David Olney, the Americana singer and songwriter whose poetic often intricate writing style made an impact on Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, and Emmylou Harris, died Saturday from an apparent heart attack following a performance at the 30A Songwriters Festival in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. He was 71. Olney’s publicist confirmed his death.
Born in Rhode Island in 1948, Olney did a stint at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill studying English literature before shuffling through Georgia, where he had an epiphany at a Townes Van Zandt concert. He moved to Nashville in the early Seventies and pursued a career as a songwriter and composer. Impossible to label — his music touched on folk, country, and roots rock — he found his first success fronting the new wave band the X-Rays and delivered a stunning, theatrical performance on Austin City Limits in 1982.
In 1986, he released his first solo album Eye of the Storm, followed two years later by Deeper Well. Emmylou Harris would go on to cut the Deeper Well song “Jerusalem Tomorrow” for 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer, along with Deeper Well‘s title track for her 1995 LP Wrecking Ball.
Olney released the album Roses in 1991, which featured a quote from no less than Van Zandt in the liner notes. “Anytime 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,” he said.
Other artists who recorded or performed Olney’s songs include Earle (“Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”), Linda Ronstadt (“Women Cross the River”) and Del McCoury (“Queen Anne’s Lace”).
In 2014, Olney put out the record When the Deal Goes Down, whose title track wrestled with religion, faith, and the underlying need to know that there’s some sort of plan. “People need to feel their life has meaning and that they’re loved and accepted when the deal goes down,” he said in a 2014 Nashville Scene cover story. “That was a song giving helpful advice to God about how to run the universe.”
Olney released Don’t Try to Fight It in 2017; his final album was 2018’s This Side or the Other. Prior to his death, Olney was performing with songwriters Amy Rigby and Scott Miller at the annual 30A Songwriters Festival. According to Rigby, he died onstage. “Olney was in the middle of his third song when he stopped, apologized and shut his eyes,” she wrote on Facebook. “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.”