During the 30A Songwriters Festival in South Walton, Florida, the sounds of music — not ambulance sirens — usually fill the air, which is why the prolonged shrieks piercing the night sometime around 8:30 p.m. Saturday were particularly alarming. Within a few hours, it became clear what those sirens signaled: the departure of folk-community favorite son David Olney; the singer-songwriter passed away after suffering an apparent heart attack while performing at the festival. He was 71.
According to fellow singer-songwriters Amy Rigby and Scott Miller, who shared the Boathouse at WaterColor stage with him in a three-way song pull, Olney simply went silent while singing his third song, a cover of Jack Murray’s “Bluebonnet Girl.”
“He did a verse, he did the instrumental [part] and he just stopped, and he just said, ‘I’m sorry,’ and he put his head to his chest,” Miller explained. “He didn’t drop his guitar; he didn’t fall off his stool. It wasn’t anything dramatic or traumatic. It was as peaceful and as easy as any of us who do this would want to go.”
Rigby, who was sitting next to him, noted in a Facebook post, “He was very still, sitting upright with his guitar on, wearing the coolest hat and a beautiful rust suede jacket we laughed about because it was raining like hell outside the boathouse where we were playing.”
Miller, a former Eagle Scout, said he went over to Olney and could tell he wasn’t breathing, so he and his road manager laid him down and Miller began checking for vital signs. A doctor in the audience began chest compressions while Olney’s wife, Regine, looked on.
Russell Carter, who coproduces the festival and books all the artists, said EMTs apparently were able to restart his heart, but could not keep it beating. Olney had suffered from heart problems and had a previous heart attack, according to Russell, who had befriended the artist decades ago.
“David has been coming to the festival almost from the start,” Russell said. “I met him, I think it was 1988. He came to do some shows in Atlanta with a friend of mine and ended up sleeping on my couch for a couple of nights. He gave me his first record back then, and I’ve followed him ever since. He’s one of the more intellectual singer-songwriters. Very sophisticated. He’s a cut above.”
A Rhode Island native who moved to Nashville in the 1970s, Olney was revered by fellow songwriters, including the late Townes Van Zandt. Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Del McCoury are among the many artists who recorded his songs. Olney had released more than 20 albums during his solo career, which began in the mid-80s after his band, the X-Rays, broke up.
Praises began filling social media as word spread of his passing. Several fellow artists said they had been looking forward to seeing Olney at the Folk Alliance International conference, which begins Wednesday in New Orleans. He was scheduled to speak Thursday on the Wisdom of the Elders panel.
Refuting initial reports that Olney had collapsed onstage, Rigby said, “I just want the picture to be as graceful and dignified as it was, because it at first looked like he was just taking a moment. …
“It’s hard to post about this,” she added, “because I can’t really believe he’s gone. I am so sory for his wife and family and friends and all the people who loved him and his music. … We all lost someone important last night.”
Russell noted that Olney was lucky to be doing something he loved when he drew his last breaths.
Added Miller, “I just want everybody to know that it was … as beautiful as anybody needs to go. … And his work’s gonna last for a long damned time. That’s for sure.”