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Singer-Songwriter David Olney Dies At Age 71

Jan 22, 2020
Originally published on January 21, 2020 8:15 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some sad news from the music world now - renowned Americana singer-songwriter David Olney died on Saturday at the age of 71.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Olney was known for his thoughtful, narrative lyrics, like "Hymn Of Brays," which told the perspective of the donkey carrying Jesus Christ into Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HYMN OF BRAYS")

DAVID OLNEY: (Singing) Only a poor beast of burden, but once I bore a king upon my back.

MARTIN: Mary Sack was Olney's manager for more than 15 years. She still remembers hearing him perform for the first time after wandering into a show in 1999.

MARY SACK: By the end of the song that he was playing when I walked in, the walls had fallen away. The ceiling had peeled back. And all the chasm of people between me and him - all of it disappeared, and all that was there was the song and him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

OLNEY: You only get one chance to play for somebody for the first time. And when they enjoy it, it's the most satisfying feeling.

MARTIN: That's Olney speaking to station WUWF at the 30A Songwriters Festival in Florida on the day that he died.

KING: He was born in 1948 in Providence, R.I. And he picked up a guitar when he was a kid and then later dropped out of college to pursue music in Nashville.

MARTIN: Olney would come to inspire many musicians. His song "Deeper Well" has been covered by artists, including Emmylou Harris and the Wailin' Jennys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEEPER WELL")

EMMYLOU HARRIS: (Singing) Found I had a thirst that I could not quell. Looking for the water from a deeper well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEEPER WELL")

THE WAILIN' JENNYS: (Singing) Hey, hey, hey - looking for the water from a deeper well.

KING: He composed sonnets and haiku, and he also worked with the Nashville Shakespeare Festival as an actor and composer. Sack says he sometimes got distracted by his focus on the rhythms of words.

SACK: He was walking and walking and walking and writing his music in his head. And it was starting to get dark, and he looked up and he realized he had no idea where he was (laughter). He had to call somebody to come and fetch him.

MARTIN: He was performing Sunday when he died of an apparent heart attack.

SACK: He paused and put his chin on his chest and said, I'm sorry, and closed his eyes, and that was it.

MARTIN: Sack hopes Olney's music will continue to reach people.

KING: In fact, he expressed that very desire on his final day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

OLNEY: You either can get to them or it's time to leave town. It's very exciting, actually.

KING: Olney is survived by his wife and two children.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JERUSALEM TOMORROW")

OLNEY: (Singing) I could tell a tale. I could make it spin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.