Nashville-based country singer-songwriter David Olney died on Saturday at age 71. Olney suffered an apparent heart attack during a performance at the 30A Songwriter Festival in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. His songs have been recorded by Linda Ronstadt, Mike Cross, Emmylou Harris, Steve Young, Del McCoury and many others.
Amy Rigby, who was set to perform with Olney and Scott Miller during the festival, wrote on Facebook that Olney stopped performing during his third song. He apologized to the audience, shut his eyes and suddenly became very still.
"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," Rigby wrote. "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."
Rigby later sent her condolences to his family and wrote she "can't believe he's really gone."
"I am so sorry for his wife and family and friends and all the people who loved him and his music," she wrote. "Even those who never heard of him. We all lost someone important last night."
Olney was born in Providence, Rhode Island on March 23, 1948. He began performing in the early 1970s and moved to Nashville in 1973. His music mixed a brand of literary skill and imagery with a country and roots rock sound. His work often recast historical figures in new contexts, and brought familiar tales to unique places.
"I started out doing that with Bible stories," Olney explained in a 2003 interview with No Depression. "It's difficult for me to buy those stories, in a religious sense, but the stories themselves have a whole lot of power. I wanted to go back and look at them from a different angle, and not worry about the moral aspect of it, or the religious part. I just wanted to present the story, and see if I could still convey the power of these things. I found that that worked pretty good for me, because I didn’t have to worry about revealing the details of my personal life. Instead I could ask myself what I might do if I were that person, in this situation."
Olney recorded more than 20 albums throughout his three-plus decades in the music business. He was a member of the group The X-Rays, which had a contract with Rounder Records during the 1980s.
"David Olney tells marvelous stories, with characters who cling to the hope of enduring love, all the while crossing the deep divide into that long, dark night of the soul," Harris once said of Olney.
Ronstadt recorded his songs "Women Cross the River" and "1917" with Harris. Harris also recorded his song "Jerusalem Tomorrow" and co-wrote "Deeper Well" with Daniel Lanois and Olney.
Olney is survived by his wife Regine, daughter Lillian and son Redding, according to his website. He was scheduled to perform at Folk Alliance International 2020 in New Olreans on Wednesday and Thursday, and was scheduled to perform at Douglas Corner Cafe in Nashville on Feb. 13.
Photo credit: Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images