David Olney often wrote of legends. Just consider two of his most famous songs. In “Jerusalem Tomorrow”, the narrator spins a tale of life on the grift and how his world is upended, concluding with the protagonist on the road to a dark fate, quite literally, of Biblical proportions. In the original version of “Deeper Well“, Olney unreels a neo-Appalachian Faustian ballad of desire, sacrifice, degradation, and damnation. On these and many other songs, Olney combined his sardonic wit, taste for grand drama, encyclopedic knowledge of literature and music, and basic humanity into lyrical masterpieces.
With that in mind, his death on Saturday, Jan. 18, at age 71 from an apparent heart attack while performing at the 30A Songwriter Festival in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida seems wholly appropriate — like the finale to a grand ballad he might have written. Even the irony that has followed — his death becoming clickbait headlines for news organizations that never acknowledged him before — seems like a bit of distinctly Olney-esque dark humor.
But, as with Olney’s songs, the ending is just the first layer of the onion. As the news of his death spread, social media exploded with Olney stories. Not just sensationalistic details of his death, or sound bites in praise of his talent, but tales of his early days in the Nashville of the 1970s when he came to town as part of a wave of young, iconoclastic songwriters; anecdotes of his brief flirtation with new wave roots rock as the leader of David Olney & the X-Rays in the early ‘80s; chronicles of his reinvention as an elder statesman of Nashville’s songwriting community during the ‘90s; and accounts of the many encouragements, advice, and influences he passed on to others.
Beyond the biographical tales, fingers have flown across keyboards in the last few days as individuals who knew Olney filled the virtual world with firsthand accounts of singular performances, small acts of kindness, his humorous eccentricities, his often enigmatic artistic choices, and so much more.
And ultimately that’s the story. A song, like any narrative, requires a solid ending, but the soul of humanity resides in the telling of the tale, not the finale. It’s a principle of good story-telling Olney understood well, and brought to both his lyrics and his life.
Crime writer Raymond Chandler once said, “The really good mystery is one you would read even if you knew somebody had torn out the last chapter.” And that’s what David Olney left behind — the songs he wrote, the music he made, the people whose talent he encouraged, and impressions his personality, kindness, and craft made upon others — all scattered chapters telling an amazing and unique story, no matter what the ending.