Michael Hurley Triumphantly Returns--After Never Really Leaving
The worst thing Michael Hurley ever did was release 20 albums that all kind of look alike. While, stunningly, none of them even remotely sucks, how different a world it would be for Hurley if only he'd quit music altogether to become a full-time drunk or an accountant. Then we could all be hailing the return of another lost American artist, a victim of an era that couldn't handle this artist's startling vision! But Hurley has no Vashti Bunyan or Ed Askew type backstory. Instead, the drawling, iconoclastic singer/songwriter has simply released sporadic slow-burning, charming folk albums on little labels for 40-plus years. They're like the rambling of a pothead professor absolutely lost inside--and in love with--his subject, which, in this case, would be American music. Hurley laconically and synchronically blurs the lines between Appalachian folk, back-porch rock, Delta blues, and cowboy country. He reminds you those lines are still there in the deliberate and beautiful way he erases them.
Before we forget, there are a handful of things every article on Hurley has to mention: born in Pennsylvania, moved to Greenwich Village in the early '60s (like any folk aspirant), early career almost entirely derailed by a case of mononucleosis so bad he landed in Bellevue Hospital for half a year. Hurley has a lot of funny nicknames for himself, many of them variations on the word "Snock"; he often refers to himself in the third person, but not in a serial-killer way. His first album, 1965's First Songs (Folkways), was made using the same reel-to-reel that Leadbelly recorded his Last Sessions on. He's ridden the rails, just like a real hobo. In his comics, he usually draws himself as a wolf, and sometimes as a ship's captain. Robert Christgau called Hurley's 1976 collaboration with the Unholy Modal Rounders' Jeffrey Frederick and the Clamtones, Have Moicy!, "the greatest folk album of the rock era."
We're now on the brink of a Hurley revival. A handful of his best, long out-of-print works finally made their way digitally to iTunes and its ilk just three months ago. San Francisco-based filmmaker Lisa Foti-Strauss is working on a full-length film about him. He's now assembling a tribute album to himself--titled The Snock-U-Meant--assigning specific different songs to various artists such as Calexico and the Places' Amy Annelle. His first new studio album since 2004's Down in Dublin has just been released, Ancestral Swamp (Gnomonsong).
The album was made over the course of eight years, in living rooms and kitchens. It's easygoing yet substantial--easily one of his best. Half of Swamp consists of covers. His version of Blind Willie McTell's "Dying Crapshooter's Blues" is as delightful as his take on Lightning Hopkins' "Lonesome Graveyard" is haunting. But the album's highlight is his charged, exuberant telling of the traditional cowboy ballad "Streets of Laredo." Even some of his own songs here are covers, too, in the sense that Hurley often re-records his own tunes again and again like they were jazz compositions. It's such an inviting and sparse album that you hardly notice the accompaniment until repeated listens. The playing--by Holy Modal Rounder Dave Reisch and Portland, Ore.-based Lewi Longmire and Tara Jane O'Neil--is so subtle it's nearly subliminal.
If you yourself are late to Hurley's heavy charms, I can relate. I'd heard of him for years, but it wasn't until I moved to Portland--two hours' drive from his charming, coastal homestead in Astoria, Ore--that I actually heard him. I couldn't escape him here; half my semifamous musician friends--Jolie Holland, Theo Angell, Vetiver--had arranged to have him open their shows, only to invite him into their own sets. And surely, he's beloved by a lot of folks, many of whom have covered his songs: O'Neil, Cat Power, Yo La Tengo, Violent Femmes, Espers, and, of course, Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic, who run the Gnomonsong label. When I spoke to Hurley two weeks ago, Victoria Williams had just raced from the airport to a small bookstore where he was playing accordion and guitar to a crowd of 30 at a friend's art opening. She missed the show, but they made plans to record the next day.
Hurley, who turns 66 next month, is a musician's musician, but not because his work is convoluted and arty or anything. Quite the opposite--it's almost too accessible, certainly too much to really deserve the "grandpops of freak folk" or "outsider artist" tags he's been lumped with over the years. "I'm a lot more traditional than most people realize," he explained at the opening, a scene filled with young men and women who looked like cute baby dykes. The worst you can say about his work is that it suffers from "dad humor." Some of his albums have too many goofy tunes. He likes silly puns and boobs; his comics have a lot of boobs in them (neither of those things bother me, just saying). Hurley's a musician's musician the way a writer like the reclusive, Arkansas-based Charles Portis is a writer's writer. Like Portis--Norwood, True Grit, and The Dog of the South-- Hurley's work is user-friendly yet slyly, comically subversive. Both clearly can't stand the machinations of celebrity, and do not suffer fools gladly.
When Hurley conveniently forgot to call me back to arrange an interview--he's doing them now for the first time in many years, and only in person--I was secretly relieved. "I'm really starting to realize why I never made it to, you know, the top level in this music business," he said on the street outside the gallery. "People just want to take what they've read about you on the internet and wrap it up inside their own idea of you. They want to define you--but I'm in the business of defining myself," he nearly shouted. "We could just as easily spend our time denying things, saying that maybe this coat doesn't exist, for example. We could spend our lives just doing that instead. It might be better." Then he smiled, and walked back inside.
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