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Legendary songwriter David Olney dies at 71

Jan 20, 2020

David Olney in September of 2019.
Credit Scott Housley

Revered songwriter David Olney (born March 23, 1948) died Saturday, January 18, 2020, after suffering an apparent heart attack during a performance in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. He was 71.

A key member of Nashville’s music community since his move to Music City in 1973, the Lincoln, Rhode Island native was a compelling and enigmatic presence. He wrote sonnets and starred at the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, and his live concerts blended tenderness and ferocity, theatre and sincerity, agitation and embrace.

Country Music Hall of Fame member Emmylou Harris said “David Olney tells marvelous stories, with characters who cling to the hope of enduring love, all the while crossing the deep divide into that long, dark night of the soul.” Troubadour Steve Earle called Olney “One of the best songwriters working in the world today,” and the late Townes Van Zandt once said, “Anytime anyone asks me who my favorite music writers are, I say Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bob Dylan and Dave Olney."

Olney’s songs have been recorded by Harris, Del McCoury, Linda Ronstadt, Steve Young, and many others. His lyrics are products of a remarkable inquisitiveness that allowed him to explore subjects that few songwriters would consider: He wrote of a Nashville train disaster, of baseball shortstop Phil Rizzuto, and of actor John Barrymore. He wrote about Jesus Christ from the narrative perspective of the donkey that carried him into Jerusalem, and about the Titanic from the perspective of the iceberg that sank the ship.

His friend and songwriting great Guy Clark said that Olney’s art “transcends craftsmanship. It’s inspired, for sure.”

He moved to Nashville after briefly studying English at the University of North Carolina. He quickly fell in with a group of like-minded songwriters that included Clark, Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, and Richard Dobson. In the early 1980s, he formed The X-Rays, a jagged rock band that secured a contract with Rounder Records. In 1986, he embarked on a solo recording career that produced more than 20 albums and allowed him to travel the world making music. 

He is survived by wife, Regine, daughter, Lillian, and son, Redding, and by a devastated music community. Memorial details are not yet available.