David Olney, who wrote songs for music legends, dies onstage

David Olney performing during Dave Alvin's "West of the West" train tour at the Soiled Dove in Denver in 2015
(Larry Hulst/Getty Images)

David Olney, a deeply respected folk singer who wrote songs recorded by Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and others, died following a heart attack while performing in Florida, his publicist said.

Olney was onstage in Santa Rosa Beach on Saturday when he was stricken. He was 71, said Jill Kettles, the performer’s publicist.

Olney was part of the music scene in Nashville for decades and had recorded more than 20 albums, according to a release about his death posted to his website.

Though not as widely known as those who recorded his songs, Olney was admired greatly by his peers.

“Olney may be the best songwriter to have released nearly a dozen albums without making the weekly list of the Top 200 sellers,” former Times music critic Robert Hilburn wrote in 2003.


He was performing Saturday at the 30A Songwriters Festival when he suffered an apparent heart attack onstage, his website noted. Some in attendance tweeted that Olney apologized, closed his eyes and slumped to the stage floor.

Born March 23, 1948, in Providence, R.I., Olney attended the University of North Carolina before moving to Nashville with hopes of selling his songs to recording artists. Ronstadt, Harris, Mimi Farina and Steve Earle were among those who recorded his songs.

“One of the best songwriters working in the world today,” Earle once said, according to Olney’s website.

A biography on the festival’s website said Olney incorporated a variety of styles in his music, including honky tonk and rock. His songs explored offbeat topics such as a Nashville train disaster, the Titanic from the point of view of the iceberg that sunk it and Jesus Christ from the narrative point of view of the donkey that carried him into Jerusalem.

Olney “tells marvelous stories, with characters who cling to the hope of enduring love,” Harris said in a statement included in the release.

Olney is survived by his wife, Regina, daughter Lillian and son Redding.

A Times staff writer contributed to this story