“Anytime anyone asks me who my favorite music writers are, I say Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bob Dylan, and Dave Olney. Dave Olney is one of the best songwriters I’ve ever heard — and that’s true. I mean that from my heart.” (Townes Van Zandt)
We should listen to Townes Van Zandt. David Olney is one of many songwriters which songs are more known than who wrote them. David Olney got this O´Henry quality in his writing, short stories of love, life and human nature, often with a surprising twist at the end – visual stories, you can close your eyes and see this little movie of images, poetic and truthful in a quiet and uplifting way. I´ll give you some examples.
It´s difficult to name a favorite, there is many to choose from. “Jerusalem Tomorrow” is of course one of them. Emmylou Harris made it her own in her beautiful version on the album “Cowgirl´s prayer”. But first – listen to David´s own great version, like it´s carved in stone.
Emmylou Harris is maybe the artist that most of all has shed light on Olney´s gifts and song. She also made a fantastic version of “Deeper Well” on one of her all time greatest albums, the modern sounding “Wrecking Ball”. Here a live version with Daniel Lanois and other musicians from the album.
David Olney´s own version is more folksy and mountain music inspired, it sounds like old as the same mountains. The song was the title song of an album released in 1989.
But let´s go back to where it all started. David Olney was born in Rhode Island the year of 1948. In the early seventies he relocated in Nashville, and quickly became a part of the underground folk/country scene in the city. His first recordings was as a member of Bland Simpsons band, the album “Simpson” in 1971.
He later joined the folk rock band “The X-Rays” and made a couple of albums with them, before he cut loose and started his life as a solo act from 1985.
His first solo album was “Eye Of The Storm”, released in 1986. The album was very comprehensive, even though the songs were drawn from many years of songwriting, at last finding their home.
The opening song was the beautiful “Saturday Night And Sunday Morning”, soon to be covered by Steve Earle.
The album consisted of several masterpieces, among them the beautiful “If It Wasn´t For The Wind”, a love song as good as anyone.
From the same album, “Titanic” is a masterly example of what should be the trademark of David Olney – the unexpected angle to tell a story from, where he sings the song from the iceberg´s perspective. Here in a live version that also shows Olney´s rock singing qualities.
The next album, as already mentioned, was “Deeper Well”, released in 1989. I´ve already mentioned two of the songs, “Jerusalem Tomorrow” and “Deeper Well”, but at least one more is worth mentioning, the tender and lovingly “If My Eyes Were Blind”. An instant classic. Once again, like it´s a hundred years old, still like blossoms in the springtime.
Steve Young´s magnificent cover of the song is very hard to beat.
In 1991 David made to new albums, “Top To Bottom” and “Roses”. Here the title song from the last one.
In 1992, “Border Crossing” was released in Holland – a great collection of songs, for sale only a short time. Later it has been re-released and it´s a beautiful place to start digging into Olney´s work. “Two Kinds Of Love” and “Blue Days, Black Nights” are two of them.
The album also made room for a song by Townes Van Zandt, “Rex´Blues”. A nice take on a classic song, very much in the spirit of Townes himself.
“Ache of Longing” was released in 1992, then he released his first live album in 1994, the intimate “Live in Holland”, with the heartbreakingly beautiful “What Would I Do Without Your Love”.
The next album was “High, Wide And Lonesome” (1995), maybe the best of them all, strong songs and strong performances. Sadly, the album is not available on streaming services, neither well represented on Youtube, except from the occasionally live versions. Still – you´ll get the feeling, like in this version of “Walk Downtown”.
The same year, Linda Ronstadt made a wonderful cover of Olney´s song “Women Across The River”. One of many cover versions that made Olney´s name slip into the conscience of a broader audience.
Then, in 1997, the album that made me become a really big David Olney fan, “Real Lies”. It´s a thrill and a joy, even if the themes are dark and gloomy. There is rock and ballads, there is country and folk, all in one. A great album! It´s a shame that not more of the songs are possible to find on the net. Then – buy the album!
Hm. I always tend to enjoy the dark and introspective songs and artists, David Olney is no exception. His next album is also very strong, and with new storytelling songs of the highest order. The album is “Through A Glass Darkly” from 1999. He digs back in time, to first world war in the opening song, the dark and deep “1917”. Sad and beautiful!
Once again Emmylou Harris brings the cover of an Olney song, this time accompanied by Linda Ronstadt. A brilliant cover version.
The string of great songs are long. “Avery County”, “Barabbas” and “Dillinger” are some of them.
And the great albums continues, David really can´t stop making great songs, it seems. In 2000 he releases another gem, “Omar´s Blues”. On his homepage he presents it this way:
“Inspired by The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, written in the Middle Ages, Omar’s Blues is a trilogy of song cycles set in biblical times, New England in the 1950s, Paris, the Mississippi Delta and Old Hollywood.”
That´s quite a span. Omar Khayyam was a persian poet and mathematician, living from 1038 to 1141, making a thousand poems, some of them translated by the english poet Edward FitzGerald, who in 1859 started his impressive and meticulous work of giving a foreign poet and a foreign culture a language into our time, language and culture. David Olney continues his work on his album “Omar´s Blues”, and combines it with inspiration from the bible, as in the funny and thoughtful David-and-Goliath-ballad “If I´d Have Known I Couldn´t Do It”.
In 2003, Olney´s work continues, this time with “The Wheel”. It´s a suite of songs, a circle and a cycle about life and death, war and piece, love and hate, spanning several techniques and genres.
“Voices On The Water” is a gospel song, reminding us of songs from earlier times, and Olney shows us that he is like a fish in the water when it comes to both american history and all kinds of american songbooks, as easily using all parts of it into his own unique mosaic of songs of the wheels of life.
In “Revolution” Olney in strong poetic words from the war rhetoric speaks of the human struggle in all meanings of the word.
“Autumn raised her dying head
And to her frightened troops she said
Don’t mourn for me, save your strength for winter.
And if by chance you should survive
And if by spring you’re still alive
Remember me, remember how we struggled.”
“The Girl I Love” – as in all of David Olney´s work, the love slips through the cracks in the darkness, and the sun shines in the poet´s blue and warm words of passion and tender care.
The next studio album was released in 2005, called “Migration”. Long-time fan and admirer of Olney´s works, speaks of it in this way:
“David tells marvelous stories, with characters who cling to the hope of enduring love…saints and charlatans, gypsies and thieves, the ordinary and extraordinary. Here even the birds raising their voices in song reach for something unattainable, but David knows that the reaching is everything.” – Emmylou Harris
What´s interesting about Emmylous contribution is that “Migration” has been compared to Bob Dylan´s “Desire”, both because of the “feel” of the album, the gypsy violin, the co-writers. The nice twist on top of that is of course Emmylou´s important stamp on “Desire”, singing back-up vocal to Dylan on most of the songs.
The next album, “One Tough Town”, arrived in 2007, with a new bunch of great songs, as “Sweet Posion” and
No task is to big for David. Here is Christ speaking.
Earlier he had provided the song “30 Coins Of Gold”. The whole spectrum is covered in Olney´s songs.
“Dutchman´s Curve”, released in 2010, with both new and old songs, is another wide ranging compilation both in themes and genres, from the beautiful ballad “If I Were You” to the doowop touching Piaf´s life, “Little Sparrow”, and to the great country closer, “The Moment I Tell You Goodbye”.
Included was also the perfect story about the painter, Johannes Vermeer, and the girl with the pearl earring.
Whaaaat??? David Olney making a great version of Nancy Sinatra´s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin´”?? You´re kidding!! But no – that´s what he did in 2011, and with a great video, too!
“Predicting The Past” from 2013 is both a new album and a cd 2 with a compilation of earlier songs. The album is introduced earlier in this blog, because many of his greatest songs are included, while the original albums is not. The new album is a new fine collection of songs in different styles.
I especially like “Smoke on ice” and the great and joyful “Girl Upon A Hill”, a wonderful tribute to the rock´n roll of Fats Domino.
In 2014 Olney releases “When The Deal Goes Down”, and he seems unstoppable in producing new cool great albums. He even gives “Why So Blue?” the jazz treatment, like he never did anything else.
It ends with the old man´s blues “Big Blue Hole” and in a Tom Waits kind of environment with the blue “Sad, Sad, Saturday Night”.
Even this year, David is still spitting out a great album, titled “Don´t Try To Fight It”. The title song is co-written with Kieran Kane and got a rocky feel, even in the acoustic live treatment you can see here.
Even more so, “Sweet Sugaree”.
The album opener is close to John Hiatt, both in tone and feeling. “If They Ever Let Me Out”. David sounds young and fit for fight with a tough rock statement.
But – don´t despair, David can still thrill you with the most beautiful of ballads, like “Innocent Heart”, with a slightly texmex feel.
David Olney is one of a kind and worth a lifelong study just listening to his music. He covers every square of human life, both in temper, passion and poetry. It´s pure joy to see him dance in this last video, still dancing after all these years and after all these blues. That gives hope to us all.
David Olney isn´t perfect – not one of the greatest artists are. There are flaws and minor songs along the way, but I still haven´t listened to one of his albums that doesn´t give me the feeling of being in company of one of the greatest, both as a storyteller, as a poet and a human being.
Never the less, it isn´t easy to make an introduction to a work of this complexity. But this is just meant to give you an aperitif, after all – the real digging you have to do yourself. You wont be disappointed.
And – what the heck – If I´d had known I couldn´t do it, you know I never ever would have even begun – but now it´s too late, it´s done!