Over his four-decade career, David Olney has built a reputation not as a kind-hearted troubadour but rather as a performing songwriter possessed of a sharp literary mind that cuts to the bone of the human condition. Whether the subject matter is heartbreak or armed robbery, Olney's cinematic style and fearless approach to lyric writing have won him renown as kind of a musical outlaw. Listening to his latest CD, One Tough Town, due out on June 5 on Red Parlor, is like watching a Sergio Leone Western: It's gritty, smart and dangerous, and you can't take your eyes off the screen.
One Tough Town takes us on a back-roads tour of American music, and while totally entertaining, shows us a side that isn't always pretty. The dark-edged title track, for instance, is the kind of song that can only be written from first-hand experience and years on the road. But as Nietzsche's old saw reminds: "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." And on One Tough Town, Olney is stronger than ever.
A veteran of the Nashville alternative group The X-Rays, who recorded for Rounder, appeared on "Austin City Limits" and opened for Elvis Costello in the '80s, Olney then made several acclaimed solo albums for such labels as Rounder/Philo, Dead Reckoning and Loud House Records. His songs have been covered by numerous artists, including Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Del McCoury and even Chicago bluesman Lonnie Brooks.
One of Olney's biggest admirers was the late, great Townes Van Zandt, who said of him: "Anytime anyone asks me who my favorite music writers are, I say Mozart, Lightnin' Hopkins, Bob Dylan and David Olney. Olney is one of the best songwriters I've ever heard — and that's true. I mean that from my heart."
In 2005, Olney teamed with producer Jack Irwin (The Legendary Shack Shakers, Stacey Earle & Mark Stuart) and began recording at Irwin's studio with guitarist Sergio Webb. He enlisted some unconventional instrumentation (tuba, banjo, clarinet, ukulele) and proceeded to let it rip.
According to Olney, "I see One Tough Town as a retrospective of a hundred years of American music. Blues, country, rock, swing and all stops in between. No such vision can be complete. There's just too much to cover to achieve that goal. But it has been my life's work, and my life's pleasure, to see how close I can come."