Doc Oliver | Credit: Courtesy

In the overcrowded singer/songwriter field, many are called, but few chosen — at least in terms of wide public exposure and commercial success. Points of distinction help artists rise above the pack.

In the case of Orcutt resident Doc Oliver, the distinction factor begins with his name, a nickname given him for his work as a medic in the U.S. Navy. Unique perspectives continue in the grit, warmth, and topography of his unique original songs, often about life as a veteran struggling with PTSD and tales from the front in Afghanistan. That’s where he served until a tragic attack that claimed the lives of three of his comrades, when he returned home.

Resisting standard therapeutic and medical treatment for PTSD, he picked up his guitar, and allowed a talented singer/songwriter persona to emerge. In a real way, music became a tool of healing and self-reflection. 

Within the last year, Oliver has stepped into some serious musical shoes, thanks to the help of renowned acoustic guitar pickup Lloyd Baggs (also Central Coast-based) and his LR Baggs company. Oliver joins a lofty group of artists, well-known and up-and-coming, featured in the LR Baggs Presents series, which included a trip to Nashville to record a handful of original songs, a video featurette documenting the journey (and Oliver’s life journey) — available on YouTube and the Baggs website — and the formative makings of a life in music.

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Holiday’s dream-come-true scenario, ironically, snuck in through a side door. “To be honest,” he admitted, “being known as a singer/songwriter was never really a dream of mine. This whole entire opportunity was very unexpected and quite random. Writing songs was something that came easy and was fun for me, but I never took it seriously. It wasn’t until I had returned home from my second deployment to Afghanistan, and then losing my mother to cancer (at 57) after my 30th birthday, that I had really started to focus on writing. It was therapeutic.”

Raised in Orcutt, and with a multigenerational military lineage, Oliver was deployed twice in Afghanistan, finishing off the last in the Naval Hospital Balboa “before the Navy medically retired me in 2013.” His fateful meeting with Baggs came at a show in Orcutt by Jeff Bridges, whose songs by Ryan Bingham — especially the keynote Oscar-winning song “Weary Kind,” from 2010’s Crazy Heart — have special resonance for Oliver. His rough-but-embracing voice also resembles Bingham’s. 

“My mother loved that movie,” he said. “We watched it many times together.”

Upon meeting Baggs, Oliver’s wife talked up her husband’s songwriting gift. “After listening to some demos, Lloyd reached out and asked if he could help me get my songs and stories to a much larger audience,” said Oliver. “Not soon after, I was on my way to Nashville to record an EP and a few videos for the LR Baggs Presents series.”

By the time he got to Nashville, his songbook was heavy, in more ways than one. For the sessions there, with top Nashville musicians, Oliver recorded “Helmand,” “Siren,” “Beautiful Thing,” and “Elmers.” 

After playing for family and friends, and for his fellow soldiers overseas, without thought of a professional musical life, Oliver found himself lost in song after his tours of duty. “All my emotions and the mental compression sort of hit me like a tidal wave after my mother passed from battling cancer,” he said. “I think I was trying to be tough for my wife and family with the military stuff and hiding it way down inside. But once my mother passed, so much emotion overcame me, and it was almost too much to bear. Music gave me a way out; writing gave me a way to let it seep out.” 

Although his songs take on subjects beyond military life, that aspect of his work is especially important. “I feel it is my duty to honor the ones I served with and the veterans who served before me,” he explained, “but also to connect civilians to military life. Telling true stories through song is my best way of doing that. If by listening to one of my songs I can put a person into a time and place to let them better understand what some of us go through, it’s huge. So, in a way, my music has become much more than just my personal outlet.”

When he plays live, Oliver hangs two dog tags on his microphone stand, those of Greg Buckley and Richard Rivera, friends who were “KIA” (Killed in Action) on August 10, 2012.

What does this serendipitous new future hold for Oliver? “In a perfect world,” he mused, “I’d like to see myself with a management team or label of some sort because honestly, I’m uneducated on how the music world works. I just write and sing my songs. I work full-time as an armed security officer at a local nuclear power plant but being able to put the guns down and pick up the guitar full-time, successfully, would be amazing.”

See Doc Oliver’s videos and songs here

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