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David Olney comes around again with "The Wheel”

By Clarissa Sansone, May 2003

The voice that says "Hello" is gravelly and carries an almost menacing undertone. In its wake flows a slight drawl. Its directness is more farmer than philosopher, its lilt more Dixie than Yankee. Overall, the effect is somewhat intimidating. Would this be the one, the interview in which the musician takes the reporter to task for inane questions, flagrant misreadings of his songs and a woeful lack of historical musical knowledge?

Thankfully, no. But David Olney's wise, blunt responses make you wake up and pay attention, just as his songs make listeners confront those questions we fear to ask ourselves: questions about life and death, about good, evil and whether we're always able to distinguish between the two.

"The Wheel," Olney's 13th album and 1st on Austin's Loudhouse Records, uses classic American musical forms such as ballads, hymns and the blues to explore these timeless themes; the album closes, appropriately, with a round, a form that holds no strict beginning or end, but lulls with its cyclic cadence. Although the songs are thematically connected, Olney didn't wake up one day and conceive of an album of cycles.

Instead, Olney says, "I went in and recorded some songs. Listening to them, I saw a sort of imagery that was popping up."

Other, previously written songs of his used similar imagery. Olney saw an album emerging.

The album's theme, like the album itself, evolved more organically than consciously. Olney was not overtly grappling with the notion of wheels and their metaphorical implications, and he didn't make a record to convey any particular theory regarding them.

Rather, he used the theme as a thread to tie together lyrically what was musically a disparate collection. "If I'm going to be jumping around the map," Olney says, referring to his use of rock-n-roll, waltzes, slow ballads, and raw roots music all on the same record, then "I need something to ground me."

Lyrical content isn't the only common ground in Olney's songs; they also share a similar lyrical tone. A resigned, melancholy wisdom, a kind of Depression-era sensibility, recurs in the songs on "The Wheel" as well as on Olney's other records, such as 1999's "Through a Glass Darkly" on Rounder.

Olney sees this bittersweetness simply as a product of living life. "When you're 20, you just want to stand out," he says. Later on, "you basically try to fit in, in the basic things in life." Once "I figured out I wasn't going to be the next Elvis Presley," Olney says, he accepted life on its own scale and reflected on it in his music.

And he'll be the first to admit that optimism is meted out frugally in his songs. "I don't think it's the kind of music that's going to take over the charts," Olney says of his material, because many tunes deal with death "and what a lot of people find depressing."

Perhaps a Gothic strain makes sense in the music of a man who was born in New England, but claims to be a Southerner at heart, as his liner notes imply. After living in the South for 36 years, Olney still considers himself "somewhat of an outsider," but at the same time identifies with the "underlying mysticism" in the South, as manifested in its religion, music, and literature.

The North, on the other hand, is rational, and "I was glad to get away from that," Olney says.

Art forms from the North are more often "an intellectual exercise," while in the South the artistic process is "much more emotion-based." Northerners seem taciturn while Southerners are talkative. Also, Olney says, "All the music that I really liked as a kid came from the South."

Olney was born in Rhode Island and moved to North Carolina to attend the University of North Carolina.

He played guitar since he was 13 and curtailed his studies to concentrate on performing music.

"At the time," he says, "folk music was a pretty big deal. I had been performing old folk songs and blues songs, kind of sneaking a song of my own in now and then." He moved to Atlanta, where, his press kit says, he had a "world-changing" moment when opening for Townes Van Zandt in Athens and listening to the well-known Texan perform.

Since 1973, Olney has been living in Nashville, a city both Southern and musical. "I think it was real fortunate that I moved here instead of New York or L.A.," Olney says. The "strict rules" of country music reined in his divergent musical impulses and "grounded" him creatively.

Initially, when Olney considered being a commercial success, the city and the big labels "were driving me crazy," he says. He has since come to terms with the kind of lower-key, noncommercial music he makes and the blockbuster acts that Nashville cultivates.

"I don't want to make it sound like Nashville's just a bunch of cretins making shitty music," says Olney. He acknowledges that "country music's getting a bad rap these days" and respects the fact that "they're completely up front about what they do" in the big-name studios in Nashville. They don't pretend they aren't concerned about commercial appeal.

He is equally conciliatory when discussing his parting with his longtime record label Rounder. Rounder produced 7 of Olney's albums, beginning in 1982 when Olney had a band called the X-Rays. Eventually, says Olney, his "relationship had gotten pretty stale" with the label, which no longer expected many sales from his albums.

"I guess I just wanted a smaller label," to avoid "getting lost in the shuffle," he says. His new label, Loudhouse, promotes him more heavily, and is "really enthusiastic" about it.

He adds, however, that Rounder "will be looked back on" as starting a musical "revolution" with its founding mission of signing and promoting small acts.

In addition to promotion via his label, Olney appreciates what the Internet has done for independent acts, noting how quickly and thoroughly online outlets disseminate touring schedules, articles and general buzz about a performer. "Before the Internet, I think people thought I had died or gotten arrested," he jokes.

Olney has a loyal following in Europe and tours there once a year, as well as completing smaller regional tours in the U.S. "I basically pay my rent on the road," he says. But once the rent's paid, Olney appreciates staying put: "I got a family - a wife and two kids: I can't be out touring too much."

Olney is content with his level of fame and able to concentrate on what's important to him. "There's a certain point in your life where reality is as big as it gets," he says, and you have to stop and enjoy it as it is.