Early in his career, the late Townes Van Zandt was tagged as a "songwriter's songwriter." As best as can be reckoned, this glib and overused morsel of critic-speak translates as "too damn good to have a hit record." Still, Van Zandt was quite an artist. If anyone knew tunesmithery, it was Van Zandt. So when the native Texan named David Olney one of his favorite composers -- right next to Lightnin' Hopkins, Bob Dylan and Mozart -- he placed a larger burden on Olney than any critic could ever dream up. Yet Olney has been holding up more than well.
Even though Olney has a reasonably strong following stateside and overseas, and even though his tunes have been covered by Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, he remains one of the best-kept secrets in all of American music. His enigmatic sound might be to blame. In trying to draw comparisons to Olney's music, as critics are disastrously wont to do, there exists the compulsion to range far afield. Little good can come to a songwriter who is mentioned in the same breath as Mozart, even if it is by a friend. But the lofty associations don't stop there: Critics have compared Olney to William Faulkner, and National Public Radio drew a parallel between the songwriter and Vincent Van Gogh.
"The Faulkner and Van Gogh stuff makes me real uncomfortable," says Olney. "Those were just critics being lazy .[But when] Townes said that, I made light of it at first, but when someone you admire says something like that about you, it feels really good."
Perhaps one reason Olney remains unnoticed by record buyers is that he has long shunned the doomed romantic poet persona that many younger fans think geniuses should wallow in; not that Olney really has a past that compares to the drug binges and busts of Steve Earle folklore or the benders and blown gigs of Van Zandt's legend. Olney too did his turn, but his self-described "goat dance" was many years ago, and much milder. He's also one of those guys who believes songwriters don't necessarily have to live all their songs. "Imagination is just as important," he says. "You're supposed to make stuff up. If you try to live it all, you may get some pretty good songs at first, but pretty soon the body starts to break down and the mind starts to go. If you fall asleep and you dream about flying spiders, and then you write about 'em, you don't have to experience those flying spiders in real life."
Another reason his fame has yet to match his art is that, simply put, fame isn't an aspiration. He doesn't jockey, won't hustle and doesn't play the game. In fact, he's almost adverse to himself. On stage he is known to introduce songs by saying things like, "This song is long. I don't play it well, and it's not particularly interesting." Says Olney: "I've always said there are, like, five interesting people on the planet, and none of them are in the music business. One of 'em is probably the plumber down the street, but they definitely aren't famous."
The Rhode Island-born Olney came south to go to college in the early '70s, living first in North Carolina, then for the last 25 years in Nashville. While Olney has been branded a folkie, it's only for lack of a better label. On record, Olney's noirish, three-minute dramas and gruff voice are set against an ever-changing backdrop of traditional American styles. There's ample evidence of a man who has spent many a night by the turntable or CD player, digging through the vaults of American music history, be it the obvious and Southern (Van Zandt, Robert Johnson) or the obscure and exotic (the klezmer echoes on "Jerusalem Tomorrow"). An occasional boozy Dixieland number is sneaked in, yet most of Olney's material seems directly related to the music of Appalachia, whether bluegrass or old-time, and modern variants of country. Olney's songs also have a certain Yankee bluntness, but he ingeniously avoids coming across as a hectoring jerk by assuming the personae of those he excoriates.
As demonstrated on numbers like "Millionaire" and "My Family Owns This Town," Olney is a master of the literary axiom "Show, don't tell." He revels in his ruthless, sociopathic creations as convincingly as a Royal Shakespearean actor in Richard III. Like, say, Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's Wall Street, Olney's characters are all-American psychos, pillar-of-the-community types possessed of a surplus of national virtues such as thrift and ambition. As Olney explains: "With 'Millionaire,' I was getting at the fact that everyone in America hates millionaires, but then everybody goes out and buys a lottery ticket."
The evildoers in Olney's songs largely go unpunished. Theirs are horrid, nasty lives without the just consequences that the mainstream film industry insists on giving us. Though Olney says he approaches these songs like movies, replete with love-to-hate villains, he trashes the golden Hollywood rule that says "send the folks home happy." Reality bites.
For far too many mediocre songwriters, Music City has been a happy hunting ground of hokey hits, a veritable paradise of vapidity. Substance is sacrificed on the altar of The Cute Hook. All of humankind's baser impulses and loftier ambitions are reduced to a gooey, molasses-sweet concoction that Nashville peddles as love. While Olney loathes the hit-factory treacle, he does credit Nashville with bringing craft to his art. "If I had gone to L.A. or New York," he once said, "I think I would have wrote songs that were eight minutes long and really obscure and dull .Living in Nashville, [getting] that part of the craftsmanship in Nashville, made me stay at least partly inside the lines."
While his forms may stay inside the lines, the content of his songs decidedly does not. Who but Olney would write about the Titanic from the iceberg's point of view? What Nashville hack would attempt to base an album on The Rubaiyat? Who else in the buckle of the Bible Belt would dare cast himself as Judas Iscariot? Only Olney and Olney alone, it seems.
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