This is an e-interview with Tommy Goldsmith, long-time friend and producer of David Olney’s first albums for Rounder until Roses released in 1991. Therefore, this interview is focused on David's early career.
Tommy Goldsmith produced Tom House' Til You've seen Mine as well as many compilations about traditionnal American music (See links at the bottom of the page). He has also played with David' Olney' X-Rays, the Contenders and the Nashville Jug Band.
This interview shines a new light on 30 years of friendship, a great songwriter and the Nashville music scene as a whole.
Thank you Tommy.
About the beginnings
The first albums for Philo
Townes and other artists
About the future
About the beginnings
Q1 Tommy, you say you know David since you were 16. Did you grow up together, go to school together, play music together since you were kids?
didn't grow up together from childhood. As best I recall I met Dave when I was a
junior in high school. He was a friend of one of my sisters, Catharine. She had
gone to college at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, not far
from where we grew up in Raleigh, N.C. I was already playing guitar and singing
and she came home saying, "You have to meet this guy David Olney, he's a a
great singer and he writes songs." So we met and played together and I was
blown away: he liked a lot of the same blues and country traditional stuff that
I did and was also the first person I knew that really concentrated on writing
songs. He was also playing some clubs in Chapel Hill and I started going over
there to play before I was even legally allowed in bars.
Q2 In an interview from 1992, David says he used to play lots of old folk songs and songs by the Carter Family. Was that usual for kids to like and play this type of music in the mid-60's (I think David was born in the early 50's or late 40's I don't know for sure)?
there had been the big folk revival of the '60s, so lots of people were into
going back to earlier types of music. But he and some other folks in Chapel Hill
were unusually dedicated to going back to the real deal. Instead of learning
songs from other folksingers, the point was to find the original musicians,
either on record or in person. It was a great place to learn: there were really
good young musicians playing blues, old-timey music, bluegrass, rhythm and
blues. And the big thing also was to write songs that somehow related to other
things that had gone before, musically. However, we all liked popular music too:
the Beatles, soul music, Buck Owens, Jerry Lee, the Stones, etc. Dave used to do
a great version of Play with Fire by the Stones.
Q3 What other songs did he/you perform? Was he already writing songs? Did you write songs together (I Love My Wife Blues appears on Border Crossing and Fast Eddie on Omar's Blues)?
noted above, he was writing really good songs, I thought, when I met him in
about 1968. Playing tunes by Charlie Poole, Hank Williams, lots of acoustic
blues.We've written maybe half a dozen songs together: there's one called When
Will I Get Over You on the X-Rays album. We wrote one called I'm With the Band,
also in the X-Rays, that's a pretty cool song about those days. Long years ago
we knocked out a song called Strangers to the Blues.There's a funny song called
X-Ray Strut that I wrote music to before I was in that band and then Olney, I
think, and the early Rays wrote some words to it. It was a theme song for the
band, quite funny, or at least heard that way by the boisterous fans. Some other
tunes here and there, I believe. I was sole writer of I Love My Wife, which is
on the recent Contenders CD of live tunes from the '70s.
have no idea what the Simpson's album (1971 sounds like. David says he does not
have a copy for himself. Did you work on it? If yes, what did it sound like?
sort of sounds like the early Band, as best I recall. Dave mainly played guitar
behind Bland Simpson, leader of that band, but also had a couple of little
interludes, one on acoustic guitar and one playing harmonica by himself, I think,
on the Leadbelly tune Black Betty. Bland is still around and last time I checked
was marketing on the Web some recordings from the '70s, produced by Don Dixon
(REM, etc.), some with me on guitar and Jimbeau Walsh, of Contenders, on drums.
He's a professor at UNC in Chapel Hill and played for years in the Red Clay
Q5 You produced David's second album, Contender in 1981. This album is almost pure rock and roll and David's voice reminds me of Southside Johnny's voice. I know the X-Rays were his backing band for five years or so. Did they play solid rock every night? Was David already playing acoustic sets or only rock and roll?
only played guitar and sang on that record. A Music Row session musician and
producer Steve Gibson was the producer. That record is fairly representative of
the kind of music that we did, but most people think the band live was much
rawer and looser than the way we ended up sounding in the studio. I think there
was some belief that Olney could come across, and sell, like some kind of
southern Springsteen. That was never the band's intent, but I remember Steve
told us to go home and listen to The River before the sessions. I had no
intention of listenting to anything by Springsteen if I could help it. I never
particularly liked him. That band was mostly a live deal, I reckon. Big
following in Nashville and a few other places. When it was fun, as it often was,
there was nothing like it. Dave was extremely good at talking, free-associating
and getting crowd going as bandleader. This followed many years of his playing
mostly solo and acoustic. I don't remember doing anything along acoustic lines
in X-Rays. It was rocking all the way. Did some pretty songs and ballads, but in
Q6 Between Contender published in 1981 and Eye of the Storm (1986), the change in musical orientation is radical. Eye of the Storm is more the album of a singer-songwriter (I guess Townes' infamous quote is on the CD cover, maybe not on the LP), than of a "rock n roll star". Do you know why David changed orientations. My personal opinion is that the rock format did not suit him well and that life on tour with a band was hard to bear.
it was hard to support a band without record success, but we enjoyed a lot of
what we did. It got old, especially as we got a little older. That was my last
road gig; I quit when I was 30 and Dave's about three years older than I. He
kept band going for a while and at least one low-profile album, Customized, of
which there were only about 500 copies. Eye of the Storm was just an attempt to
represent the songs on it. I don't remember consciously saying, this will not
rock. You had three X-Rays on there for one thing: John Owen on bass, Rick
Rowell on drums and me on guitar. (actually Rick may have been on Deepter Well
instead, I realize in reading this over) It was just a solo album as opposed to
a band album. Whether rock suited him is a matter of taste; many people here
recall the X-Rays very fondly.
(Neal's question) Did you have any personal connection with Townes van Zandt?
I met Townes in about 1972, through Guy and Suzanne Clark. Steve Runkle and I
were new in town and met them at a club. They invited us to their little house
in East Nashville to pick. Townes was there and also Jerry Jeff Walker, who was
a much bigger deal at that time. Townes and Jerry Jeff got in some long argument
over the way Jerry Jeff had changed a song of Townes in a way Townes didn't like.
This went on at length, but there was lots of good music played. Guy was writing
songs like A Nickel for the Fiddler and LA Freeway, and Townes was
Townes. I was friends with Townes off and on throughout his life, though
sometimes long periods would pass without my seeing him. We played together
several times and talked about my working on the road with him, but it never
happened. On top of everything else, he was a wonderful talker. I had this idea
to make a movie of him, just talking, a la My Dinner with Andre. People would
have been riveted. He could be so funny about just anything. Loved bad jokes, as
the world knows.
Did you invite David Olney over to play on Tom House's Till You've Seen Mine?
I've always liked Dave's musicianship, particularly on harmonica. I was getting
lots of folks in who matched to some degree what Tom did. Olney and I also
produced a tape of Tom back several years ago that's really cool, but never has
come out. On Long Hard Drinking, that's Dave playing harmonica and singing
a bass part. Wherever there's harmonica, that's Dave. Sister’s Song.
Q9 I have the impression that David writes or co-writes an awful lot of songs. Who chooses the songs in the studio? Who does the final choice? Are there lots of takes for the same song or unreleased outtakes?
and I would get together and go through dozens of tunes and try to come up with
a group of songs that seemed to have some coherence. There would usually be, and
this is true in most situations like this, some songs that the artist and the
producer both really wanted, some that artist especially wanted and some that
the producer felt really strongly about. But as producer it would never occur to
me to insist on a song that Dave, or anyone, didn't want on the record. They
were all his songs anyway.Seems like he would either give me or we would make
cassettes of a bunch of songs and I would listen over and over until a shape
started to emerge. That was also useful for getting ideas for arrangements. I
know there's one song that wasn't released from the X-Rays session: the version
of Frankie and Johnny that showed up on a recent Dave solo album in a different
recording. Can't remember about the solo albums that I worked on, but could be.
Given the budgets we had, we had to work pretty dang efficiently. Usually there
would be a few takes til we got a basic track, which was then overdubbed. Don't
know if any other basic tracks are around.
Q10 When you see the impressive list of David's songs covered by other artists, don't you have the impression that he, like Townes, is considered by his peers as a songwriter's songwriter?
say that. I guess I have grown tired, during the 30 or so years that I have
enjoyed Olney's music, of the idea that Dave is somehow an elevated taste that
regular people can't enjoy. I think his songs have mass appeal. The music
business in general tends to underestimate public's ability to "get
it." Sure, songwriters like Olney's music, but everyone should. No musician
that I have worked with or am aware of got into this wanting to be a "cult"
act. We all wanted to reach as many people as possible.
Q11 (Neal's question) Do you have any idea about the song, "You Are Here" (DeeperWell). I'm wondering if there is some spiritual connection or is it simply a love song?
never considered that. I think of it as a pretty love song. I like the recorded
version, with Mark O'Connor and Tracy Nelson both excelling.
Q12 Which is David's song that you like the best?
a song he wrote a million years ago called This Happy New Year that I've always
loved. Destiny is good. Jerusalem Tomorrow gave me a significant chill the first
time I heard it, at Springwater. It's a major achievement as far as writing
Q13: You co-wrote Fast Eddie on Omar's Blues. Does it mean you're going to work together again? (if you can find some time...)?
Eddie was written back in the X-Ray days. Dave left some lyrics at my house and
I came up with music: it's the only time I remember writing a song that way with
anyone. Dave and I live just minutes from each other, hang out as time allows
and work together in the Jug Band from time to time. No other plans that I know
About recording in the studio
Q14 On the live albums that David has released, the songs are stripped to the bone and although they are far from some studio arrangements, they still do ring true. Which of course, goes to show these are great songs. In the studio, who chooses the arrangements? Does David come in the studio with a precise idea of what he wants, song sequence on the album, or does that come naturally?
arises out of the musicians we chose for each tune. We usually had a general
idea or approach in mind and would book the right players. Dave always has good
ideas. I might have had ideas for structures: let's put the bridge in again,
that sort of thing. It was pretty collegial. If you have really good players, as
we usually did, they will often come up with ideas. Sequencing takes place only
after you've recorded everything and have heard how it comes out.
Q15 Does David write or modify his songs in the studio? Or are they ready for recording?
Q16 You have produced and played on Deeper Well in 1989. Two of its songs have been recorded by Emmylou (Jerusalem Tomorrow and Deeper Well), one by Steve Young (If my eyes were blind), one by Linda Rondstadt (Women across the River) and Illegal Cargo was covered by Townes (hence the name of our mailing list!). Did you realize that it would become a classic?
I liked that record pretty well. We had a bunch of killer songs and there had
been some criticism that Eye of the Storm was a little on the back porch side.
That is, it was too loose and informal. So I started thinking, if Dave is the
best songwriter in town, we need the best musicians in town to play with him.
What mainly arose out of that was my idea to bring in Mark O'Connor. He played
brilliantly on several of the tunes you mention and a few others. We also had
Billy Cox (former Jimi Hendrix bassist), Fred LaBour from Riders in the Sky, the
great blues-rock-country singer Tracy Nelson, the great blues guitar player Mike
Henderson, etc. As you remember, Joe Fleming, whose studio we used, also co-produced
and played some great guitar. Dave has told me that people in Europe often cite
that as a favorite album. There are always things I wish had gone better, but
that one turned out fine. I'm fond of Lonesome Waltz of the Wind, which has
swoopng fiddle by Mark, Spanish guitar by Joe and cowboy harmonies by Fred (Too
Slim) and me. Joe may be singing in there too.
I saw your name in Acoustic Guitar. Was this instrument important when recording
or did David always use the same guitar? He told me he's not collecting
not that obsessed with guitars. As I remember, he was using the Guild that's on
the cover of Roses during the years we cut those records. On Deeper Well, I
remember getting him to use a thumbpick on Jerusalem Tomorrow so that the low
end would be really crisp. Except for the fiddle, guitar was all we were going
to have, so it needed to cover a lot of space in the record. I think he recorded
the guitar first separately so he could really nail it. Not positive of that.
Q18 In an interview from 1992, David mentions an opera project based on William Faulkner's novel As I lay Dying. He even sings a song, Luckless Man. Did you participate in that project? (I also saw you took part in a project for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival).
I was one of the four co-writers: Dave, me, Tom House and Karren Pell. This is
in itself an extremely long saga. Bottom line is that Dave got us together, we
wrote some great songs and it turned out that Opera Memphis didn't have the
right clearance for that to become a real opera. But people loved the songs so
we performed them a bunch of different places and made a rough recording of the
whole thing. Had several offers to release something, but copyright situation
got in the way. The four of us also wrote an adaptation of Light in August that
was produced as an opera. Tom, Karren and I continue to write similar things
About the future
Q19: Are you going to work
together with David? (if you can find some time...)?
Dave and I live just minutes from each other, hang out as time allows and work together in the Jug Band from time to time. No other plans that I know of.
more information about Thomas Goldsmith, click here
here : http://www.checkout.com/music/artist/info/0,,396899,00.html?src=search