David Olney is nothing less than a twisted American treasure — a booming narrator of dark topics usually spoken about only in hushed tones.
He also wields a mighty wicked guitar.
And though Olney’s tunes are often dubbed “story-songs,” the man himself begs to differ. “A lot of my songs don’t really tell much of a story,” he contends. “They’re more character studies. The story is kind of what people will add in their imagination.
“The way it’s been with me, if I already knew what the story was going to be before I sat down to write the song, then the song wouldn’t come out good,” he continues. “If a song surprises me, then it has a better chance of surprising the audience.”
Olney’s newest songs explore often-tragic situations set in the era during and just after World War I, when the sweet sentiments of the 19th century were rapidly being replaced by the grittiness of combat, the debauchery of the roaring ’20s and the desperation of the Great Depression. One of the first songs he wrote for his sixth Rounder Records release — this year’s Through A Glass Darkly — paints a decidedly unsentimental portrait of Depression-era criminal John Dillinger: “Luther’s bleeding from a hole in his side/Don’t believe he’ll make it through/Ruby cradles his head and she starts to cry/’Oh God what can I do?/I’ve always been a gangster’s girl/Don’t die and leave me alone in the world’/’Shut up,’ says John Dillinger,” sings Olney.
“Right before a show in Atlanta, that tune popped into my head, and I built the lyrics around the tune,” he remembers. “Other times the lyrics come first. But even if the lyrics come first, I have to get the music on pretty quick, or I’ll overwrite the lyrics,” he continues, adding, “I’ve got a pretty serious bulls••t factor.”
Olney moved from Rhode Island to North Carolina when he was 17 and spent six years in the Tarheel state before moving to Nashville. There, he fronted a rock band called The X-Rays for several years before going solo. But the music of the South was Olney’s inspiration long before he moved to the region. “All the music that I liked came from the South,” he explains. “My mother is from North Carolina, and we had made a lot of trips down to visit family [before we moved], so it wasn’t an exotic or scary place to be, [as it was] to everybody else in the ’60s.”
The instrumentation on Glass is simple and effective, using string and woodwind players, along with percussion. Deanie Richardson adds gorgeous fiddle and mandolin to “That’s All I Need to Know” — a touching, completely unpretentious love song co-written by Olney and Gwil Owen. Similarly, Marianne Osiel’s oboe on “Dogwoods” takes the song to haunting heights, while the electric guitar and high second vocals give a Neil Young-like chill to “Ice Cold Water.”
“I wanted a lot of songs to have a 1930s string-music kind of sound, but I wanted to have a dark undertone,” the songwriter confides. “With ‘Ice Cold Water,’ I [envisioned] a guy during the Depression, staying at a Salvation Army or some kind of mission place, who goes over the edge. He has a gun and he’s getting ready to go out and rob somebody. The song is snapshots of the interior of his mind.”
At times, Olney’s voice is effectively off key, as on “Lay Down Your Kingdom,” where a slight flatness gives the storyteller a little more humanity. “I just lose myself and whatever comes out, comes out,” he explains.
Later on the disc, banjoist Mike Fleming works up a good head of steam on Tom House’s wry “C’mon Through Carolina.” “Tom House is a friend of mine, and … his version of ‘C’mon Through Carolina’ is much wilder and weirder [than mine]. That song is kind of open-ended — it’s whatever you want it to be about. The images it has for me are basically of North Carolina, and a lot of it was like watching Carolina basketball games. But there’s also the sense of being ready to move on from a place that there was nothing left there to hold you down.”
The songwriter even dares to tackle a biblical character on Glass, with a look inside the cold soul of Barabbas. “I wrote a series of songs that deal with Christ,” says Olney, “but the problem with writing about Christ is that he’s perfect, which makes [writing about him] boring. So I … find peripheral characters like Barabbas. I’ve written another one from the point of view of the donkey that Christ rode into Jerusalem, and a couple others that are from … outsider points of view. They make the stories more human.”
Olney is known for shifting emotional gears in midsong, as in “J.T.’s Escape,” where a sheriff worries about the political fallout from the escape of a 69-year-old prisoner. Later in the song, we learn that the prisoner is the sheriff’s father.
Olney wrote the prophetic “The Suicide Kid” about his late friend, the brilliant, hard-living Texas singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt. “Townes and I had a friendship based on the respect I had for his music,” he explains. “I flatter myself to think that he enjoyed my music.
The song begins, “Let’s sing a song for the Suicide Kid/Who pulled on the trigger and heard only a click/Who stood on the edge and took a deep breath/Who drank all the poison and waited for death/He waited for death but death never showed/And the Suicide Kid slowly got old.”
“Townes was still alive at the time I wrote the song,” he continues, “and [I] was just angry. The way that his life was going to end up was pretty clear, and the fact that he didn’t care was what made me angry. But the main point of that song was at the end: ‘But he won’t fade away.’ I don’t think Townes will ever fade away.” Some listeners focus on the bleakness of Olney’s work — but that’s missing the total picture, according to Olney. “To me, the amount of darkness that has to go on for something light to come out just seems to be some overall equation that we’re unaware of,” he says. “People [might] say that I’m a dark, depressing writer and [that I only write] about sort of nasty stuff. But [I’ll] write about those things and then have a pretty song.”
Olney — described by the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram as a “tour guide for the human condition” — takes his greatest pleasure in playing his material live. “It’s like writing a play and then going out and acting it,” he allows. “They’re two different skills. There are things that happen in a live concert that can only happen in that situation. You forget a line and throw in another line, and that line turns out to be better.”