Editors note: David Olney is a master songwriter, raconteur and all-around stand-up guy. His work has been covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Nanci Griffith, among others. To see him live or hear him recorded is a real treat - by turns melodic and heartbreaking, passionate and world-weary, jocular and deeply profound. Never one to take himself too seriously, Olney is possessing of an abundance of sardonic humor. Who else could write a song about the Titanic disaster, written from the viewpoint of the iceberg? If you haven't yet encountered this artist I envy you the pleasure of new discovery. His web site is davidolney.com
I’ve got this memory: It’s June twenty-something, 1973, Nashville Music Row… Tree Music, do you recall cooling your heels there?
It seems like you and me were getting thrown out—not thrown out, but not asked to stay.
I went to about six of those places that day. And they said it all sounded too folky. At that time I fingerpicked everything, and I remember going back and re-learning all those songs I had at the time, flatpicking them, thinking that was going to solve the problem.
You came to live in Nashville full-time just a few months after. It’s been a lot of time, a lot of history; lot of songs, lot of gigs; records, CDs. In a way our history; it’s not a history a lot of people know about… laboring in the penumbra of bigger stars and larger events. Does that ever bother you?
It’s kind of like postmodern stuff. There’s the history of the world, where like Napoleon is a big deal, or Julius Caesar. Then there’s the history of the world according to left-handed dwarfs. And if you’re a left-handed dwarf, that’s the real one… you know, and I think it’s turning out now that what we were doing, working on the margin of the page, was actually much more interesting than what was going on in the center.
The other thing I remember—this probably happened with you too—it was this mental thing I had to do. To say, well I’m not being the star. I’m still on the team in Nashville…doing these mental gymnastics to justify the fact that I had nothing going on. Just playing Bishop’s American Pub every night was a big deal. You had to gear yourself up to do that. But I remember thinking that artistically, being on the outside and looking in was probably the best place to be; whereas, once you get in on the inside, then it’s probably not really all that interesting. But then at some point I was thinking that people that were considered outlaws—Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle—they were outsiders, but they were on the inside of something. This was something of a frightening concept to me, that I was on the outside of the outside.
I came back to Nashville the second time in the early eighties and you had a rocking good band called the X-Rays, and you had a record out called The Contender. That was a great song told from the point of view of a prize fighter. Another of my favorites from that collection is called ‘The Will to Survive.’ Do you still think of yourself as a contender? And if so, what are you contending for? What’s the prize?
To me it’s just staying in the game. When the X-Rays came about I thought it was just going to be a country band. It was funny, because with the original guys, I didn’t have a chance to sit in a room with all of them and rehearse. So I’d go to each one of their houses and they’d learn the songs. But until we got together they’d never played with each other. There was a guy named John Sails from Texas, a fiddle player.
I remember him.
And the first gig, everyone is jumping up and down on stage, and it’s clear that it’s a rock and roll band. So he quit immediately…but you didn’t know what it was going to sound like until you got up and did it. I did that I guess for about six or seven years. In 1980 we started doing ‘The Contender’ and it became kind of a signature song. That and ‘Will to Survive.’ I just got tired of doing them… we did them constantly. There’s only so many times you can play a song. But Contender, the thing that's cool to me about that, it was sort of a long story; it had a form, but the form kind of gets elastic and things stretch out. Craft-wise it was a stretch for me. But I have no urge to do it anymore.
Emmylou recorded at least one of your songs, ‘Jerusalem Tomorrow.’ And she also wrote the liner notes to Migration. Is that still your latest CD, or do you have a new one out now?
I’ve got a new one, just out. It’s called One Tough Town…The Emmylou thing, she did on Cowgirl’s Prayer. She did Jerusalem Tomorrow which she got from Kiran Kane; he was pitching some songs to her and just stuck that on there, and she liked it. It always was ironic to me that one of the most beautiful voices in country music—or pop music—and I got her to talk through a whole song.
One of the things Emmylou said— I’m not sure where I picked this up but I know she was referring to the music business—one of the things she said was “…this isn’t a horse race.” And I thought she’s right, because at least in my own mind I’ve always thought I was competing against my own laziness, and my own shortcomings. I wasn’t really competing with anybody else.
That was one of those mental things I would have to do… like, who am I competing with? It’s funny the whole scene back then. It probably still is…it definitely was survival of the fittest, so it had to be competition. But it wasn’t with the other people who were doing it. In the end it’s competition with people running the business. Or maybe it’s your own view of the world or something… I didn’t feel like I got good at writing songs until I had jettisoned any pretensions that I was going to be a big star. I thought I’m probably not going to make a lot of money doing this; and the ways you measure successful, I’m not going to be successful. You have to rearrange how you look at stuff. And being successful is not how much money the song makes, but whether the song is good.
Whether it works… I’ve been playing your CDs the last week or so. There’s some beautiful and memorable songs… some of my favorites, just off the top of my head: ‘Illegal Cargo, ‘Sister Angelina,’ ‘Lonesome Waltz of the Wind.’ And another that popped up later, ‘Lenora,’ the one about the wild geese, I almost can’t stand to listen to that, I start weeping every time… I wanted to ask, do you have to push yourself when you write? I remember somewhere you compared songwriting to paleontology—it’s really careful work, like lifting a fossil out of the surrounding strata without breaking it.
All songwriters at some point have the feeling that it’s more like you find these things than you create them yourself. All the work is getting the song out without screwing it up too badly. Do you know Dorthy Sayers who wrote these Lord Peter Whimsey detective stories in the 1920’s and ‘30’s? She was in with C.S. Lewis and those guys, Christian writers going to Cambridge, back in the 20’s I guess. She talks about when she’s writing—and it’s for any kind of artwork I guess—she says “…that’s the wrong word; that’s the wrong word…” and that presupposes that there is a right word. And that to me is sort of the way with a song; the line already exists and you’re trying to find it.
Do you have any techniques to jump-start a song if you don’t have any particular inspiration?
I write differently… back when I first started it was real important that I wrote the song completely by myself. And I think that it was more important to me just to get my chops as a writer. In the last few years I write less by myself, more with a fellow named John Hadley. Do you know him?
I think I know the name.
He’s from Okalahoma. He used to write for the Smothers Brothers. He’s a really good painter too. So now I get a couple of lines together, or maybe something on the guitar. I look forward to bringing it in to him. Every now and then I’ll sit down and crank one out on my own. It’s not that important to me that there’s just my name on it. Otherwise, another thing I’d do is get one of these ninety-minute cassettes and put in things that I liked to hear, including Robert Frost reading poetry, and walk around listening to it. It was kind of a way to court the muse. So I had these things in my head that I liked, and it was a standard that I was trying to reach.
I like that…. Do you keep track of things? Like how many songs you’ve written, how many records and CDs, how many songs covered by other artists, how many European tours… that sort of thing.?
I think somewhere. There haven’t been that many cuts from other artists, so it’s not that hard to keep up with those. As far as the tours, I’ve lost track of that. I keep track of how many songs I’ve written, because I make a copy of it, and then I put that in a sheaf of other songs, and I think “Wow, it’s getting pretty fat.”
Proof that you were working…
But you know what… for a whole life, it doesn’t seem like much.
How about hobbies, I think reading and movies must figure in there.
Reading; not so much movies. Reading and walking around the woods…go out to Percy Warner Park. Family kind of fills up all that space.
Hugh and Katy Moffatt played here last night, their second gig of a three-week tour. They’re just starting out and you and Sergio Webb have been out nearly every night for a month now. They’re starting, and you’ve got miles and mountains behind you. Townes Van Zandt said “You cannot know the miles until you feel them.” A lot of miles, or kilometers as the case may be. Can you smell the barn now?
There’s a point… I hate to say this about audiences; it’s not the right metaphor… but at a certain point I feel like I’ve been dropped behind enemy lines, and I’m living off the fat of the land. It’s not enemy lines; it’s like I’ve cut off from my means of communication with my home base. And, you know, you’re sitting in a car—there’s three of us with Menno driving—cheek by jowl, and it’s a lot of miles. Little things start to become irritating. You get tired of doing the songs the same way. There’s a certain point where you start getting a little strange and putting weird things in songs; starting to do other songs. And there’s also a point where your voice, if it doesn’t go completely out, reaches this level of world weariness…that is like really cool. When it gets to that point I start thinking, that’s the miles you can’t count until you feel them. Your mind does the same thing; you reach a state that’s really kind of existential. The audiences they come and go, different every night. The only things that are really constant are the people that you’re working with and the songs. And that, years ago …I mean, I’ve played more shitty gigs than good gigs. They’re good now, but years ago Bishop’s Pub was a good gig. I remember I did a series of gigs opening for this woman, Melissa Etheridge.
I’ve heard of her; I don’t know her music.
She’s a pretty big star, and a nice person. But her audiences couldn’t stand me. And every night I’d go out there and play to people who didn’t like it. It was very disturbing the first few times. Then after awhile it was kind of fun; I could will myself to not forget the words, not get discombobulated by beach balls flying by…and it gets to a point where you’re on stage and it’s just you and the song. ‘Cause a few times you get a bad gig and you decide screw it—I’ll get drunk, I don’t care. And that turns out to be way unsatisfying. It’s getting up there and doing the song right, regardless of what’s going on in the audience. That’s a point of honor.
You find the energy when you hit the stage too, no matter how tired you are.
Yeah. There was this show on Sixty Minutes, they did on Arthur Fiedler, the guy with the Boston Pops Orchestra. He’s dead now, but this was like ten years ago. It showed him back stage before a concert. He’s this doddering old man; he’s senile. And he’s complaining—“ah, it’s too hot in here, I don’t want to do this…” and his wife is saying, “Now Arthur…” Then a man says “Mr. Fiedler, it’s time to go on stage.” He walks by this guy who’s got a shot of whiskey on a tray. He takes it and—boom—he hits this gear and goes out there, and he’s Arthur Fiedler.
I’ll be damned.
During the day everything hurts. Your back hurts, you’re cramped up. You get on stage then suddenly you’re a kid again.
Here’s a question we were talking about with Hugh and Katy. There’s a spiritual dimension to performing music, even secular music. Do you ever look at singing and playing, even in a secular context, as a kind of worship? Like you’re serving, in a way.
Yeah. With the music business they started dividing the person on stage and the people; they probably didn’t even call it an audience. Originally there was just someone in a room would start—basically like talking in tongues. Everyone went into a room because this weird thing was going to happen, and it’s true. Playing to a full room… is a completely different experience than playing to three people that are drunk. There’s some kind of energy exchange and that part goes back so far, it’s way before Christianity. I always think it goes back to cavemen sitting around a fire, and one of them pops up and points at the moon and goes—“Moon” and all the others go “Yeah!”
Is there classical music in your background?
No. A little while after I got to Nashville I thought, I need to know about this stuff, and I remember Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the second movement. There’s this real simple piece and I remember thinking I can get behind that, and I would stick my toe in and try and learn a little bit more. Even now I can’t say that I know a whole lot about it. It’s funny to me because, when we listen to rock & roll and all the stuff we grew up with, it was stuff that pretty soon after we started playing; it was stuff we could actually do. We couldn’t be Eric Clapton but we could sort of strum along. But if I listen to classical music, there’s no way I’m going to get the guitar and play along with Beethoven. And I think that experience is what people in the audience get when we play—they’re going “There’s no way I can do that,” so they’re getting it, they experience it in another way. There’s this huge thing, a holistic deal that they get. They either buy into it or they don’t buy into it. They don’t say “He should have gone to that chord.”…So when I listen to classical music, I have to get rid of the idea that I’m going to understand this in a craft kind of way.
You and Sergio Webb are playing tonight in Watt. I appreciate your stopping by; I know you had to come a little out of your way.
It’s not out of my way to see you.
Thanks. Well, you’re going to have to get down the road for sound check. Before you go, I just want to say I think your work is inspiring… I don’t want to gush all over you. There’s another writer who stands as a beacon to me, and that’s Leonard Cohen. He said “Poetry is the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is the ash.”
Yeah, I saw that. It’s like, one of the things I’ve found out about songwriting is that you use it to delve into your own soul—or whatever—your own conscience. And if I tried to write directly about what I did today or some event, I just couldn’t do it. My ego, or my sense of embarrassment, would always keep me from doing that. But if I could make somebody else up, then that person would be my proxy. That person could go into the swamp and come out with the stuff. So I wouldn’t be able to say directly any statement about what music is. It’s like, do I have an opinion about being right-handed. It’s just there, and I’m glad it’s there. We came up in the sixties and it was so chaotic, that to have something you could use as your anchor—I mean it’s become my way of holding a dialogue with reality, basically; it’s my way of cataloging things. I think it is for anybody who does this stuff.
All right, well thanks a lot.
Thank you. I owe you an interview.
We’re looking forward to the gig tonight too.
Yeah, we’re definitely at the point where we’ve entered existential mode.