Robbery and Murder: an Interview with David Olney

All photos courtesy of Deadbeet Records. Copyright 2012.

Singer/songwriter/storyteller David Olney possesses a unique charm that is hard to resist. He can quite literally charm the birds out of the trees and even the shoes off the feet of a legend like  Townes Van Zandt…and a whole lot more.

Over the course of four decades and 25 critically acclaimed albums, David Olney’s evocative and unforgettable songs, coupled with his intimate and powerful performances, have won him a devoted, world-wide following. Since 2007, the multi-instrumentalist Sergio Webb has added his “sonic sorcery” to Olney’s brilliant songs, further enriching them to the delight of Olney’s audiences.

David Olney with Sergio Webb.

His songs have been recorded and performed by  Linda Ronstadt,  Emmylou Harris and Townes Van Zandt, among countless others. In the case of Van Zandt, Olney has the distinct honor of being listed as one of Van Zandt’s four favorite artists, along with Dylan, Mozart and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Not bad company for any artist to be among.

Defying categorization, Olney is a singularly unique and imaginative artist whose work never ceases to both amaze and amuse. In this day and age there’s simply no one else quite like him.

The San Francisco Chronicle says of David Olney: “In the tradition of Johnny Cash and Tom Waits, Olney has become a pioneer of the Americana music scene”  while the Houston Press observed: “David Olney stands out like a  jalapeño in a bowl of vanilla pudding.” Drawing from American music’s rich and varied roots, yet always maintaining his own unique and unmistakable style, David Olney is a true American original.

Traveling to Nashville in 1973, David Olney quickly fell in with the legendary clique  of  Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, and John Hiatt, whose exciting new attitudes and creativity took the ambit of Music City’s songwriting to a whole new level overnight.  In the early 1980s, Olney formed the ‘roots rock’ band the X-Rays. The result was two critically acclaimed albums, a trail of legendary live shows and a famous appearance on Austin City Limits. Then in 1986 came his first solo album Eye of the Storm (Philo/Rounder), where the singer says “I found my voice as a songwriter.”

The jacket cover to the three disc box set ‘Body of Evidence.’

On October 30,  Deadbeet Records presented a pair of compelling love stories called Robbery & Murder: the eagerly awaited third installment of Olney’s thematic mini-album series  Body of Evidence.  As with his previous two albums (2011’s Film Noir and the April 2012 retelling of the Easter story, The Stone ) the packaging on Robbery & Murder features original artwork selected by Olney, plus visually striking photography.  Each EP includes a mix of reinterpretations of some of Olney’s classic catalog, plus several new tunes.

The jacket cover to ‘David Olney: Robbery & Murder.’

The jacket cover to ‘David Olney Presents FILM NOIR.’

On Robbery & Murder, Olney takes an in-depth and intimate look at two love affairs.  While the twin themes of Robbery & Murder alternate and interweave around a unifying theme (which Olney calls “hardcore romantic negotiation”) their differences are finely, eloquently examined. The Betty & Dupree tunes are boisterous odes to ‘marital bliss’ while the Delia songs inhabit the nether regions of cowardice, betrayal and regret.

The jacket cover to ‘David Olney: The Stone.’

This ambitious series was born out of Olney’s beloved weekly live stream cast “You Never Know”, which was originally a three-song themed performance and chat. Presented on DavidOlney.com and YouTube, this program-posted every Tuesday-currently features David performing a song then sharing the story behind it, as well as his lively and entertaining ruminations on a number of assorted topics.

Although the release of Robbery & Murder will complete the project Body of Evidence, the stories of David Olney are far from over, as The Los Angeles Beat discovered when it sat down to talk with this living legend…which included the story of just how Olney ended up as the “keeper” of those shoes:

So David, I’ve gotta ask you just how you came to be the keeper of Townes Van Zandt’s shoes! There has to be a great story behind that.

We were on tour and he’d gone into a Goodwill Store on the way to Little Rock (Arkansas) and bought a jacket that was a little too small for him. So he said to me: “Here! (handing David the jacket) Here’s this jacket.” Then a day later, he said “Try these on!” and he gave me the boots. They were a little too small for me, but I wasn’t about to say “No, here’s your boots back!” I’ve got Townes Van Zandt’s boots, you know!

That’s a collector’s item for sure!

It was a real honor to know him. An interesting, sweet person. I really liked him. When my wife and I were first getting together Townes would come by and visit us. It was like having George Washington come and visit: having your hero come and knock on your door! Just overwhelming!

For all the darkness that people seem to remember about him, to me he was funny, interesting and charming. I knew he had this sort of dark aspect to him, and of course he was drinking a whole lot. But the part I saw in him – that he showed to me – was very much funny and thoughtful.

That was the same thing I heard when they did that documentary film on him a few years back (‘Be Here to Love Me: a Film About Townes Van Zandt’). People who saw it would comment: “It was good, but it focused too much on the darker side of him and didn’t focus on the funnier, sweeter side!” I haven’t seen the whole documentary, just bits and pieces. But that’s what I kept hearing about it.

Oh yeah.

It’s well known that you ranked among Van Zandt’s favorite composers. What special quality of your songwriting do you think appealed so much to him?

The way I write is direct and…God, it sounds awful to say these things about yourself…

Not at all!

He was into folk songs, and I think that aspect of the way I was writing was in a folk tradition and I think that’s what appealed to him.

You’re such a great storyteller. I was telling Mary (Sack) : “Of all the people I have interviewed, he’s the only one who compels me to sit down and tell him every story: everything that’s ever happened in my life or in my family’s life of any interest at all!” You make me wanna sit down and tell you the story of my great-grandfather’s surviving the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. You make me wanna tell you about the ‘thing’ I saw on a fishing trip in Oregon. You make me wanna spill my guts, David; you’re the only one.

Oh wow! I’ve always looked at these things in a theatrical way: you have to have a story, you have to have a plot. I think some of the character will emerge in my imagination, and I don’t know what that person has done so I start following them. It’s like stalking someone in your imagination, to see where they came from.

When you sit down to write, if you don’t know what the beginning, end or the middle of the story is gonna be then you’re discovering, and it comes across to people listening to the song once it’s written.  If you don’t know what the ending will be then there will be a kind of anticipation for the people listening to the song.

I remember when I wrote ‘Jerusalem Tomorrow’ that was the case with that. I was discovering this guy, what’s he gonna do now? It was odd because it didn’t take a real long time to write that song. It seemed like I’d been following that guy forever, but I didn’t know who he was (laughs)! So the things that come as a surprise in the songs came as a surprise to me in the process of writing the songs.

 So, how did a young man from Rhode Island come to find his way into the cabal of Nashville’s  leading ‘New Country’ singer/songwriters?

My mom was from North Carolina, so we would come down South to visit her family. It didn’t seem like the dark side of the moon to me, it was just a place where relatives lived. People I liked. For other people in New England-especially at that period- it just seemed like everyone in the South was wearing a sheet: was racist and all this stuff.

Yeah, they get those stereotypes, don’t they?

Yeah. So by the time I was thirteen I was really into the blues and country songs. All the music I really liked was from the South. It kinda seemed like a magical place!

When I went down to North Carolina to go to school then it became my area now: I didn’t have the burden of New England and was on my own at that point. Then very quickly I met a bunch of other musicians at Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There was a nice folk scene and  singer/songwriter scene. It was there that Marshall Wilson started a club called ‘The Cat’s Cradle’ so that became the center of things. It pretty much took off from there.

Once I moved down to Atlanta – was living there – I found there wasn’t that flourishing a music scene. I was writing more and more songs, and I said to myself: “What are you gonna do with this?” You would either go to LA or New York or Nashville. Nashville was the closest and I knew some people there so I’d have a couch to crash on. Back then, when I first came to town, I got an apartment for like forty bucks a month! So for a minimum amount of money you were in the mix. It was a very exciting time; it was great. The whole time you’re doing that you never actually have a plan. To me it was like tugging at a piece of yarn and following where it took you, which was definitely to do music!

I’ve heard that your friendship with musician/playwright Bland Simpson was solidified over candles! Can you tell our readers about that?

Oh yeah! We had a craft together at UNC in Chapel Hill and I bailed out of that school. I wanted to do music and that was it, so I dropped out of school. I got this job working for this weird company that imported candles, and they had a warehouse in the outskirts of town and I’d go out there, pack up these candles and send them out.

One day, Bland came by and he said: “Look, I’ve gotten married and I’m broke and I need a job! Can you take me on here?” It wasn’t up to me to hire somebody, but I concocted a story to tell the people that ran the company that I really needed someone out there. There really wasn’t a whole lotta business, most of the time we spent just talking about music over candles!

That a great job!

Yeah! See, I was playing in town; was kinda known a little bit. But Bland was writing all these songs. He’d written a bunch of songs! He said: “Look, I’m gonna be leaving here. I’m going up to New York to see if I can get somebody interested in my songs.” It seemed like a weird thing to do. Then he gave me a call: “Hey! Can you come up and play guitar in this band?” and it wasn’t like I was gonna say “No, I wanna stay here and stare at candles!” (laughs)

It was a no brainer, right?

Yeah! (laughs) So I went up there and it was mind-boggling! I suddenly saw that there was a business: all this music stuff wasn’t just writing a song and playing it for your friends. I was up there for about nine months, and we made a record. It was his band and they were his songs. It was an incredible experience!

What year was that, David?

1970…or ’71.

You’ve often been called one of the least “self focused” composers in the history of  Modern music, as you seem to studiously avoid writing about topics based on your own life in favor of inspiration from history and the world around you.  Would you agree with that assessment?

Yeah. I’m not sure how interesting I find myself. I was reading the book just written by Peter Townshend – the guy from The Who – and he said it was like a therapy session writing that book. He was revealing the most intimate details of his personal life. It’s not something I’m that comfortable with. If I wrote about myself I wouldn’t reveal anything, whereas if I make somebody up then I can actually say things about myself through that person; get comfortable with it.

With me when I make somebody up, then I reveal the most intimate parts of that person’s life. When I hit on that it was absolutely liberating for me. I realized I didn’t have to stick to just the facts of my own life story. I could go anywhere I wanted to go. It was great!

I’m surprised that more songwriters haven’t come to that conclusion and run with it.

Well it gets a little sticky, because if you’re writing about a person – say a homeless person – you’ve got to be very careful, because it’s very easy to sound authentic. That’s the problem with writing these story-songs. You’ve got to have a certain amount of…I think the circumstances in people’s lives are wildly different:poor people and rich people, soldiers and war and all that. But the emotional part of their life, that’s the common denominator. So if you write about the emotion and not about “There’s holes in my shoes…”

Exactly! It hits on common ground with all of us.

Exactly.

You’ve been quoted as saying that your first songs “were successful by not standing out.” Can you explain that idea more fully?

Yeah. I was lucky that folk songs were a big deal back then. When I first started playing in clubs I knew some blues songs and some old Carter Family songs. Just folk songs. In doing them they teach you how a song gets put together. So when I did start writing songs all I wanted to do was write a song that sounded like The Carter Family. I’d stick my songs in the middle of the set and wouldn’t say anything, I’d just play it. If nobody noticed then I’d say to myself: “That song must be alright!” If they’d came up and said “Hey! Did you write that?” then it would have meant to me that it didn’t sound like the other ones. So if I could sneak ’em in and no one would notice then I’d say (to myself) “OK, I learned that part!”

That’s quite an idea.

Yeah. Well, we were talking earlier about not writing about yourself so much. If I was trying to sneak ’em in then right away you’re not letting your ego get in the way too much. You’ve got to have a pretty good ego to stand up in front of people and play songs  and sort of hope that they applaud and all that. You’ve got to…there’s no way to be ego-less…but you should have a sense of humility about the whole thing.

Prior to establishing your solo career, you formed the band The X-Rays. In what way do you think your songwriting has changed/evolved as a solo artist in relation to when you were writing as a band member?

Well, The X-Rays were very loud, in order to release all this Rock & Roll energy. As much as I was into folk songs and stuff, the background music to whatever was going on in my life was mostly Pop songs that I would hear on the radio. I loved those songs, and when I started the band (X-Rays) I got to kinda raise my voice a bit more.

However, it got to where I couldn’t…there were softer songs I’d written over the years and there was no way to do them in that band. So when it finally tanked out and I went back to playing (solo) I kinda appreciated the softer songs more. It was great to write these boisterous, story-songs for The X-Rays, but I just really appreciated so much to be able to go back and do the quieter songs.

What were some of the Pop songs that you found especially interesting or you just plain enjoyed during that period?

I was really into Ray Charles. There was this moment: I used to go to this place in Rhode Island to get my hair cut; had been going there for years. I was about ten, I think. The barber’s name was Stanley – I remember this very clearly – and I’m sitting there like I’d done so many times before, just getting my hair cut and chatting with Stanley. He had a radio going, and on the radio was Ray Charles singing Georgia on My Mind’ and I hadn’t heard it before. It was a Hoagy Carmichael song, clearly a “grown-up” song that was more my parent’s generation than mine. I liked the way it sounded. It wasn’t just a teenage, doo-wop, or like that. It was just a “grown-up” thing.

The part that got me was toward the end of the song, where he (Ray) goes “WOAH OH OH!” where Ray goes up into falsetto. I remember my head just jerked, and Stanley going: “Hey! I nearly cut your ear off! What was that about?” I couldn’t say: “Didn’t you just feel the earth move?” It was just this moment where you feel how deep Rock & Roll could get! Ray Charles’ Georgia on My Mind’ is not a typical Rock & Roll song, but when he hit that falsetto note it was like there was no holding back there, and I just went “That’s what I want to do!”

It was like a cathartic moment, where everything that was in there just came out in one crescendo rush. Incredible!

Yeah! Right about that same time there was a place – a soda shop type place – that had a jukebox. “Tough” kids hung out there, and I was told specifically not to go there, so of course I went there! I’d go there anonymous, and there was this song on the jukebox that would go (hums the intro to Orbison’s ‘Only the Lonely’) and I thought: “That’s great! That’s fantastic!” Then Roy would come in with “Only the lonely…” and that’s the way that people used to pronounce my last name. They’d say “O’-ney” instead of “Ol’-ney.” So I thought: “I’m busted! Even the jukebox knows I’m here!” (big laugh)

You can’t hide anywhere, David! We’re tracking you down, Sir.

Yeah, Man!

You know, that’s what Roy Orbison could do. He makes you think that he’s speaking directly to you; getting the message to you.

Your 2003 release ‘The Wheel was your first collection of thematically linked songs. Your current thematic mini-album series, Body of Evidence, continues this with your latest release Robbery and Murder. Since you are famed as a storyteller and composer will you continue to create more thematic-linked songs or is this the last collection your fans can expect?

Oh, I think I’ll do some more. I want to try to get away from it a little bit for awhile. To stay that focused on something it really kind of…for three straight projects working with Jack Irwin on that it was a very intense…mostly it was the two of us kinda fitting this stuff together. I like to just kinda go into the studio and just let things slide, just play whatever songs I have laying around and not try to tie everything together.

To me, you can be conscious of the connection between songs as in these last three projects, or you can be unconscious about it. But there is always a connection, even if it’s just “I’m the guy singing these things; I’m the guy who wrote these things” you know.

I’d just like to be a little more free the next time I go into the studio. But I really do enjoy doing that. It’s like writing a story: you just get lost in the whole atmosphere of the project.

On Robbery and Murder, these twin themes alternate and interweave around a unifying theme which you call “hardcore romantic negotiation.” Can you explain for our readers what you mean by that?

One of the stories was ‘Betty and Dupree’ where they are these two characters from sorta blues and folk songs. African-American, I’d say. They’re kinda like Frankie and Johnny. There was a song a little bit before my time by Chuck Willis. He did the first version that I’ve heard of ‘Betty and Dupree’ back in the fifties. I stumbled upon that song and it struck me when Betty tells Dupree she wants a diamond ring. It’s like “If we’re going to be together you’ve gotta come up with this. You have to come up with this ring!”

You have to come up with the goods!

Yes! So Dupree says: “If I give you this ring then you have to stay with me for the rest of your life!” It almost sounds…for a song that’s almost kind of joyful, when you break it down it’s really almost like dealing with Donald Trump or something! Like re-nup agreements or something.

And then the other part of the story which came out of my wild imagination is this:three people are there, and the guy’s family owns the textile mill in this town. I think the time would be around 1918 or somewhere in that time period. It’s just in my head. It could be any time. Anyway, he’s got this sort of family that he is very conscious of social status . Then his wife starts an affair with a guy that works in the mill, and it ends up with her getting murdered by the husband.

So it’s…the love part ends up getting connected to the money part. To go back and forth between these two stories I felt was kinda cool.

This ambitious series was born out of your wildly popular weekly live stream  cast “You Never Know.”  Please tell our readers how that weekly program started.

Wow! I didn’t know that (it was wildly popular)! It started out…I mean that I have trouble with computers and the whole “cyber-age.” Mary Sack (David’s manager) is totally into it, and she said: “Look, why don’t you try this. All you gotta do is sit in front of a laptop and say stuff, and you can play a song.”

Originally I was thinking of doing a one-man variety show, so the first four shows were like a half hour long.  So I’m chewing up the scenery and telling jokes! (laughs) I did four of those, then I said to myself: “I can’t do that anymore, it’s too much trouble!” So then I talked it over with Mary and she said: “Look, just break it down. Do one song; maybe talk about it a little bit. If you think of something funny then say something funny, but otherwise just tell people where you’re going to be playing and what you’re up to.” So then that solidified it. To me it was so odd to sit there talking to people you can’t see. But I guess that people have been doing that on the radio for awhile, I guess.

That’s it!

I’ve just gotten real comfortable with it. You just kind of let yourself go and don’t worry about saying something foolish or making a mistake. Then I think it’s actually kinda interesting to people.

David, you’re so good at it! I’ll sit there and I’ll be watching you and laughing. And then I’ll get serious. Speaking for myself, it runs me the gamut of emotions to watch your video blogs. I’m kinda addicted! 

Wow!

It’s probably one of only four channels on Youtube that I will check every week without fail. It was actually my introduction to you, David.

It’s great! I’m done! I just had no idea if people…I know that there are like fourteen people who would be there while you were doing it. The life that it has goes on once it gets onto the Youtube.

The whole attraction of Youtube…I’ve seen shows where people will go into studios and kinda do it as a mini “Johnny Carson Show” and they get high-tech and they miss the whole beauty of Youtube. Other than the computer itself, the whole thing is you basically sitting in someone’s kitchen and they’re talking to you. If you can get that sort of funkiness then it’s all the better.

I’ve noticed the same thing. The people who lose the greatest opportunity for impact using Youtube as this media tool are the ones who act as if they’re sitting in a television studio, and in many cases – as you said – they actually are sitting in a proper studio. I find that my focus doesn’t last long when that is the case. I might as well be watching television. I don’t see any difference.

Yes, I think that as long as you are comfortable with it and keep it simple and real – like you’re sitting in someone’s home talking to them – then it’s got life to it and it’s kinda interesting.

Over the course of four decades and 25 critically acclaimed albums, your ‘sound’  has remained fresh, innovative and impossible to categorize. How have you managed to accomplish that when so many other artists seem to have to rehash old ideas and themes?

I think the fact that I didn’t get famous. Anonymity has allowed me to follow my muse and do whatever I felt like doing.  I sell a few records to keep my name in the mix, but not enough to lock me into one kind of music or one kind of outlook. I’ve had complete freedom as to what kind of music I make and what kind of songs I write.

How would you like future generations to remember you as both an artist and a man?

I’ve always liked to be around people who like their job. It doesn’t matter what their job is. I’d like for people to remember me as someone who really liked writing songs and performing songs, doing the traveling and putting the miles in and playing for people. Remember me as someone who cared about songs and music. That’s what I wanna leave.

Look for David Olney’s new ‘ROBBERY & MURDER CD on Deadbeet Records, released Oct. 30, 2012. You can purchase ALL of David Olney’s CDs as well as both of David’s NEW thematic mini-albums (The Stone‘ and ‘David Olney Presents: FILM NOIR) today at DavidOlney.com.

 Also available: ‘ These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ ‘ digital single at iTunesAmazon.com and Emusic.

‘You Never Know’ by David Olney – his theme song here – appears on his ‘Dutchman’s Curve album.

 

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Shirley Pena

About Shirley Pena

A native of Southern California, Shirley Pena began her career as a music journalist over a decade ago, writing for her websites "Stars In My Eyes:the Girlhowdy Website" and "La Raza Rock!" and progressed to creating various fan sites on Yahoo, including the first for New Zealand singer/songwriter Tim Finn. From there, she became a free agent, arranging online interviews for Yahoo fan clubs with various music artists (Andy White, John Crawford, Debora Iyall, John Easdale, etc.). She also lent her support in creating and moderating a number of Yahoo fan clubs for various music artists from the 1990s-today. As a music journalist, Shirley Pena has contributed to a number of magazines (both hard copy and online), among them:Goldmine, American Songwriter, the Fresno Examiner, The Blacklisted Journalist and UK-based Keyboard Player (where she was a principal journalist). A self-confessed "fanatic" of 1960s "British Invasion" bands, Classic Rock and nostalgic "Old Hollywood ", she also keeps her finger on the pulse of current trends in music, with a keen eye for up and coming artists of special merit. Shirley Pena loves Los Angeles, and is thrilled to join the writing staff of The Los Angeles Beat!
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