David Olney's hard folk road

David Olney

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 24, 2003) – Although he has enjoyed a steady career as a Nashville-based singer-songwriter for nearly 30 years, fame has eluded David Olney. But he’s just fine with that.

“There was a period about twenty or twenty-five years ago where I was sort of angry that I wasn’t famous or richer,” said Olney, 55, in a phone interview earlier this week from his home in Nashville.

“But it seems to me that it’s been a good thing that that didn’t happen. It still seems like whatever big is going to happen is still in front of me. I don’t have the feeling that I’ve peaked and the best years are behind me.”

In fact, time seems to be coming around to Olney’s way of seeing things. He continues to churn out critically-acclaimed albums like his most recent, “The Wheel” (Loudhouse). His rootsy, country- and folk-based songs have been recorded by the likes of Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. And he continues to make new fans by touring regularly and finding new venues to play.

“The mere fact that I still go out and play – anywhere, a big hall or a house concert -- the fact that I’m still doing it at all is still sort of thrilling for me,” said Olney, who shares a double-bill tomorrow [ Friday ]night with Denice Franke at Club Helsinki at 8:30.

A New England native, Olney spent his early years in Lincoln, R.I. He got his first guitar at age 13, and like so many of his generation, he was at first inspired by the revival of the music of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.

But wanderlust and the desire to escape the clutches of family led the young Olney to go south as soon as possible. He enrolled at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill right out of high school, never to return to live in the north.

“It’s been great for me,” said Olney about the transition from being a northerner to a southerner. “It was just liberating going to college in North Carolina. I was glad to be away from my family. Whatever was going to happen from that moment on was my decision, good or bad.

“Plus people just treated me very well. That, and all the differences you hear about -- the pace of life is slower in the south, people talk slower – I liked all that.”

His brief tenure in college fell victim to the lure of making music, and he soon wound up fronting a country-rock band, the X-Rays, and moving to Nashville.

“I’d put all my eggs in one basket,” said Olney about the leap of faith into music. “It wasn’t a matter of thinking I was talented enough, but just realizing that there just wasn’t anything else I was prepared to do.

“There was nothing frightening about it. It was kind of comforting, in fact. Later on it seemed like an advantage over others that very early on I knew what I wanted to do. There were no other temptations.

“After I moved to Nashville and got to know other writers, I felt like I could stand in the same room with them.”

After a few years with the X-Rays, Olney went solo, which has been his favored format since. He began recording for Cambridge’s Philo/Rounder label in the late 1970s, where he stayed through the ‘90s, polishing his reputation as a literary-minded songwriter who favored songs about real-life figures including John Barrymore, T.E. Lawrence, John Dillinger, Barrabas and Jesse James.

His 1999 album, “Through a Glass Darkly,” focused mostly on Depression-era America, and the follow-up, “Omar’s Blues,” imagined what would happen if 12th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam, the author of the “Rubaiyat,” was transplanted to 20th century Hollywood.

Olney’s latest, “The Wheel,” is his most philosophical album, an investigation of life’s cycles that evokes such archetypal figures as Prometheus and St. Catherine in gritty, roots-rock songs that would appeal to fans of Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen.

Olney says the underlying concept behind “The Wheel” occurred to him only when he was halfway through writing the songs that wound up on the album.

“In the process of recording I saw that the songs had these recurring images of circles, wheels and stars turning around,” he said. “I didn’t plan that out. It was just there.

“When you make a concept album from the beginning, you write a song that fits into the plot. You don’t really judge whether the song stands on its own; it just pushes the plot along. The concept of the wheel was so vague I didn’t have to worry about pushing things to make them fit in.”

Olney says the spiritual and religious musings of the songs on “The Wheel” are definitely the product of a middle-aged songwriter.

“I think when you’re young you perceive life moving in a linear way. And when you get older you’ve seen enough cycles of seasons, you see a life circle forming from beginning to end. With age you see these things as cycles rather than a line.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 24, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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