David Olney, Singer-Songwriter, Dies During Performance

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David Olney’s 1986 solo debut album

David Olney, a musician and songwriter whose songs have been recorded by Linda Ronstadt (“Women Cross the River”), Emmylou Harris (“Jerusalem Tomorrow”), and Del McCoury (“Queen Anne’s Lace”), died Jan. 18, 2020, during a performance at the annual 30A Songwriters Festival in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla. Olney, 71, was part of a weekend lineup that included such acclaimed fellow songwriters as Brian Wilson, John Prine and Don McLean. He performed a nearly half-hour set in the afternoon, and passed later that evening while on stage, of a heart attack.

Olney was performing an evening set with Amy Rigby. As she wrote on her Facebook page, “I was sitting next to him in the round, had been so honored and looking forward to getting to trade songs with him and Scott Miller. Olney was in the middle of his third song when he stopped, apologized and shut his eyes. He was very still, sitting upright with his guitar on, wearing the coolest hat and a beautiful rust suede jacket we laughed about because it was raining like hell outside the boathouse where we were playing- I just want the picture to be as graceful and dignified as it was, because it at first looked like he was just taking a moment.

“Scott Miller had the presence of mind to say we needed to revive him. Doctors in the audience and 30A folks were all working so hard to get him to come to. It’s hard to post about this because I can’t really believe he’s gone. I am so sorry for his wife and family and friends and all the people who loved him and his music. Even those who never heard of him. We all lost someone important last night.”

On the day he died, Olney was asked what he was up to. “Writing, and burning up the highways,” he said.

Olney performed a live broadcast every Tuesday on his website with his “You Never Know” Songwriter Series – featuring the story behind a song and its performance along with other personal observations.

Fellow singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who died in 1997, once wrote of Olney, “Any time anyone asks me who my favorite music writers are… I say Mozart, Lightnin Hopkins, Bob Dylan and Dave Olney. Dave Olney is one of the best songwriters I’ve ever heard… and that’s true. I mean that from my heart.”

Watch Olney’s afternoon performance, at the 30A Songwriters Festival, hours before he died, on Jan. 18, 2020

Upon hearing of his friend’s passing, musician Dave Alvin wrote, “Left my show at McCabe’s tonight, turned on my phone and saw the shocking news that the magnificent songwriter David Olney had passed away. David was a songwriter’s songwriter. A true master poet who, despite having his songs covered by a who’s who of contemporary folk music, never got the credit and accolades he so justly deserved. David was on two of my Roots On The Rails train tours and we got inebriated together a couple of times to the point of embarrassment but we never did sit down and write a song with each other. I deeply regret that. The world is a much less wise, funny, poetic and interesting place now that he’s gone.”

Olney was born on March 23, 1948 in Providence, Rhode Island. He moved to Nashville in 1973, where he formed a band called the X-Rays. As a solo artist, he recorded more than 20 albums, from 1986’s Eye of the Storm through 2018’s This Side or the Other.

He had performances scheduled on Jan. 22 and 23 at Folk Alliance International in New Orleans, La. He is survived by his wife, two children and a brother.

Listen to Emmylou Harris’ performance of Olney’s “Jerusalem Tomorrow”

Related: A farewell to musicians we lost in 2019

Watch a cheeky performance of Olney’s cover of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'”

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  1. RecordSteve
    #1 RecordSteve 20 January, 2020, 16:13

    Sad news about Dave=his last live performance was only 1 hr. from my home. I
    don’t know much about acoustic folk music, but I love story songs=wish I attended his last
    concert on earth. RIP in the heavenly choir.

    Reply this comment
    • Wizard
      Wizard 23 January, 2020, 20:57

      We lost one of the very best songwriters two days ago. How very sad, although he passed doing what he loved. The music world, friends and fans will forever miss Mr. David Olney.

      Reply this comment

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