David Olney was a unique breed of songwriter, one who rarely revealed himself directly through his songs. Instead, the intimate details that emerged in his remarkable works focused on the emotional being of characters he himself seemed to be learning about as the stories unfolded. Yet because he knew their lives, their motivations, and their failings so instinctively, the details painted with his words were often startling. Olney, who died Saturday at age 71 from an apparent heart attack during a performance at the 30A Songwriters Festival in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, was a favorite writer of Townes Van Zandt, and had songs cut by Steve Earle, Del McCoury, and Linda Ronstadt, among many others.
Emmylou Harris, who would cut Olney’s 1988 album’s title track, “Deeper Well,” on her landmark 1995 LP, Wrecking Ball, had already recorded one of Deeper Well’s finest songs for her transitional 1993 album, Cowgirl’s Prayer, which preceded Wrecking Ball and would be her last mainstream country project as a solo artist. “Jerusalem Tomorrow,” offers up the spoken first-person confession of a phony faith healer who finds his ill-gotten fortunes reversed in a desert town when he learns of another man who has made an impression on the townsfolk. “Instead of calling down fire from above, he just gets real quiet and talks about love,” an old man tells the narrator, who adds that the stranger doesn’t ask for money from his followers. Once he meets up with the mysterious man, he decides to follow him on his journey, which is when the origin of the song’s title and a chill-raising denouement are revealed.
Olney performed “Jerusalem Tomorrow” during an appearance on Nashville’s Music City Roots radio show in 2010, and in 2012 told the Los Angeles Beat, “I was discovering this guy, what’s he gonna do now? It was odd because it didn’t take a real long time to write that song. It seemed like I’d been following that guy forever, but I didn’t know who he was. [Laughs] So, the things that come as a surprise in the songs came as a surprise to me in the process of writing the songs.”