Legendary Songwriter David Olney Dies While Performing Onstage

photo: John Partipilo

It’s the often-used cliche to say someone died while doing what they love. For some, it’s a dream they wish upon. For David Olney, it was a reality.

The beloved songwriter for Emmylou Harris and others, who Townes Van Zandt once praised by saying, “Any time anyone asks me who my favorite music writers are… I say Mozart, Lightnin Hopkins, Bob Dylan and Dave Olney. Dave Olney is one of the best songwriters I’ve ever heard – and that’s true. I mean that from my heart,” died on Saturday, January 17th during mid performance at the 30A Songwriters Festival in Santa Rose Beach, Florida.

“David Olney, a beautiful man, a legend, a songwriting poet died last night,” fellow songwriter Amy Rigby shared on social media. “I was sitting next to him in the round, had been so honored and looking forward to getting to trade songs with him and Scott Miller. Olney was in the middle of his third song when he stopped, apologized, and shut his eyes. 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- 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 … We all lost someone important last night.”

David Olney was 71-years-old. No official cause of death has been given.

“Important” is a good way to describe the life and contributions of David Olney. “Jerusalem Tomorrow” was one of the first songs Emmylou Harris recorded from Olney in 1993. He would go on to co-write what many consider one of Emmylou’s most important songs, “Deeper Well” off her iconic 1995 record, Wrecking Ball. But that’s just where the songwriting credits for David Olney begin. Linda Ronstadt, Steve Earle, Steve Young, Del McCoury, Slaid Cleaves, and Laurie Lewis were just some of the many artists who covered or composed songs with David Olney over his nearly 50 year songwriting career.

But the Providence, Rhode Island native had his own performing career as well, releasing over 20 albums spanning four decades, including with the band he helped form, “The X-Rays,” who were signed to Rounder Records, and appeared on Austin City Limits. Olney performed regularly at songwriter festivals like 30A in Florida, and was schedule to perform at Folk Alliance in New Orleans this upcoming week.

Born March 23rd, 1948, David Charles Olney attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, dropping out before he could graduate to join Bland Simpson in recording the 1971 live album Simpson in New York, and eventually relocating to Atlanta. In 1973, Olney moved to Nashville and began writing and pitching songs to record labels with moderate success, along with forming the X-Rays. But as a solo performer is where he would be most prolific, recording for Rounder, Philco, and other labels over the years. Fans of his songwriting would often join him Tuesday nights online for his “You Never Know” Songwriter Series on YouTube.

David Olney was also a cinematographer and producer who worked on numerous shorts and documentaries.

As tragic of a passing as it is, a more storybook ending could never be composed for a songwriter as pure and dedicated to the craft of putting words to music like David Olney.

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