Prolific Americana artist David Olney plays Root Boy Productions show on Thursday
Many folk singer/songwriters use their songs as a form of therapy where they sing about their troubles in front of sympathetic audiences across the globe.
David Olney, however, is not your typical Americana songwriter.
The master storyteller who’s been performing more than 40 years as a solo artist and a bandleader prefers to use his songs as a vehicle to create characters with their own troubles, desires and feelings. Those stories have been covered by some of the greatest singers in Nashville, too, including Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Young and Lonnie Brooks, among others.
Olney performs some of these songs on Thursday at Machinery Row. The Root Boy Productions show starts at 7:30 p.m.
Olney is on tour promoting his latest album, “When the Deal Goes Down,” which was released earlier this month.
He said in an interview with Big Sky State Buzz that even though he’s recorded more than 25 records in his career, with “When the Deal Goes Down,” he found it easy to attempt some things he’s never done before.
“I had a good time recording with a new producer, I was in the studio with Mark Robinson, and it was a very, very pleasant thing,” he said. “I haven’t ever recorded with that particular rhythm section … we played a couple of gigs but recording in the studio is a much more intense experience and they were great.”
One of his most popular songs is called “Wait Here For the Cops,” in which his guitarist Sergio Webb imitates a police siren on the guitar.
Olney continues performing with Webb to this day, whom he calls “a guitar genius who fills up a lot of sonic space.”
As for his style of songwriting, Olney said he looks at it through a theatrical lens in that he’s creating these personalities and if he does it right, the audience goes on a trip with them throughout the evening.
“All of my songs are little plays, and you know I feel like I’m an actor but I don’t have to be all the things going on in the songs,” he said. “I think it’s a muscle in your head you develop, to, you know, create people and then make them full and nuanced and put them into songs.”
On his title track of the latest record, “When the Deal Goes Down,” he said the character is essentially giving God advice on how to run the universe. Advice he said sarcastically he’s, “sure God greatly appreciates if he happens to exist.”
The song came about after he was hit in the arm by a car and was a little steamed about the whole situation, but, as he said earlier, the song wasn’t about that situation, only slightly inspired by it.
Many of his songs have inspired others, as well, something he said he’s extremely grateful for because it takes a lot of extra work to perfect.
“I know how much work that is and it’s really satisfying that someone cares enough to do my song,” he said.
As for hearing people such as Harris and Ronstadt cover his songs, he said he feels blessed to have such elite entertainers perform his work.
“It’s thrilling and it’s the greatest,” he said. “When someone like Emmylou Harris does your song, it gives you instant credibility, but at the same time, if some unknown garage band down the street sings the song, then it’s the same thrill to me because somehow or another you’ve been able to connect with another mind out there and that’s kind of miraculous to me.”
Harris covered two of his songs on different albums, “Jerusalem Tomorrow” on her 1993 album “Cowgirl’s Prayer” and Olney’s song “Deeper Well” was covered by Harris on her popular album “Wrecking Ball” from 1995.
Harris and Ronstadt together covered his song “1917” on their duo album “Western Wall: The Tuscon Sessions.”
He said while he doesn’t often cover others’ songs much anymore, he has made an effort to keep doing it. He said on “When the Deal Goes Down,” he does cover one song from Australian writer Bill Jackson. The name of that song is “Something in Blue,” which Jackson recorded in 2011 on his album “Jerilderie.”
Another reason Olney is somewhat of a rarity is that he’s also one of the few remaining voices from a different era of Nashville which embraced outlaw music. He said today’s Nashville scene, conversely, is too accepting of the status quo.
“When I first came to town, the outlaw movement with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson made a serious dent in the music scene in Nashville, and those songs are very much more gritty and more ornery and less likely to proclaim everything is beautiful,” he said.
“I started listening to country radio for the last four days driving around Montana and it seems like everybody is going to the beach and having a beer or checking out the tan lines, and it’s all basically a load of crap.”
Olney said part of the reason for that is that it’s much more expensive and risky for studios to release music so it’s harder to take risks in mainstream country music. He added, though, that there are good young songwriters out there, it’s just harder to gain traction.
One big way Olney has plugged into this generation of music fans is through a weekly YouTube web series titled “You Never Know,” which he started in 2012. The series of videos usually involve Olney talking about his music and then performing a few songs.
Olney said after his manager Mary Sack encouraged him to give it a go, he’s found that it allows him to connect with his fans in a whole new way.
“You just sit there and talk as if someone is there, but they’re not there except the person holding the camera but you’re talking to imaginary people,” he said. “Playing to imaginary people seemed very strange but pretty quickly I started running into people at concerts who would say, ‘Oh yeah, I saw that thing you did on YouTube,’ so it works and it’s a nice personal way to present a song, I think.”
But while Olney uses his videos to reach out into the social networking scene, don’t expect to find him on Twitter or Facebook anytime soon.
“if people paid money to hear me play, I’m supposed to be skilled in the area of songwriting and be different then they are, otherwise they wasted their money,” he said. “So this whole Facebook deal is emphasizing how everyone is the same and to me, that’s not completely healthy. I don’t want to be a jerk about it, but I want people to know that this (songwriting) is my strength.”
Admission to Thursday’s show is $12 in advance or $15 at the door. Advanced tickets are available online at rootboyproductions.com