An up-and-coming performing artist may talk about how committed he or she is to handling the rigors of the musician’s life, to endless days of driving, to playing to empty rooms, to working even when sick and/or tired or just sick and tired of being sick and tired. But if they want to know how the life really works, they need to talk to David Olney.
The Rhode Island native pulled into Nashville in 1973 with professional songwriting dreams, and has since spent the past four decades or so on the road, sometimes alone, sometimes with varying numbers of accompanists. The advent of the term “Americana” gave the genre-bending Olney a place to call home, though he probably wasn’t looking for one. Record deals have come and gone and publishing deals haven’t panned out. At 69, he has no plans of slowing down, still playing about 100 nights a year all over the world.
“One of the things about playing music is that I like my job,” Olney says, doffing his trademark fedora and proceeding to stir cream into an iced coffee at the Family Wash, an East Nashville restaurant and live music venue. “It’s not all that common. Maybe one person out of 10 can say that. Like my parents’ generation, my dad tolerated his job because he was raising a family. You could put up with just about anything for eight hours for the sake of that. But that wasn’t the way I was. Music, when I saw how it could make you feel, there wasn’t any going over to the other side.”
Olney’s latest album, Don’t Try To Fight It, was recorded in Toronto, Canada with producer Brock Zeman. “Brock produced a record on this guy Tom House,” Olney says, “an artist who is pretty outside, but really, really good. Tom is such an eccentric performer to capture in a studio, but I thought Brock did a great job of it. I asked Brock if maybe he would be interested in doing with me what he had done with Tom. The main thing was that I had to really commit to letting Brock do things his way. So I went up to his place in Canada for about a week, and he got his buddies to play. Now, I don’t want to make generalizations about whole nations of people, but Canadians work really hard. These guys just would not let it go. I’d sing it any number of ways and they wanted to try this and try that, and I really appreciated that. In Nashville there’s such a level of recording skill that people want to get it in one or two takes, which is also great and usually works. Look at Blonde On Blonde and records like that. But Brock’s way is to just try everything.”
Mentioning Dylan’s iconic 1966 double-album is just one reference Olney makes to the musical past. He’s a student of music history, talking about artists whose genres have little, if anything, in common with his own Americana-rock-country output. The name of Las Vegas entertainer Louis Prima comes up in conversation just as easily as the names of legendary 1920s jazz trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. “Louis Armstrong saw the trumpet as his way out of poverty,” Olney wryly observes, “and Bix Beiderbecke saw the trumpet as his way into poverty.”
More names show up, like those of Nashville-based writer/artists who influenced and changed the direction of Olney’s own life during his early days in Music City. Names of people who are no longer with us, like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. Like Rodney Crowell, who name-checks Olney in the song “Nashville 1972” from his latest CD, Close Ties. Like Emmylou Harris, who recorded several of Olney’s songs, including “Deeper Well,” a track from her groundbreaking Wrecking Ball album.
While he chuckles at the notion that he’s the same age as a Rolling Stone, Olney hasn’t had the success to afford things like a jet and a private chef to make life easier and help maintain good health. “One thing I did was that I quit smoking 12 years ago,” he says. “Before, I would sing for four days and then I would just be hoarse. Now, I can get up there and bellow night after night. That was a big deal. And actually, if I don’t do this — if I don’t play music — then I really get unhealthy.”
Olney happily spends time talking to his audience both from the stage and offstage after live shows, but claims that wasn’t always the case. “When I first came to Nashville I would just play the songs, I wouldn’t even talk, I just played one song after another,” he says. “I didn’t want people to judge me on whether I’m a good guy or not; it’s about the song. Not that it didn’t work, but I don’t think it was much fun for anybody. I figured out that when you’re charging people you’re supposed to be entertaining, you aren’t just there to impress them with what a sensitive fellow you are.”