David Olney: Literate, Rabble-Rousing Troubadour

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It’s been nearly three decades since David Olney signed with Rounder as a solo artist. The gifted singer-songwriter has written hundreds of songs in that time and released 22 albums. Five of those are live, and several of those are in-concert performances in Holland, where he has a dedicated fan base.

Olney’s oeuvre includes everything from lovely folk songs to jazzy jaunts to bluesy belters; from rockabilly to doo wop to edgy rock, all delivered with his affecting baritone, which can recite poetry or sing lyrics, whisper, moan, howl, growl or even scream should the occasion call for it, all with equal facility. Whatever the style, Olney’s songs are always thoughtful musical tales that plumb emotional depths and probe the tender spots. He’s often delved into the darkest of places, and his delivery can be as forceful and menacing as a loaded gun. He isn’t afraid to shake you up. But he sings just enough of love, sweet potatoes, Dizzy Dean and the like to lighten the load, and can be downright playful at times. His lyrics are often inspired by historical or literary figures and sometime sung from their perspective. To top it all off, he usually performs wearing his trademark fedora, which, let’s admit it, makes any song performed live sound better, don’t you think?

The late, great Townes Van Zandt named Olney one of his four favorite songwriters of all time. Many other Americana artists seem to agree with Van Zandt’s assessment. Olney’s songs have been recorded by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Linda Ronstadt, Del McCoury, Tim O’Brien and others. Olney’s newest release, Dutchman’s Curve (Deadbeet Records), was released this May. It’s another fine collection of story songs from the Nashville veteran.

Dutchman’s Curve has gentler sound than 2007’s One Tough Town, though it also offers up a couple of growlers. Did you have some special objective in mind for this recording?

No, not really. I’ve been going into the studio periodically and putting songs down and those were the songs that seemed to me to sound good. I listened to hear what sort of common thread there was and noticed there were a couple of songs that had to do with trains. There is the kind of pathway I walk in Nashville that goes by this historical marker about this train wreck that occurred there in 1918. It’s close to where I live and record and the spot is called Dutchman’s Curve. I’ve been playing in Holland over the years and have built up a following so this was also a way to give a tip of the hat to Holland.

Which also no doubt helps explain “Mister Vermeer,” a song that is essentially a contemplation of the Dutch artist’s famous painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring.

I know about the painting from being in Holland as much as I have. It’s in the Mauritshuis in The Hague and I went down to see it and really looked it over good. The woman who books me lives in The Hague and I went back to her place and she had a refrigerator magnet of Girl with a Pearl Earring so I just put it down on a table with a notepad and got my guitar and just sort of stared at it and tried to make some sense of it. But that song came pretty much out of just staring at the picture.

You have several ’50s kind of doo-wop songs on this recording.

“I Only Have Eyes For You” was just kind of a special project. I was just sort of challenging myself to see if I could do that vocal. And I always liked the doo-wop period songs, so I wanted to get that in. “Little Sparrow” has that kind of “Don’t be Cruel” feel to it with a Jordanaires sort of background vocal.

“Little Sparrow” was inspired by 20th century French singer Edith Piaff – correct? That was a nickname for her.

Yeah, I went and saw the movie about her, La Vie En Rose, and thought it was great. I wanted to write something that had to do with that, for which that would be the stepping-off point.

So, how does an acclaimed French cabaret singer’s life become a doo wop kind of thing?

Musically, that song – I had a recording of Ray Price doing “Crazy Arms” and one of the channels on my stereo was out. So, what I was hearing mostly was the sort of walking bass line and the drums, the rhythm section. It sounded great! It had a spooky quality to it. I got together with John Hadley, this guy I write with, and that’s what we were going for musically on “Little Sparrow.”

And a number of the songs are reminiscent of your earlier folk music – not that you’ve ever really gotten away from that.

Yeah, that’s always at the core of what I do. When I was growing up, there was a sort of a folk music movement. That’s sort of how I got in the game. With folk music, you could just be one person playing so it made it easier. So that’s the kind of music I started out doing but always in the background was this great pop music and rock and roll. Rock and roll was sort of the background music to the events in my life.

Thinking back to your early days, was there a particular recording that you think really marked a point of passage for you, where you felt like you moved to another level?

Deeper Well. That was about 1988, ’89. It was very simply done. Me and Tommy Goldsmith and Joe Fleming at Joe’s studio. It worked out well. Emmylou Harris picked up on that album and recorded a couple of songs, and sent another one out to Linda Ronstadt and she recorded “Women Across the River.” It was just a convergence of the right songs and being lucky and Emmylou getting into it. But even without her doing those songs I think it was just a very solid work that caught what I was doing.

Does songwriting come easy to you? I mean, I can’t imagine it’s that easy but you have written so many songs…

When I first started writing, my goal was to write songs that sounded like the 1800s or something, or the 1920s. That’s what I was playing and I wanted to write songs that fit into that kind of old folk song category. Then, when I got my legs under me a little bit, I tried to get more of what was going on inside me. The whole process is to get songs that are clearly your songs — David Olney songs. The difficult part was that there wasn’t a whole lot of payback on it. Using all the usual measuring sticks I wasn’t doing all that good. But you kind of toughen up and you get to where you measure how you’re doing by internal measuring sticks. But I could never just throw off a song the way some folks can. I always knew, though, there was another song inside me and I just had to dig it out somehow.

Nashville was a difficult place to work when you were doing what I was doing. All the booking agents were in other places. The booking agents in Nashville were all working with the big country acts, which I definitely wasn’t – still am not and don’t wanna be. For years and years, it was very difficult to get work. Then I bumped into a woman, Harriet Kyriakos, from Pennsylvania. She had been working with a musician named Walter Hyatt. He died in a plane crash and I met her when she was down here for his funeral in 1996. We stayed in touch and she started booking me. That got me out there and that got the ball rolling. She got me into the Philly Folk Festival and venues in the Northeast and that really got things going for me. Harriet has since retired but whatever success I’m having now has come directly from her, I think.

Then, about six years ago I started writing with John Hadley. That worked out beautifully for me because I was writing songs that I figured I was going to record. That was sort of the understanding. So, I would go in with the start of a song, maybe a verse or a chorus or something like that, and get together with John and we could nail down the rest of the song. That way, I could lean on someone to get the song out but at the same time I always felt that it sounded like my songs. I don’t want that to sound the wrong way though, because John’s contributions have always been so huge. Writing with him made life a whole lot easier for me.

Another great collaboration has been you and Sergio Webb. How about working with Sergio on guitar?

Oh man, it’s like night and day! I’ll always believe it’s possible for one person to get up there and…that’s what I was listening to when I first started singing was just one folk singer getting up on stage and weaving all these worlds coming out of his imagination. And as far as presenting the songs, there wasn’t a whole lot of leaping around and smoke bombs going off. It was just one person standing there delivering and it put the emphasis on the song. The song had to be very solid because the performance would be very low key.

But for all that, getting up there and playing with Sergio adds all these other dimensions. It’s not the same sound every song –- my voice and my guitar playing. It adds all these new things to it. It really has made a huge difference. Plus, the way I’m going to get across to people is gonna be at the performance, it’s not gonna be from a lot of radio play. The way people are gonna be introduced to me is at the performance, and having Sergio there really makes that a much more powerful presentation.

How many days do you perform live now?

I’d say it’s over 100, which is plenty but I can still have family and everything. It’s usually going out on a Thursday, playing through the weekend and coming back home by Monday. And then there are some longer tours. We’ll be going out to California at some point.

Do you play in Europe anywhere other than Holland?

We go to Europe occasionally. I’ve been to Germany, England, Scotland, some of the Scandinavian countries. But mostly it’s centered around Holland.

Is that very different? Are the people who come to see you there much different than here in the States?

Yeah, I think it’s kind of a filtering system. There are so many singers and songwriters here that it gets pretty crowded. Going over to Europe kind of knocks out a whole lot of them. For me, it kind of let me know that what I was writing was translatable into other cultures.

I see you now on YouTube, and performing from home or wherever on Ustream. You have truly embraced online video performance.

The Ustream show was something my manager badgered me into doing. I didn’t want to at first but now that I’ve gotten into it, it’s a very nice experience. And YouTube, and all this kind of thing, allows stuff to be presented that isn’t overly polished. That’s kind of the charm of it. It’s really fun to see those things. You can go out and show people what you look like and present what you do basically for free. It’s been a real helpful thing to me.

I realize you just put out a new recording, and you’re playing it live at various venues, but looking a little down the line, is there anything you can talk about regarding future plans?

You know, people don’t really listen to entire CDs at one shot anymore. They’re getting a couple of songs off of iTunes or whatever, so I think probably I’m going to experiment with putting out three- or four-song compilations that’ll be around a theme. That kind of intrigues me, so that’s what I’m looking forward to doing.

Anything else you’d just like to say?

No, I think I’m pretty much wrung out. Thank you.

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