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David Olney, Beloved Singer-Songwriter, 1948 - 2020

David Olney, Beloved Singer-Songwriter, 1948 - 2020
David Olney, Beloved Singer-Songwriter, 1948 - 2020
by MICHAEL KORNFELD on Jan 20, 2020 •

David Olney, a revered folk and Americana singer-songwriter, died after suffering an apparent heart attack on Saturday night, Jan. 18, while onstage at the 30A Songwriters Festival in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. During a musical career that spanned more than four decades, Olney, 71, recorded and released more than 20 albums and had his songs covered or co-written by such other notable artists as Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Laurie Lewis, Del McCoury, and Linda Ronstadt.

In a Facebook post, Amy Rigby, a singer-songwriter who was sharing the stage with Olney and Scott Miller as part of a song swap, wrote:

“David Olney, a beautiful man, a legend, a songwriting poet died last night. I was sitting next to him in the round, had been so honored and looking forward to getting to trade songs with him and Scott Miller. Olney was in the middle of his third song when he stopped, apologized and shut his eyes. He was very still, sitting upright with his guitar on, wearing the coolest hat and a beautiful rust suede jacket we laughed about because it was raining like hell outside the boathouse where we were playing- I just want the picture to be as graceful and dignified as it was, because it at first looked like he was just taking a moment. Scott Miller had the presence of mind to say we needed to revive him. Doctors in the audience and 30A folks were all working so hard to get him to come to. It’s hard to post about this because I can’t really believe he’s gone. I am so sorry for his wife and family and friends and all the people who loved him and his music. Even those who never heard of him. We all lost someone important last night.”

Here’s a link to a nearly 30-minute Acoustic Interlude session featuring David Olney that was recorded during the 2020 30A Songwriters Festival:

Based in Nashville since 1973, the Lincoln, Rhode Island native, who was born on March 23, 1948 and moved to Music City after briefly studying English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, had quickly become part of a like-minded group of songwriters that included Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Rodney Crowell. “Anytime anyone asks me who my favorite music writers are, I say Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bob Dylan, and David Olney,” Van Zandt once said. “David Olney is one of the best songwriters I’ve ever heard – and that’s true. I mean that from my heart.” That quote appears in the liner notes for Olney’s 1991 release, Roses.

After fronting a band, The X-Rays, who recorded two albums for Rounder Records, Olney released his first solo album, Eye of the Storm, in 1986. His 1988 sophomore release, Deeper Well, featured his song “Jerusalem Tomorrow” that Emmylou Harris covered on her 1993 album, Cowgirl’s Prayer; she also covered its title track on 1995’s Wrecking Ball. Of Olney, Harris had said: “David Olney tells marvelous stories, with characters who cling to he hope of enduring love, all the while crossing the deep divide into that long, dark night of the soul.”

Here’s a link to a video of David Olney performing “Jerusalem Tomorrow”:

Olney, whose last album, This Side or the Other, was released in 2018, was a prolific songwriter and a mainstay of the Nashville music community. He also was a cinematographer and helped to produce a number of short films and documentaries.

Facebook, the online social network, was replete with online tributes to and remembrances of Olney, beginning shortly after his death.

“I’m in shock. Devastated that my friend, songwriter David Olney has passed away,” wrote singer-songwriter Abbie Gardner in a Jan. 19 post. “We were supposed to write together next week. I spent the morning watching videos of him just trying to turn back the clock and spend some more time listening to his stories and grumbly voice… I always tucked away ideas I thought he would like and saved them for our co-writes. I don’t know what I’ll do with the one I’d hoped to share with him next week. There’s one of our songs on his last record ironically called “Death Will Not Divide Us.” Listening to that now is heartbreaking and healing all at once. I hope you’re right, David, I really hope you’re right.”

Here’s a link to view the official music video for “Death Will Not Divide Us”:

Dan Navarro, a fellow singer-songwriter, noted that he was on the same stage, The Boathouse at Watercolor, in a round just before Olney. “I greeted and hugged him as I came offstage, as he was prepping to go on,” Navarro posted. “I hadn’t seen him in a year… He was sweet and I thought he looked great, with his long white beard, which was not so long last year. I complimented him on his cool suede jacket, and he prepped to go on. About ten minutes later, he was seated onstage checking, and I went up to say bye bye. An hour later he was gone. What a shocking heartbreaking loss.”

Singer-Songwriter Amy Speace also posted on Jan. 19: “11 or 12 years ago I got an email from Mary Sack saying that David Olney had heard me at the Folk Alliance and wanted me to join him in a 9pm round at The Bluebird Cafe. It was my first time there. It felt like I’d been handed a secret key to a kingdom. He was one of my first calls when I moved to East Nashville and we had coffee at Bongo and talked about Shakespeare and folk music and touring in Holland. He was welcoming. He was unpretentious and kind. A true master. I saw him only a week or so ago at The Five Spot sounding on top of his game. Word spread quickly at this festival that he died on stage tonight and it doesn’t seem real. The last Bluebird Round I hosted, he was my first call and I got the chance to sit next to him and hear him play all those songs and thank him for graciously opening the door for me years ago. I hope he knew how much that invitation meant. I hope he feels that the tribe won’t sleep tonight. This is one of my favorites. My heart is with his family and his close friends.”

Olney was to have showcased his talents and been part of a Wisdom of the Elders panel discussion at the annual Folk Alliance International Conference in New Orleans later this week. In addition to an official juried showcase, he was slotted to play Acoustic Chaos: The Georgia Room on Thursday, Jan. 23, at 11 p.m. The room’s host, Jill Kettles, Olney’s ‘on-again and off-again publicist,’ has invited conference attendees to come to the room during that time and sing their favorite David Olney song or talk about him as a friend, a colleague, or as an inspiration.

Olney leaves behind his wife, Regine, daughter, Lillian, and son, Redding, as well as many friends in the music community. Memorial services have not yet been planned.