There are songwriters, and then there are storytellers who happen to write songs, weaving words into gritty tales of intrigue complete with rhyme schemes and melodies. David Olney is a storyteller.
The Nashville stalwart has had songs covered by Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash, and they’re good songs. But they’re the musical equivalent of movie trailers in comparison to the cinematic scope of his best records, a category that includes the new One Tough Town. The disc captures the essence of his talent: droll songs about the poisonous flip side of love, foreboding train whistles and marauding ventriloquist dummies.
Olney sings in a deep gruff drawl, lingering over certain syllables and stretching out words for emphasis on eleven originals and a pair of covers. These tunes have the same voice-and-guitar bone structure as most of his work — a taut shuffle powers “Sweet Poison”, and a pair of guitars is his only accompaniment on Townes Van Zandt’s “Snake Song” — but Olney dresses up the arrangements differently this time. That’s trombone sliding around over a grunting tuba on “Who’s the Dummy Now?”, and clarinet and ukulele join in on the reeling, slightly menacing Dixieland rave-up “Sweet Potato”.
Olney says he views the record as a “retrospective of 100 years of American music”. Really, One Tough Town is a collection of characters and scenes timeless enough to have come from any point in the past 100 years of American history. They just happen to be set to music.