David Olney, an uncommonly thoughtful singer-songwriter whose music has been recorded by the likes of Linda Ronstadt and Steve Earle, died on Saturday after apparently having a heart attack while performing onstage in Seaside, Fla. He was 71.
His manager, Mary Sack, said Mr. Olney was pronounced dead at a hospital nearby. He had undergone surgery for a heart attack a decade ago.
Mr. Olney was stricken while performing at the annual 30A Songwriters Festival, held at venues in and around Seaside, on the Florida Panhandle’s Gulf Coast.
“David was playing a song when he paused, said ‘I’m sorry’ and put his chin to his chest,” Scott Miller, a singer-songwriter who was performing with him, said on Facebook. “He never dropped his guitar or fell off his stool. It was as easy and gentle as he was. We got him down and tried our best to revive him until the EMT’s arrived.”
Mr. Olney never had a hit single or won a Grammy Award, but in folk-rock and Americana circles, he is revered for his poetic sensibility and gruff-voiced storytelling, especially by his fellow songwriters, including his musical hero, Townes Van Zandt.
“Anytime anyone asks me who my favorite music writers are, I say Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bob Dylan and Dave Olney,” Mr. Van Zandt wrote in the liner notes to Mr. Olney’s 1991 album, “Roses.” “Dave Olney is one of the best songwriters I’ve ever heard — and that’s true. I mean that from the heart.”
Emmylou Harris has recorded several of Mr. Olney’s songs, including “Deeper Well,” which appeared on her Grammy-winning 1995 album, “Wrecking Ball.” Other songs of his recorded by others include “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” (Mr. Earle), “Women Cross the River” (Ms. Ronstadt) and “Queen Anne’s Lace” (Del McCoury).
“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,” Ms. Harris said in a statement on Mr. Olney’s website.
Mr. Olney at times approached his richly imagined character studies from unusual if not implausible perspectives. His wryly titled “Hymn of Brays” was written from the point of view of the donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem. The ballad “Titanic” is told from the standpoint of the iceberg that sank the ship. Another song was about the Hall of Fame Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto.
“I have always read a lot,” Mr. Olney explained in a 2014 interview for a roots music website. “Besides being a cheap source of entertainment, literature gives constant lessons in how to tell a story.”
David Charles Olney was born on March 23, 1948, in Providence, R.I. His father, Peter Butler Olney, worked as a manager in a cotton plant; his mother, Francis (Swift) Olney, taught elementary school.
The second of three children raised in Lincoln, R.I., Mr. Olney had what he described as an “idyllic” childhood. At 15 he saw Ray Charles in concert and a year or so later, in 1964, was in the audience at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island when Bob Dylan made his first appearance there. David was 12 when he received his first guitar.
After high school he briefly pursued a degree in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he spent more time playing folk music in bars than studying.
Mr. Olney moved to Nashville in the early 1970s and fell in with similarly literary-minded singer-songwriters like Mr. Van Zandt, Mr. Earle and Guy Clark. Later he formed Dave Olney & the X-Rays, a new wave-inspired rock band that released a pair of albums in the early ’80s. The group also opened shows for Elvis Costello and appeared on the PBS series “Austin City Limits.”
The X-Rays disbanded in 1985, after which Mr. Olney proceeded to release more than 20 albums, tour extensively and distinguish himself as a widely admired, if not quite famous, singer-songwriter.
He is survived by his wife of 30 years, Regine (Popp) Olney; a son, Redding; a daughter, Lillian Olney; a brother, Peter; and a sister, Debby Atwell.
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