Editor’s note: No day is promised, it’s true. If you’re sensitive enough to be bothered by this you’re likely to pursue some form of comfort and meaning. Some turn to drugs and drink, some rely on the purpose that comes from service to others, some find solace in the company of friends and lovers, some are driven to expression and art.
Knowing David Olney provided a respite from this existential uncertainty. His work was beautiful, honest, compassionate, accessible, and at times profound. He was a humble and generous soul who took to his craft with a sense of devotion, responsibility, and care. He was also funny as hell.
Following are some photographs of David and his longtime collaborator Sergio Webb performing at the Shitty Barn in Spring Green, Wisconsin in 2013. The event was documented by Nath Dresser, a fantastic songwriter, performer, and (as you’ll see below) photographer.
We’re deeply saddened by this loss, and profoundly grateful for the lessons and gifts David Olney so freely offered.
I had the good fortune to photograph David Olney and Sergio Webb at the Shitty Barn, a music venue here in Spring Green, Wisconsin, on September 18, 2013. I’d seen Olney four times previously, including a house concert at which I opened for him and Sergio, but this was the only time I photographed him and his performance.
A master songwriter and story-teller, Olney may as well have been talking of himself when he had the speaker in “Jerusalem Tomorrow” say, “I could tell a tale, I could make it spin.” Whatever the song called for, Olney was always ready to provide, whether writing or performing; on stage, he was a driven, even theatrical performer. For Olney, the song was a whole, the music and words working together, and whatever he and Sergio did served the purpose of furthering that song, imbuing it with a life of its own.
The thing that I remember most about this particular evening at the Shitty Barn, though, happened at the end of the soundcheck. As he and Webb stepped away from the mics to put up their instruments, Olney professed he’d have no idea what to do with a camera, what to photograph, or how. I told him that it was much like songwriting: there’s a story to tell, and some things are in focus at one point in the song, while others lurk in the background, barely discernible in bokeh, the out-of-focus area–though they, too, may be brought into focus later in the song. He paused to consider that, but, as humble and generous he was talented, still claimed he would have no idea what to photograph.
The story goes that after seeing Townes Van Zandt play one evening some five decades ago, David Olney left school in Chapel Hill, NC, moved to Nashville, and became a performing songwriter. I suspect that if Olney had met Robert Frank or Henri Cartier-Bresson, it’s possible he might have become a photographer capable of telling powerful and poignant stories with light and shadow rather than words. But I’m glad he was the relentless reader he was, always hungry for words and stories, and that he met Townes and went on to become such a consummate songwriter and performer.
David Olney died on January 18, 2020, on stage, mid-song, guitar in his arms. He was 71, doing what he loved for eager listeners who admired and loved him . . . but he left us way too soon.
Rest now, David, in the shade of the trees. . . .