"Anytime anyone asks me who my favorite music writers are, I say Mozart, Lightnin' Hopkins, Bob Dylan and Dave Olney."
— Townes Van Zandt
Around Nashville, compliments don't come much higher than that. Despite such high praise, Olney, who's clocked 30-plus years in the music business, isn't a household name. Not that he seems to care much.
With 20 albums and innumerable chaotic European tours with legends like the late Van Zandt on his résumé, Olney seems satisfied with what he is: an esteemed member of the Nashville underground. Ask him if he knows some record executive, and he just laughs.
"Nah, I don't know anybody in the business anymore," he says.
"Actually, I find the whole scene of people who are hardly known much more interesting than all of the big names and highfliers around town," he adds, reeling off a list of names that includes Tom House, Gwil Owen, Richard Ferreira, Kevin Gordon, Mark Germino and Tommy Womack.
"There's so much talent under the surface in Nashville," he says. "If you're plugged into that scene, there's a lot of cool and intelligent stuff going on."
Olney also has a strong affinity for Texas.
"The Texas scene is so thriving, and there's such a respect for writers and musicians," he says. "It's one of the few states where musicians are almost on a par with professional athletes. That really says something special about the place."
A Rhode Island native, Olney migrated to Nashville in 1973 after quitting the University of North Carolina. In Chapel Hill, he had been playing in a band called Simpson, fronted by Bland Simpson, who has since gone on to become a noted novelist, playwright and pianist for the Red Clay Ramblers.
More a rocker in his early Music City days ("One of the first licks I learned on guitar was Ray Charles's 'What'd I Say'"), Olney and his band the X-Rays were a vital element in Nashville's burgeoning alternative scene. By 1978, the X-Rays were one of the hottest tickets in town, sharing an Austin City Limits bill with Elvis Costello. Before dissolving, the band recorded one album, Contender, for Rounder Records; it's still considered one of the finest early examples of what would become known as alternative country.
After the X-Rays, Olney signed to the Rounder-Philo label as a solo act and released a string of six salty records that brought his stellar songwriting to the fore. Steve Earle, Lonnie Brooks, Del McCoury, Steve Young and Johnny Cash have all recorded Olney's songs, but it's female artists like Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt — Ronstadt recorded "Women 'Cross the River" on 1995's Feels Like Home, and placed Olney's poignant "1917" on her 1999 duets album with Harris, Western Wall — who cause Olney to get truly animated.
"It sounds a bit self-defeating, but I'm not so sure this glorification of the singer-songwriter we have today is all that good a thing," he says. "For me, the golden age of music was the 1930s and '40s, when the line was clearly drawn between the song and the singer. The best singers recorded the best songs, and as artists they were always sifting, sifting, looking for songs that worked for them, looking for the right vehicles for their voices.
"I have to give women like Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris credit for continuing to do that," Olney continues. "Over the years it's been my experience that women are more adventurous that way, doing other people's songs and making them their own. They spend more time looking for just the right lyric for their purpose or the mood they're trying to create."
One aspect of Olney's songwriting that draws artists like Ronstadt, Harris, Cash and Earle is his unlikely characters and subjects. Known as one of Nashville's most literate songwriters, Olney adds a thespian element to his live performances, and he writes from any number of unusual points of view. Narrators in his songs include hookers, baseball players, Persian poet Omar Khayyam, gangster John Dillinger, actor John Barrymore, Christ's companion in crucifixion Barabbas and Jesse James.
Olney has even sung from the point of view of a caterpillar and of the iceberg that sank the Titanic. On his latest critically acclaimed album, last year's One Tough Town (Red Parlor), he inhabits the consciousness of a surly ventriloquist's puppet who berates his partner on the sinisterly tragicomic "Who's the Dummy Now?"
"If I hadn't been a musician, I probably would've turned toward acting," he says. "Acting is a huge part of what we do because it's such a crucial facet of getting an audience involved. As I've gone along in this business, I've learned to concentrate more on the audience and their reactions. And, of course, that's exactly what actors do."
For One Tough Town, Olney was very conscious of wanting a change.
"You go through periods, and I was going through one, feeling like I wanted the next album to have a new direction, but I had no idea what it was," he says. "I just knew I wanted to change things up, record with new people, go for a different sound."
In one of those freak Nashville accidents, Olney approached Nashville vet Jack Irwin, who owned a studio close to Olney's, to record some demos of the songs.
"I really only knew him from conversations at a local coffee shop, but we did a couple of loose sessions at his place and it clicked," Olney says. "We came up with a sound that straddled jazzy New Orleans blues on one end and rockabilly on the other."
Olney was also changing up his live show, and his other secret weapon at the sessions for One Tough Town was guitarist Sergio Webb.
"No matter what you do as a solo performer, it's hard to do a show by yourself where the dynamic of the thing doesn't become somewhat static," he says. "Sergio coming in was a huge factor in upping my game."
While both instrumentalists are electrifying, Olney credits Webb with widening the possibilities of both the live shows and recording.
"Having Sergio has made me rethink a lot of what I was doing. It's not a competition, but he's given me a chance to do more interesting guitar work myself," Olney says. "Sometimes we'll have five or six instruments onstage, and that kind of flexibility brings a much wider scope and sound to the stage. Bringing Sergio in really upped the bar."
With his dark fedora and lived-in face, Olney hardly seems like a techie, but he credits Web sites like MySpace and YouTube with giving independent artists meaningful and inexpensive contact with a wider audience. He's even posted a theatrical recitation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" online.
"I'm really encouraged and have gotten into the whole YouTube thing," Olney says. "These quick and dirty little videos people are shooting are much more intriguing than those super-slick, half-million-dollar shoots on the big cable television shows. It's like finding a beautiful rose sprouting right through a crack in a concrete sidewalk."
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