As the title track of his latest album One Tough Town suggests, David Olney is part classic showman and part unconventional experimenter. With his craggy, deadpan delivery—coolly dragging his notes until they’re nearly off-key—and banjo and tuba loping along behind him, he splices together the song’s sepia-toned storyline in refreshingly unexpected ways.
“The idea I had was a vaudeville comedian being abducted by aliens and taken to a place where they appreciate pies in the face and slapstick and that kind of stuff, and they made him president or king,” says Olney. “And he’s thinking back on his days on earth—‘earth is one tough town.’ I’d like to think that I’m in the tradition of guys who go on the road and ‘see if it plays in Peoria.’ You try to dress it up as being more Keatsian or somehow more romantic, but basically you put on a checkered suit and the boutonniere that squirts water. It’s all song and dance.”
Three decades of songwriting in Nashville is enough to harden anyone in their ways. Even so, with Olney’s 17th release, he’s managed to shake loose well-learned habits like writing primarily on his own and using guitar as his workhorse instrument. Up until now, the Rhode Island native’s albums have been populated with precious few co-writes or covers (there are none at all on 1981’s Contender—recorded when he was still fronting the X-Rays—1989’s Deeper Well or 2003’s Border Crossing), but six of the 13 tracks on One Tough Town are co-writes (five of them with John Hadley).
“I hadn’t had a whole lot of experience co-writing,” says Olney. “I used to be very defensive about making sure I’d written the song—‘it’s my song, my point of view.’ Part of letting that go a little bit was to go in with an idea and then hear somebody else’s take on it. If I don’t like what [John] comes up with, I can say it. He’s not going to be offended.”
Here, the acoustic guitar is frequently overshadowed by droll, seedy horns, banjo and ukulele, with the whole outfit anchored by tuba (“Instead of bass I thought, ‘What else makes a low noise? Well, tuba does.’ ”)—the result of a sonic identity crisis of sorts.
“I think it was because it was decades in,” says Olney. “I made a bunch of records, and you try this and you try that.” To stir the pot a bit he sought out the unfamiliar—a producer (Jack Irwin), players and instrumentation he’d never worked with before. Olney tested the waters during the first session with “Sweet Potato”—a frivolous vegetable-as-a-pet-name Dixieland jazz tune peppered with ad-libbed cackles and comments.
“Everyone’s in their little compartment [in Irwin’s studio] and I don’t know them, I don’t know who they are,” he says. “It was very odd. Especially if you’re going to do something as stupid as ‘Sweet Potato.’ What are you going to say? ‘I wrote this for my mother?’
“I still want people to know ‘Oh yeah, he wrote this song,’ ” he continues. “But I thought more about how the music could sound like an ensemble piece, if I could make it fit into a bigger sort of musical landscape. It’s not like I follow Björk—or however you say her name. I think she’s pretty good. But she’s working real hard to let you know that this is her particular vision of whatever’s going on. And that’s the way I used to be.”
Olney has long coaxed his vivid, literate narratives from the quirkiest of songwriting ideas. In his hands, inanimate objects—like the sharp-tongued ventriloquist’s dummy in “Who’s the Dummy Now?”—spring to life. “Well, once you decide to do it, they’re not really objects anymore,” he says. “I mean, they’re just human beings dressed up as objects.”
Not every unorthodox song idea has panned out. There was the one about “how the world looked to a sheep.” (“It’s just pretty dull. What do you say? They’re sort of fluffy slackers. ‘You want me to go there? I’ll go there. Got anything to eat?’ ”) Or the “Cyrano de Bergerac” takeoff. (“It was going to be ‘A Voice of My Own,’ about someone who was physically unattractive constantly losing out to better-looking people in his pursuit of love. But the problem was he’d be singing about how he didn’t have a voice of his own. Then who the fuck is singing this song?”)
Co-writing has helped Olney to find even more ways of “screwing around with what actually goes on when you write a song.” “Postcard From Mexico”—a racy call-and-response number—is a case in point. “It was the concept of one person writ[ing] the front of the line and not knowing what the other person was going to put at the end of the line,” he says. “And I think we just sort of chaos-theoried it. We hadn’t even said what the song was about.”
Olney’s vaudevillian self-presentation is a source of theatricality during his performances, though not the only one. (“I remember playing Springwater years ago. There was like 20 complete alkies in front of me. It just seemed so touching to me to make the effort—‘I’ll pretend that you’re a classy audience if you pretend that I’m a classy act.’ ”). With his lack of confessional material, every song is a bit of acting.
“I would not—just ’cause of my personal quirks or whatever—be able to tell people the true facts of my life and the sordid details and blah blah,” says Olney. “I can’t do it directly. But if I go through somebody else then I can get into the vast morass of whatever’s going on inside me.”
Confessional or not, songs like “Oh Yeah (Dead Man’s Shoes)”—with its dingy, sinister irreverence and runaway wah-wah trombone—are a way for Olney to purge the dark and ugly corners of his imagination. “I remember the train of thought on that,” he says. “ ‘I wouldn’t hold up a drugstore. This is totally wrong.’ And then you’re going, ‘Just do one more verse and then we can stop.’ ”
“If I wasn’t able to [write songs], I think I’d be in a tower with a high-powered rifle,” he adds. “I think it might come out in more socially unacceptable ways.”
For Olney, the appeal of a song lies in balancing innovation and simplicity.
“I’d write an old folk-song or blues-song type thing and it would get progressively more complicated, at which point writer’s block would settle in like a bad cold,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘If Buddy Holly were alive…’ and try to write a song that he might do. The lyrical things that you think about get real complicated, and then you have to just jettison the whole thing and go back to ‘I love you, I love you,’ which is not so bad.”
“I’ve been back to square one so many times I almost wonder how many more trips I get.”
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