There is a group of great American songwriters who make the process seem so effortless that sometimes their brilliance is taken for granted. Their chord structures are simple, mostly played on acoustic guitars, and sometimes fleshed out with another instrument or two. The voices are deep, sometimes even gruff, but oddly soothing. The years of life on the road have caused them to move a little bit slower. They are past the point where they’re going to be trying anything new, but, but it’s the old stuff we want anyway. They still have stories to tell.
Last year I was fortunate enough to see two artists who have reached these lofty heights. At the Newport Folk Festival I encountered Guy Clark, who performed a transcendent set in front of a rapturous audience. Earlier in the year, at SXSW in Austin, I had a chance to see David Olney. He was playing on the outdoor patio of an Irish pub, on a bill with a bunch of other songwriters, including the wonderful James McMurtry. It was the second time I’d seen Olney. The first time, he was the opening act at a small club in Philadelphia called the Tin Angel. Opening act or not, his set that night was indelible, and his set that warm afternoon in Austin was equally memorable.
David Olney has a new album, his 22nd since his first release in 1981. It’s called Dutchman’s Curve (Deadbeet Records), and the title comes from the name of the place, near Nashville, TN, where the worst train wreck in early American history took place in 1918. Not coincidentally, the site is not far from the Nashville studio where Olney made the album with producer Jack Irwin. There are some nice production touches, including the use of the unusual-for-Olney sounds of big horns, tin whistles, ukulele, and autoharp. But it’s the songs that count, and if anything that is even more true in this genre given the simplicity of the presentation. Olney is accompanied, as he has been for several years, by the imaginative guitar stylings of Sergio Webb, who leads a strong supporting cast.
While a strong blues strain runs through several of the songs, it’s Olney’s more tender folk songs that appeal to me. “If I Were You” sports a evocative tango rhythm that recalls classics like “Spanish Harlem.” The beautiful, finger-picked “Mister Vermeer” is inspired by the work of the great Dutch painter, and “Covington Girl” tells the story of an unusually gentle train robbery. Oh, and there’s a very nice cover of the Flamingos classic “I Only Have Eyes For You.”