For The Sake Of The Song: David Olney “Jerusalem Tomorrow”

David Olney

There can be few among us who, whilst revelling in our preferred pastime of listening to and dissecting the songs of our favourite artists. haven’t occasionally thought, “given a fair wind and a wet sail I could have written that”, and possibly after a few drinks of our chosen beverage that thought could have stretched to more than just occasionally. However, there are certain songs, usually written by a small circle of songwriters that no matter how many times I refill my glass I know, “not in a million years could I have written that”. David Olney is one of those songwriters and ‘Jerusalem Tomorrow’, is one of those songs.

Born 1948 in tiny Lincoln, Rhode Island, northwest of Providence, by 1973 Olney had relocated to Nashville where he formed the X-Rays, releasing two albums between 1981 – 1984, at which point he embarked on a solo career with his debut album ‘Eye Of The Storm’,  first seeing the light of day in 1986. By the time of his untimely death on stage at the 30A Songwriter Festival in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, on the 18th January 2020, he had released twenty solo albums, as well as numerous live and collaborative recordings. During this time his prowess as a songwriter was epitomised by the quality of artists that covered his songs including Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Linda Ronstadt, Del McCoury, Steve Young, Slaid Cleaves and Tim O’Brian, whilst the legendary Townes Van Zandt said of Olney, “he has written some of the most powerful, most hauntingly beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. As a songwriter myself I have considered David a benchmark”. High praise indeed.

‘Jerusalem Tomorrow’, first appeared on Onley’s sophomore release ‘Deeper Well’, the song coming to the attention of Harris who not only included the track on her album ‘Cowgirl’s Prayer’, but would cover the title track, making it the centrepiece of her genre defining album ‘Wrecking Ball’. The song itself displays many of the characteristics of Olney’s writing often taking familiar tales and replacing them in unfamiliar perspectives, placing a well known historical figure in a newly imagined context, as he once said, “It’s difficult for me to buy those (bible) stories in a religious sense, so I go back and look at them from a different angle”. With a novelist’s eye for detail, Olney was one of Nashville’s most literate storytellers, his songs structured symmetrically of concept, plot and imagery, providing a maverick spirit to themes of Shakespearian proportions.

With ‘Jerusalem Tomorrow’, Olney tells the tale of a bible-era con-man, travelling from town to town, fleecing the locals with his trickery who falls on hard times when he discovers some guy called Jesus has visited the week before creating a far greater impression on his potential customers. He therefore decides to join forces with his adversary to see what he might learn/gain from the venture. Olney was the owner of a fine singing voice but here the lyrical narrative is delivered in the style of the great method actors of the past, understated and yet menacingly direct, inhabiting it’s character, evoking an imagery that places the listener at the very heart of the scene. In the space of just 4 minutes 35 seconds he creates a tale of cinematic proportions, as vivid as it is thought provoking, as original as it is sagacious, and like nothing else you’ve previously heard.

The city of Jerusalem and its surrounding area has currently been on our minds and in our lives for all the wrong reasons in recent months, full of horror, destruction and heartache so whether you are familiar with Olney’s classic number or discovering it for the first time, let the song and it’s story transport you to a different time, and a different ‘Jerusalem tomorrow’.


About Graeme Tait 110 Articles
Hi. I'm Graeme, a child of the sixties, eldest of three, born into a Forces family. Keen guitar player since my teens, (amateur level only), I have a wide, eclectic taste in music and an album collection that exceeds 5.000. Currently reside in the beautiful city of Lincoln.
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Rick Bayles

Great article Graeme. I’ve always loved the Emmylou cover of this but had never bothered to check out Olney’s original and I’ve clearly been missing out. It is a superb song. Who is playing that fiddle on Olney’s version? They deserve a lot of credit for the atmosphere created on this song.

Adrian Dzialdowski

Mark O’Conner on fiddle.

Rick Bayles

He’s now on my list of people to properly check out. Thanks.

Harry Scott

A tale of cinematic proportions…wouldn’t it be worth some writer producing a script for this Olney classic…I’d certainly go to see it