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David Olney calls on Shakespeare for inspiration

One of Shakespeare’s most famous quotations, “If music be the food of love, play on” (Twelfth Night) was never more relevant than it is now for veteran Nashville singer-songwriter David Olney, now performing in The Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare in the Park production of As You Like It outdoors in the Centennial Park Bandshell through Sept. 14.

David Olney's "When the Deal Goes Down"
Deadbeet Records

Olney plays attending lord and musician Amiens, though the pastoral comedy, first published in 1623 and containing the famous monolog beginning “All the world’s a stage,” has been transposed to Middle Tennessee in the 1930s. He’s written seven songs, some credited to both him and Shakespeare.

“It’s fun, isn’t it?” Olney said after last week’s premiere performance. He recalled becoming initially interested in The Bard after seeing Kenneth Branagh’s 1995 film adaptation of Othello.

“I realized while watching it that I understood everything going on,” he said. “I had shied away from reading Shakespeare because the language was so daunting, but now I understood what was happening and had in mind to read all of Shakespeare’s plays.”

Facilitating his endeavor was Nashville’s downtown Main Library Shakespeare Allowed! program from the Shakespeare Festival, whereby participants gather on the first Saturday of the month to read a play out loud in a reading circle.

“It’s an easy way to read all the plays,” said Olney, who became acquainted with Denice Hicks, the festival’s executive artistic director—and director of As You Like It—at the library.

“I was chatting with her one Saturday and she asked if I’d be interested in writing some songs for a Shakespeare production and have a small part in it and I jumped at it--and it’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time. But everything connects in some way: You do what seemed to me kind of an odd thing—reading these Shakespeare plays—and it turned out that one thing leads to another.”

Hicks told Olney that she wanted an a cappella work song, so he dusted off “Ain’t It That Way,” which he’d recorded back in 1986.

“I knew she was setting the play in 1934 Middle Tennessee so I started writing songs and asking which ones were getting close to what she wanted,” he said, “and as there are actual songs in As You Like It, I looked at them and tried to figure what style they would sound like in 1934 Tennessee.”

“Father of Country Music” Jimmie Rodgers was an easy choice, “so there’s a ‘Blue Yodel’ song in there,” said Olney. “I’d kind of decided on the style of the song, and then looked at the words Shakespeare wrote and tried to update them a bit."

He always tried “to stick to the spirt of the song, sometimes using the words of Shakespeare but most of the time changing them around and using my own words. I also listened to a lot of Shakespeare tapes: When I read the speeches, I had no idea if they were kidding around or happy or sad. Until you hear the tone of voice of someone speaking, you don’t really know what’s going on.”

"The thing with Shakespeare,” he continued, “is that when you’re a kid and forced to read it, you do it under duress—which is not the best way to be introduced--and people are telling you it’s the best stuff ever written and he’s a genius. It’s not the same effect as if you check it out yourself at your own pace and find it’s really, really good.”

Olney, whose songs have been recorded by the likes of Linda Ronstadt and Del McCoury, just released his latest album, When the Deal Goes Down, last month.

“Other than writing songs for the play, I haven’t written anything since starting it,” he said. “It does set the standard really high: Now I don’t just put a line into a song and live with it if it’s not perfect. Now I say, ‘Let’s get this right.’”

And As You Like It has enabled the peripatetic Olney to spend the summer at home with his family.

“It’s been a really nice paid vacation,” he said, “but I’ll be glad to get back out there. There’s a similarity between writing songs and getting up on stage, and getting up and acting—but it’s definitely outside my comfort zone!”

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