Songwriters often toil in obscurity, relegated to the fine print on CD covers, or sharing their creations with a handful of listeners and fans in writer rounds, hoping to sell a few CDs.
But every once in a while, one of them breaks through, earning accolades from artists and writers much higher up the pecking order. David Olney was one of those guys, “a songwriter’s songwriter,” according to Rounder Records co-founder Ken Irwin.
Olney, whose songs were recorded by stars in bluegrass and Americana as well as on 20-some of his solo recordings, died Saturday night in Santa Rosa Beach, FL, while playing a writer round at the 30A Songwriters Festival. There was no big scene, recalls another songwriter in that round, Amy Rigby. In the middle of his third song, she said in a widely shared social media post, “he stopped, apologized and shut his eyes… It at first looked like he was just taking a moment.” Instead, he was taking leave of this world.
Olney, 71, made a big splash in bluegrass after moving from Rhode Island to Nashville in 1973 – with songs recorded by Del McCoury, James King, and Tom Rosum, among others – and in Americana, with a list of artists that included Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. Along the way, he picked up a devoted following among songwriters and artists of much bigger fame, including Steve Earle, Guy Clark, and Townes VanZandt.
Earle once called him “one of the best songwriters working in the world today.” He won’t get an argument from me. Writers down the ladder from him were also fans. During an awards show sponsored by the Songwriters’ Association of Washington (DC) last night, several writers honored him from the stage, and many more talked about him in reverent tones at the after-party.
Many of Olney’s songs were mini-text books in the craft, with an underlying lesson about the importance of perspective and the need to take chances. He practiced what he preached, writing a song about the Titanic from the point of view of the iceberg. He also wrote about Jesus, from the point of view of the donkey he rode on.
Bluegrasser Irene Kelley had the good fortune to write with Olney after their mutual manager, Mary Sack, put them together in a writer round at Tin Pan South sometime in the late 1990s. Two songs that Olney and Kelley wrote with John Hadley, Things We Never Did and Garden of Dreams, appeared on Kelley’s accolade winning CD, Pennsylvania Coal.
“Those writing sessions were intense and extremely productive,” Kelley recalled after Olney’s death. “We created a body of work that we were all proud of.”
Kelley also noted, “David’s brilliant lyrical contributions always stunned me, and I can say just as much for his sharp wit and ability to tell a story. It was incredible to be in a room with him. He was beyond smart. He was brilliant, humble, kind, and a first-class gentleman in every sense of the word – and his commanding stage presence could stop anyone in their tracks and make them take note. We have lost a truly great American poet.”
Olney’s family is working on a memorial service that will no doubt attract headliners from bluegrass and beyond. Maybe one of them will take a page from David Olney’s notebook and write a song from the point of view of his guitar.
RIP, David Olney. Thanks for the lessons in living and writing. Now we can add, thanks, too, for teaching us a bit about how to die.