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Thomas Oliver: Catching songs
One of the forces behind Savannah Songwriters Series muses on mystery of creativity

AS I WRITE this, a California songwriter named Jonathan Mann is 2,688 days (that’s seven years) into a project to write a new song each and every day.

Here on another coast, Tybee Island songwriter Thomas Oliver isn’t nearly that prolific. But the former Atlanta newspaper reporter does write a lot.

“I don’t give myself deadlines on songs,” he says. “But I write every day.”

Oliver’s “Song Blog” appears to be churning out new creations at the rate of about two a month these days. But who’s counting when the muse is calling?

“I try to make myself open and aware of situations that would create songs,” he says of his creative process. “That’s one of the reasons why I journal.”

Writers need discipline. Believe me. It’s easy just to stare at a blank page. Oliver’s dedication is admirable and worthy of my own deadline-setting.

“The really good songs you catch,” he says. “You need to be there. It’s going to come by and if you’re not there, you’re going to miss it.”

So his pocket always holds pen and paper, something his father taught him to do. Song ideas spring from conversations, travels and the glory of living.

“I’ve written songs that were really good that I was scared I’d never be able to do it again because I didn’t understand how I was able to do it,” he says.

The mystery of creativity intoxicates him. So does the mystery of how some songs become laser beams into listener hearts while others zoom past them.

He relates a story about how one of his songs, “Don’t Worry About Me,” really touched a woman profoundly. He later found out that she was dying.

“You think you’re toiling in obscurity and nobody hears you or pays you and then you have an experience like that,” he says. “It blows you away.”

This happened in the beautiful main dining room of Johnny Harris restaurant where Oliver used to corral the monthly Savannah Songwriters Series.

The alliterative musical showcase now plays at the Tybee Post Theater since the iconic eatery decided to close. It’s a continuing labor of love for Oliver.

“It was to foster more appreciation of original music and foster a community of songwriters,” he says. “A place they know that they can be appreciated.”

The acoustic champion has released about six different albums and has won Georgia Music Industry Association “Best of Country” Awards five times.

But when he made that move from Atlanta to Tybee in 2008, he clearly shed some of his Merle Haggard country swing. He chalks that up to Doc’s Bar.

“It literally changed my life,” he says of the landmark Tybee Island watering hole. “I met some of the people who are now my closest friends there.”

He sat in at Doc’s Tuesday jam sessions for five years, rediscovering Tom Waits and the Grateful Dead through the selections of all his new friends.

Tybee is a place like that. Now what comes from his pen is a mix of all his journeys. But I’ll say his voice still has the lilt of Alabama’s Randy Owens.

“Any songwriter, the ones I know and admire and the one I try to be, tries to absorb what he’s experiencing, the environment and the people,” he says.

In other words, surround yourself with good people and grow and change from their presence and what they can teach you in their words and deeds.

I know I’ve done exactly that over 18 years of interviewing people that I’m grateful to have here in the Coastal Empire, including Thomas Oliver.