he’s a legend around here: Dave Olney made dreams that never die
Anana and I moved to Nashville in the fall of 2017.
We were staying in East Nashville, and the closest bar within walking distance was Vinyl Tap, formerly The Family Wash. We’d walk over there often to meet new folks and hear some music. On one of those nights, David Olney was playing. I did not know who he was back then, but the second I heard him step up and sing, it felt like magic, an instant connection. I looked at Anana; she was right there with me, sharing the feeling. Stunning songs. A kindred spirit. Cole Slivka was hosting the evening, and I just had to ask:
“Who is this?!”
“It’s David Olney, he’s a legend around here! I kinda get nervous around him.”
“You mean, David Olney, David Olney from the ‘Deeper Well!?!’ I knew the Emmylou Harris record Wrecking Ball, of course.
I was so moved that I had to say hello to him. He sang a song called “Love is an Accident,” delivered with a perfect mix of devastation and resignation and humor, which completely blew us away.
“Love is a joke in a second rate comedy/ Love is the sickness, Love is the remedy.”
‘Hey man. That song knocked me out — ‘Love is an Accident’! I had to say to hi. My wife and I just moved to town, what a pleasure to hear you in such a setting!”
“Oh man! Thank you! You made my night — I was just working on that this evening!”
We had a beer together and talked a little more. I told him we were musicians, and we also made music videos for a living. He was interested in that: “I have an album coming out, I‘d like to make some videos.” We exchanged phone numbers and said it’d be good to stay in touch.
A few days later, I wrote to him but didn’t receive a reply for a while. After a month or so, he left a voice message: “Hey man, I’m playing at Douglas Corner Café. Come by if you can. Let’s talk.”
Anana couldn’t make it that night, unfortunately, but what a mind-blowing experience it was for me — about two hours of music, a packed club, a kick ass band, and David delivering each line, each word, each syllable so perfectly, while supplementing beautiful guitar and harmonica. It was theatrical in the best sense of the word; he exuded style and panache, presenting a master class in songwriting and performance.
“I have to get this man’s records immediately!” I said to myself.
I waited ‘till the crowd thinned out and said hello. I told him what the gig meant to me. “Running From Love” had me in tears. He seemed genuinely pleased and joined me at the bar, sipping his gin and tonic.
“Hang on. I think I did all right tonight,” he said and went to grab something. When he came back, he gave me a couple of his CDs. We talked about making some videos. “You know, my friend and I, we like to play chess, but we’re not very good at it, but we’re figuring it out and getting better … Yes, I think we should get together and do some filming”.
“An interesting invitation,” I thought, but after what I’d heard and seen, I was ready to go on any adventure with this man. “Anytime, anywhere. Let’s go for it.”
It took another month and a coffee meeting in East Nashville to decide we would work on a video for his song “Situation,” from the Don’t Try To Fight It album, which Anana and I both loved.
The project was a truly “homemade” affair. David wanted to play a watchman at an old factory, and we thought it’d be good to do it in a kind of Buster Keaton style. He took us to his friend Sherby’s warehouse — a huge place full of unused doors, windows, and all kind of other things. “Sherby is a good guy, a real friend. He helped me out and gave me a job when I was really down and out.” We packed David’s Scion full of everything we thought we needed for the video (and could fit in the car) and drove back to his house to build a set and make a video.
During those two years of closely working together, we developed a very strong bond as humans and as artists. The themes for the songs, the melodies, and the lyrics presented themselves to us naturally — that is to say as a result of our conversations about art, politics, history, religion, and sharing stories about our lives. David’s previous record, the gorgeous This Side or the Other, touched heavily on immigration, on being “a stranger in a strange land.” These themes were very close, perhaps even too close for us.
Mary Gauthier referred to David as “the master of perspective,” which is really on point. He wrote his song “Titanic” from the view of the iceberg and “Brays” from the point of view of the donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem. Those are just two examples, but they speak volumes about his compassion, empathy, and imagination.
While hanging out and working with him, Dr. Zhivago came up frequently. It was natural for David to enter another world and immerse himself in it. He really related to our stories about growing up during a revolution and civil war … as well as its consequences. It felt like he lived them with us and, too, experienced the physical and psychological ruin, the division between people, the division within peoples’ hearts and souls. That was not imaginary for us — being forced away from your home, your family … people and places that once felt inseparable from you; that is something very real, something we lived through and, in many ways, continue to live through.
At times, Anana and I would look at each other — “Is this really happening, are we digging in that deep? Too deep?” The unspoken answer was of course: yes — but alternatively what’s the point of songwriting, if we don’t go? There, where it hurts, where it’s too personal and touch what may feel too precious to touch?
During one of the recording sessions, when we were cutting the title track “Whispers and Sighs,“ Anana was not fully pleased with the performance, even though David, Brett Ryan Stewart, and I thought it was very good. We recorded it to a click, which would have made the string overdubs easier. “No, no — I need to do it without a click, alone with the piano,” Anana insisted until we reluctantly agreed. “Why don’t you guys go out and get me some whiskey too,” she said with a smile.
David looked at me. “Wanna come for a ride?”
“OK, let’s go.” I figured I’d google a nearby liquor store — we were on the outskirts of Franklin, and I didn’t know the area very well.
“Don’t bother,” said David. “I think at this point in my life a liquor store knows how to find me.”
We drove around for a while, got to talking about New England — he was from Rhode Island originally, and I had spent four years at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He was telling me about his school days at Exeter, and I shared some stories from my college experiences. Although we did enjoy some of it and probably learned a thing or two, it sounded like we both felt like fish out of water in our respective, esteemed institutions.
Then David said, ”Well, there was this one guy teacher who was always nice to me even though I kept getting into trouble … Werner Brandes … .”
“Yeah, I remember he also had a beautiful young wife … can’t remember her name”
“Hang on … Ute!?!”
“Yes! How did you know?!”
“Ute Brandes was my advisor some decades later at Amherst, and she was also always kind to me, especially when I went off the rails a bit.”
We kept driving in silence. Go figure. What a coincidence — or, perhaps, cosmic synergy?
Soon enough the liquor store appeared. We grabbed a bottle of Four Roses and drove back to the studio to hear Anana’s fresh new take. She was right; it was better without a click. Meanwhile, David and I got to make an important connection while looking for whiskey.
Some time later, rather nervously, I called him up to tell him that Anana and I were playing a round at a place called The Crying Wolf. I did not think he’d show up, but he did.
“Anana, Olney is here. I can’t believe we’re playing our songs in front of David Olney. What the…”
As we played our set, I could see him in the audience. He left once we were done. “Well, that’s that,” I self consciously thought to myself. However, I walked out of the ‘live room’ to the bar and, much to my surprise, saw him sitting there with a drink.
“Hey man!” he said. “That was great! Wow. ‘When dreams come true they die.’ Did you write that?”
David Olney had just quoted a line from one of our songs.
“Ummm, yes, I guess I did! But they do die when they come true. It wrote itself.”
We had a laugh, and I joined him at the bar. We ordered one more round, and I had to ask him about “Jerusalem Tomorrow.”
“Something must’ve happened back then … it must have,” he said.
David went on: “Hey, I’m getting together with John Hadley to write some songs on Thursday. He’s back in town. Do you and Anana wanna join?”
“Of course. I would love to!“ I said while thinking, “Okay, this is serious. We just got to Nashville. This is David Olney. What could I possibly have to offer?!”
John Hadley was a friend of David’s, and they wrote probably hundreds of songs together. John’s songs have been recorded by Dean Martin, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood (the list goes on), though Anana and I didn’t know anything about that until we saw the memorabilia on the walls of his house, which was just around the corner from our own.
He also had John Hartford’s chair. Hartford was a close friend of Hadley’s and wrote “Gentle on my Mind” — one of my favorite songs on Elvis’s country music compilation record that I’d listened to non-stop years and years ago.
However, none of that came into play when we got together. It was just two men — who had done so much great work and who were older than our parents — and Anana and I, “fresh off the boat” in Nashville. What a journey it had been for us, born and raised in Georgia (not across the border from Tennessee, but across the ocean) now in a different world altogether. Still, we knew our American music: Dylan, Kristofferson, Hank Williams … .
John put out some cookies and offered us Dr. Pepper from his fridge which we took him up on. It took minutes before we exchanged ideas. I played some chords and hummed melodies. Anana elaborated on those, made them legible, and came up with new ones in addition. David got his notebook. Hadley had his on the table and gave us some paper and pencils with his name on them. It didn’t take long for the songs to start coming to life. I always loved Traveling Wilburys — the idea of bunch of like-minded people hanging out, strumming guitars, tossing out lyrics, and picking out what felt right. We had a great time and ended up with two or three songs in one session.
John Hadley went back home to Oklahoma, but David, Anana, and I kept at it.
Over the course of the next two years, phone calls and voice messages from David that began “Hey man! Wanna get together?” became a constancy in my life — well, up until January 18, 2020.
We had about 15 songs written; we felt they were good enough to record, to see if they would add up to an album. Lyrically, a common thread naturally developed through the songs. They seemed tied together.
I was thinking about the word “Americana,” “folk songs” and being a “folk Singer” — that’s serious stuff. When I hear those words, I think of John Prine, Bob Dylan, people like that. I think of David Olney. People who’ve lived and breathed America, traveled in every corner, interacted with the locals — people who understand the flesh and the spirit that make up the fabric of this land. I cannot even begin to pretend that I’m there yet … it would feel like I was being an impostor if I started to make records like that, trying to write those types of songs. I can only tell my own truth, my experiences, the world I’ve lived in, the world I’ve left, and the world I’ve embraced — and where that leaves me spiritually and mentally.
That includes growing up in a place that would be hard to call “free” in any way. A place where, though things were getting better when I was growing up (compared to my parents or grandparents generations), fear still guided people’s lives. Both in the pre and post World War II reality and in the war itself, you had to watch your speech, what you said and where you said it, for you never knew who’d report you to authorities. That certainly could have meant the end of your life and your family’s back in the ’30s. It could have caused serious problems later on — like losing a job or privileges, however small they were. Then came the late ’80s: the revival of sorts, the rebellion, the revolution. Hopes and dreams and large protests. It all eventually turned very violent, and the dream turned into a nightmare — civil war, frivolousness, bandits running the country. Even stepping outside and going grocery shopping was dangerous. Everything was. Still, people lived through it and learned to adapt.
Leaving that world behind, through a twist of fate, seemed like a relief, and it was; but after a while, being stranger in a strange land, learning different languages, different customs and rules, took its toll too, emotionally, psychologically. Who am I? Where do I belong? What is a home? Where am I supposed to be? Not fully accepted anywhere. An alien.
The songs we were writing with David had all of that in them.
The question was how to record them: What instrumentation? What approach will reflect the mood? How do we stay true to the songs and hopefully elevate up?
Anana and I had worked together with Brett Ryan Stewart on one of our songs, “Blueberry Fireworks,” before and were really happy with the experience and the result. David liked it too and expressed interest in meeting Brett, who was thrilled about an opportunity to work on this album — as he had already heard some of the demos that Anana, David, and I had made and was also a fan of David.
Upon hearing the demos, Brett immediately suggested a string section on a number songs, specifically a cello. David was thrilled about the idea and so was Anana, who had already done some arrangements on a keyboard. Initially, I think I was a bit hesitant, wanting to make more use of guitars and pedal steel, but they had a point, and the songs called for it. David was also thinking of it as a “European” record — I think independently of Anana’s and my background or maybe secretly because of it — replete with classical music influences and a sense of drama. Cinematic vibes.
David’s longtime bass player, Dan Seymour, along with Chris Donohue (who plays in Anana’s and my band as well as with Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller) shared bass duties, while Chris Benelli (also from our band) handled the drums. We figured we’d save Justin Amaral from David’s band for the
We debated on what to do about guitars — what a luxury it is to live in a town like Nashville, full of amazing guitar players with whom we had worked or knew — Sergio Webb, Dave Coleman, Charlie Chamberlain, Tim Carroll, Chris Tench — the list is endless. Plus there were musicians I would love to have on the record, if possible, like Reeves Gabrels.
After some thinking David suggested, “Why don’t just you and I do the guitars, we can handle it. It might not be as virtuosic as some of those guys, but it’ll be authentic and will be us.” Boom. Decision made. In fact, one of my favorite moments is “Lie To Me, Angel.” That’s David playing the screaming lead — on an acoustic! Brett had the brilliant idea to put distortion on it, and it worked great. We felt it sounded just like what the song needed.
For me personally, there was a moment of insecurity while writing and recording. “Is this good? What are we doing? Maybe we should do it differently? Is this gonna measure up to David’s massive catalogue?” A typical moment of doubt for an artist. I shared those sentiments with David privately.
“Fuck yeah, this is good,” he said. “I think it’s great and real and incredibly fulfilling. I’m as proud of it as anything I’ve done and want to keep doing it with you guys. Do YOU like it?”
“Man, you got something out of us that I didn’t think we could touch. I’m very grateful beyond words,” I said.
Rilke’s words in “Letters to a Young Poet” reverberated in my head.
“Go inside yourself … dig down into yourself for a deep answer. If, as a result of this turning inward, of this sinking into your own world, poetry should emerge, you will not think to ask someone whether it is good poetry. And you will not try to interest publishers of magazines in these works. For you will hear in them your own voice; you will see in them a piece of your life, a natural possession of yours. A piece of art is good if it is born of necessity. This, its source, is its criterion; there is no other.”
Truer words have never been spoken. To hell with fear and damn the doubt. As far as David and we were concerned, mission accomplished. We made a record — a record of a beautiful moment in time that we were lucky enough to share with him.