Friday, August 22, 2008

Outside looking in with David Olney


“David Olney stands out in Nashville like a jalapeno in a bowl of vanilla pudding,” a Texas newspaper wrote last year, in reviewing the veteran troubadour’s latest album, “One Tough Town.”
Olney himself doesn’t object to the simile; there are times he wonders what such a renegade singer-songwriter is doing in the Mecca for bland country music. But he figured he ended up there as the lesser of three evils.

“I’d been stockpiling songs I was writing for quite a while, back in North Carolina and Atlanta, and I knew I had to make a move,” recalled Olney over the telephone earlier this week. “Back then, and I suppose even now, it was New York or Los Angeles or Nashville if you wanted to do music. I figured Nashville was the closest and definitely more comfortable place to live to have a career as a songwriter.”
Of course, as Olney himself readily admits, very little of what he wrote was even remotely commercial country music, despite the fact that bluegrass superstar Del McCoury and country heroines Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt are among the artists who have covered his songs.
“But by the time I figured that out, and it dawned on me that I wasn’t going to be a country music star, it was just where I lived… But anyplace I’d have gone I’d feel a little odd.”
Indeed, Nashville may own his mailing address, but Olney really lives in the fringes and other places most people never even visit, the kind of space that finds him writing a song about the Titanic from the iceberg’s point of view or referring to love as a defense mechanism.
And perhaps the home of a million songwriters and the Grand Ole Opry might be just the perfect place to shape his extraordinarily literary musings into workable songs.
“Despite it being so conservative, their strict form of songwriting helped me mold my chaotic ideas,” he said. “It helped out a whole lot having those structural things. It doesn’t keep you from having weird insights, but somewhere in the back of my mind I know it has to be recognized as a song, not just random thoughts.”
The latest organizing principal for Olney, who released more than a dozen albums prior to “One Tough Town,” has been to embrace the spectrum of American roots music, tracing the genres all the way back to the days of vaudeville for an album both so adventurous and grounded it belies his 58 years.
“I’ve always had an admiration those old performers didn’t do just one thing,” he said. They played piano, did soft shoe, told jokes. They were more complete entertainers. I wanted to do some songs that captured that feel. And I think the older you get, the more you can focus your abilities in a certain area.”
While the album is replete with horns and other unusual instruments for a “folk” album, Olney said he won’t have any difficulty reproducing them tomorrow night when he makes his Santa Barbara debut in the Sings Like Hell concert series at the Lobero Theater, with multi-instrumentalist Sergio Webb joining him on stage.
“He opens all kinds of doors and possibilities, and we’re able to get a pretty full band sound,” Olney said. “You don’t have to play vaudeville songs. It’s just that folk performer in a quest for realism downplayed all the showmanship stuff that goes into performance. In the last few years, I’ve started to embrace the shtick, if you will.”
Tickets for David Olney’s 8 p.m. show are $42.50 at the box office. Call 963-0760.

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