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A most peaceful passing: Folk-rock legend quietly passes away onstage

A most peaceful passing: Folk-rock legend quietly passes away onstage

Singer and songwriter David Olney has passed away at age 71, after falling silent and dropping his head while in the midst of a performance at the 30A Songwriters Festival in Florida on January 18.

The performer had taken a pause on his stool, leading audience members and musicians playing alongside him to think he was simply taking a moments break, before realisation dawned and they lowered him to the stage.

Olney was giving his second performance of the day at the festival as part of an “in the round” song-swap show with Amy Rigby – who was sitting next to him and described his last moments.

Rigby wrote on Facebook. “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.”

Miller himself said the situation was as “gentle” as he was.

“David was playing a song when he paused, said ‘I’m sorry’ and put his chin to his chest. He never dropped his guitar or fell of his stool. It was as easy and gentle as he was. 

“We got him down and tried our best to revive him until the EMTs arrived. … The world lost a good one last night. But we still have his work. And it still inspires. And always will. RIP.”

David Olney performing during the Dave Alvin's ' West of the West ' train tour at the Soiled Dove in Denver, Colorado on April 23, 2015.

Olney was considered a remarkable figure in his own right, for his contribution to the folk-rock genre and along with producing over 20 albums, many artists including Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Del McCoury and his former roommate Steve Earle went on to cover his music.

The late Townes Van Zandt famously said of Olney: “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.” 

Emmylou Harris brought attention to Olney’s song writing skills with her covers of “Jerusalem Tomorrow” in 1993 and “Deeper Well” on her essential 1995 album “Wrecking Ball.”

Olney first came to attention as a member of the band X-Rays which was signed to the Rounder label in the 1980s and notably opened up for Elvis Costello.

The singer had only just finished recording a new album for fans.

Brett Ryan Stewart wrote on his Facebook page: “Yesterday, myself, Anana and Irakli had spent the day making final revisions to the album we made with David Olney.

“In the very same moment that we hit the save button, collectively yelling ‘We did it!’ we got the news that David, who was in Florida performing, had passed away, on stage. 

“It’s all very surreal. … I am so grateful for our time together. I recognized a kindred spirit in him from day one. His stories, his encouragement, his wisdom.

“Hands down was of the funniest, gentlest, most thoughtful and charming curmudgeons to have graced the earth. Was really looking forward to more.” 

Olney was completing his third performance of the fest when he sadly passed away, having performed the previous night in-the-round with Amelia White and Mary Bragg before his solo show Saturday afternoon.

Olney was scheduled to appear this week at the Folk Alliance gathering in New Orleans.

Emmylou Harris said Olney had a way of telling “marvellous 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.”

Olney is survived by his wife, Regine, daughter, Lillian, and son, Redding. Services have not yet been set.