song?’ I hear back, ‘Jerusalem Tomorrow.’ Okay, so the greatest female voice of our time is recording my song… and it’s a spoken-word.”
No worries, as Emmylou also recorded a version of a melodic Olney song called “A Deeper Well.” That’s part of her Wrecking Ball album, which came out in 1995 and became a touchstone for what is now called Americana music.
Oh, Olney has another one called “1917,” a World War 1 song, told from the point of view of a French prostitute. It’s so good, I can’t bear to tell you about it. Emmylou recorded that one, too, with help from duo partner Linda Ronstadt.
I used to get angry about music.
Angry about music is a dumb, dumb way to be. If you’re angry about music, you should re-direct your anger towards something else. Try being angry about hunger, poverty, war, or Duke University’s basketball team. All are more valid targets than music. People who are angry about music think, as I once did, that the reason David Olney isn’t a big radio star is because of the people who are big radio stars. They think that musical acumen is quantifiable, and that fame and riches are rewards that should be based on their perception of greatness.
That perception is incredibly stupid.
In the first place, music is helpful to different people for different reasons. Some of my favorite times with music are when I am alone in a car, driving around and listening to the somber and searing folk songs of a doomed Texas troubadour named Townes Van Zandt. I love Townes, and Steve Earle once said that Townes was the greatest songwriter in America and that Steve would gladly stand up with his boots on Bob Dylan’s coffee table and proclaim that fact.
But, you want to clear a party? Put on an album of Townes Van Zandt’s called Live at the Old Quarter. You want to pump up a party? Put on some vapid celebration of carnal acquisitions. And you know who goes to parties? People go to parties. And if they go to a party and dance to a vapid celebration of carnal acquisitions, they’re likely to buy a copy of the vapid celebration in question, so they can remember that party when they’re on their way to their job in sales or marketing. Come February, the vapid celebration of carnal acquisitions will win a Grammy, and Townes Van Zandt will still be lying dead in the cold, hard ground.
I’ve never made a list of my ten favorite country, bluegrass, or Americana albums.
Perhaps I’ll make one here, in no particular order (and the list will change ten minutes from now, but still…
Emmylou Harris, Pieces of the Sky
Tom T. Hall, In Search of a Song
Charley Pride, Recorded Live at Panther Hall
Guy Clark, Old No. 1
John Hartford, Mark Twang
John Prine, John Prine
Townes Van Zandt, Live at the Old Quarter
Nanci Griffith, Last of the True Believers
Merle Haggard, Serving 190 Proof
Waylon Jennings, Dreaming My Dreams
Again, that list will change in a minute, and I’m already wondering what kind of idiot would leave George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Mickey Newbury off such a list. I’m giving myself a pass on Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Patsy Cline, and the Carter Family by saying that they existed before the album was really a thing, and it’s cheating to put Greatest Hits collections on this.
All that said, my point is that at one moment in time I legitimately listed the above ten albums as my favorite in this music. And that none of them won Grammy awards or were blockbuster commercial successes. None of the above musicians reaped remarkable fiscal rewards from efforts that I, after a half-lifetime of studying into country music, believe to be the best of the best.
So, don’t get mad about music, or treat music like it’s a football game where you cheer for the uniforms and live by the scoreboard.
Don’t be like I once was.
All that ended for me one night in Spartanburg, South Carolina, when David Olney was on my back porch.
It was the part of late at night that is actually early in the morning, and then it was the part of early in the morning that is closer to the crack of dawn. David and I were talking about life and music, and I was griping about whatever vapid celebration of carnal acquisitions was the feel good hit of that summer.
David said, “Do you ever read Shakespeare?”
I said, “Yeah.”
David said, “I’ve been re-reading Shakespeare, all summer. And… I suck. I suck.”
I was worried about what was on the radio.
David was considering the greatness of Shakespeare, and bemoaning that his own work wasn’t measuring up to the Bard.
Another time, David played an ill-attended concert.
I was there, among the ill-attendees.
The show was in a crappy bar, with a ballgame showing on the television. Patrons’ attentions were divided between the ballgame and the music, and there weren’t many patrons’ attentions to divide.
David played with intensity, even ferocity, for three hours.
I’ve seen him play maybe fifty times, and I’d put this show in the top five.
It was incredible.
After the concert (but before the ballgame was over), I said, “Dave, that was something special.”
He said, “Yeah, it was a good one.”
I said, “It must have been hard, what with the ballgame and the lack of people and the divided attentions and everything.”
He said, “I learned a long time ago, it’s twice as hard to do the songs wrong. I like to take it easy on myself.”
Yet another time, David played a moderately-attended concert.
I was there, among the moderate attendees.
The show took place in the early spring, when people were doing their taxes and such. Maybe some folks who would have come out to the show were stuck at home crunching numbers and filling out forms.
David played what I and other moderates thought of as a tremendous show.
And when it was over, he walked over to the table where he sold CDs and other merchandise, and accepted apologies.
This is a common thing for those of us who hold acoustic guitars and sing to dozens of people: When the show is over, the people who took the time and trouble to come, and paid money at the door, will apologize to you on behalf of the millions of people who did not take the time or trouble to come and pay money at the door.
Blows my mind.
“Dave, great show,” this guy said. “I’m sorry there weren’t more people here.”
“Well, word of my fame may not have spread to this part of the country,” David said.
“Yeah, but you’re great.”
“Well, I agree. I’m pretty good. But the thing is, not a lot of people like my shit.”
This stopped the guy in his tracks.
After a pause, Olney said, “But here’s the thing… I think there may be forty or fifty people in most decent towns that like my shit. And some of them are married or have people that are obligated to come along… And if forty people in a town like my shit and sixty people come out to my show, and some of them buy CDs… I can make a living at this.”
The guy nodded.
“And here’s the other thing,” David said. “Not a lot of people like my shit. 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 shit they like. I’ve got a monopoly on my shit.”
More nods, less comprehending.
“You know Britney Spears?” Dave asked.
The guy said he didn’t know her.
“But you know who she is, right?”
Yes, the guy knew who she was. She was a provocatively dressed pop star who lip-synched her songs while performing intricate dance moves that often involved writhing around poles.
“Well, when she fills out her tax forms… in the place where they ask you to list your occupation… she and I write the exact same thing.”