During his lifetime David Olney was cursed with the epithet that he was a songwriter’s songwriter, a euphemism that meant he was too talented and highbrow to achieve commercial success. None other than the legendary Townes Van Zandt called Olney “the very best”, and critics frequently compared him to literate composers like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Notables like Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Steve Earle, and many others have covered Olney’s songs. Olney died at age 71 back in 2020 while performing at a gig in Florida. He never did have a hit record, but his influence on contemporary country and folk music can still be felt.
For some reason, Olney was more popular in Northern Europe than he was in the United States. Pieter Groenveld, the founder of Strictly Country Records, started taping Olney’s live concerts in Holland back in 1993. Six of them have already been released. The seventh, Evermore, comes out on May 13th. It’s the first part of a two-CD set. The eighth and final Live in Holland disc Nevermore is scheduled to be released on June 10). The Live from Holland sessions are clearly labors of love showcasing a notable lost talent.
Evermore features a mix of Olney’s originals and select covers from an earlier era by Johnny Cash (“I Still Miss Someone”), John Prine (“Speed of the Sound of loneliness”), and the Zombies (“She’s Not There”). Olney sings in a gruff voice and plays guitar as if he’s fondling an angel (not in a dirty way). He’s gentle with the strings even when he starts to rock. Bassist Daniel Seymour backs him up by providing a steady beat and sometimes joins in on backup vocals. But mainly, Olney delivers the music.
Olney has an engaging stage presence and can be downright theatrical, such as when he breaks into Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s poem “Ozymandias” at the end of the Zombie’s tune. His recitation reveals the intensity of both artworks, whether it’s a rock song from the 1960s or a 19th-century poet. Nothing ever changes when it comes to life, love, and death. It’s the stuff that makes us human. Like Shakespeare, he knows that all the world is a stage if you look at it right. Life is also funny.
Olney has a dry sense of humor. Even on the most serious topics, he cosmically notes its absurdity. His songs veer from the real to the surreal and back again. Olney often plays the role of the underdog or the loser in love who has a greater understanding of his situation than one would presume. Sometimes the best strategy is to pretend to go along while secretly fighting against what things are.
The 13 songs here vary in topic but are linked by a belief in love, even the one (“A Dangerous Man”) about T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Rebellion during World War I. That may sound trite or cliched, but Olney’s talent as a performer and creator has him turn phrases like “I dreamed a dream with my eyes open”, “You’re a train wreck, baby”, and “Blow us all to Kingdom Come / Let’s go out and have some fun” like romantic statements (of a sort) in context of the songs.
Evermore captures the singer-songwriter performing a fine collection of songs before a friendly crowd. Today, the music seems just as vital as when Olney recorded these songs live in 2016 and 2018.