Michael Hurley, an original folk iconoclast, turns 80

When singer-songwriter Michael Hurley was 24, Moe Asch handed him $ 100 and told him to go do his second album. They never spoke to eac...


When singer-songwriter Michael Hurley was 24, Moe Asch handed him $ 100 and told him to go do his second album. They never spoke to each other again.

It was 1965, and Asch was a 60-year-old impresario of the New York folk revival. As the founder of the Folkways label, Asch had released records by Pete Seeger and Lead Belly, as well as fundamental collections of Harry smith and Alan Lomax. Hurley, however, was a rambling homeless man on the rural Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. He had just posted his first set of loud tunes about wine, tea bags and werewolves on Folkways. Asch ordered him to take the money and cut off his tracking at the appropriate studios.

“Now this was a different situation, ”Hurley, 79, said in a recent interview, poking fun at his cordless phone as he strolled through the cluttered kitchen of his home near Astoria, Oregon. “I’m still uncomfortable with booking a studio, the atmosphere. If you can save at home, you live there.

Hurley used Asch’s money to pay his bills; five years later, he recorded his second LP in his bedroom for another label. “I have always been very practical,” he said with a laugh.

This reluctance to work by someone else’s code epitomizes the recalcitrant idealism of Hurley, one of the oldest survivors and visionaries of American folk music. For six decades, Hurley has chronicled his passions, his problems and his curious predilections on dozens of albums, often self-taught or self-produced. His dependable strangeness and autonomy make him a spiritual ancestor and an older ally of songwriters on the country and folk fringes of independent rock. Cat power, Golden Messenger of the Whistle and Yo La Tengo covered Hurley; others called him “our Bob Dylan.”

The refrain is, ‘What would Michael Hurley do? “” Says songwriter Will Oldham over the phone from his Kentucky home. “Its amount of suction seems enduring.”

After a five-year hiatus, Hurley will be releasing “Digitals Time” on Friday, less than two weeks before his 80th birthday. A mindful clutch of country odes to booze or wildflowers and trickster warnings about lust or death, this is a fitting cornerstone for an artist who rarely cares about singing just for himself. “I never thought of a career in music,” he said. “What I’m doing is fooling around – and trying to get out of it.”

Hurley’s mischievous relationship with music predates his memory. When he was a toddler, his older sisters hoisted him up on a 78-rpm record player and spun him around while he squeaked. He wrote his first song at age 5 as he stood on top of a plank at the bottom of a rope swing, imagining it to be a plane that a passenger named Butch struggled to catch. He still sings it on demand.

The family sang at picnics and gathered around a huge AM console. When Hurley was 16, one of her sisters’ boyfriends left a guitar behind as he walked to college. Hurley flipped through songbooks, learning what he could without understanding the tuning.

“I started making things up right away,” said Hurley, who speaks softly and slowly until he stumbles upon something interesting. “If you don’t know the right way, you do it your manner. Sometimes it gives you a better song.

This guitar indoctrination coincided with the early 1960s and New York’s folk renaissance. As a teenager in Bucks County, Pa., Hurley ran frequent liquor runs 90 minutes northeast of town, crashing into friends’ apartments. Often credited with this famous revival, he bristled at the idea six decades later. He was more interested, he insisted, in sitting on an abandoned outdoor couch and people-watching with a quart of beer and a salami sandwich than joining this scene.

In the summer of 1962, Jesse Colin Young and a group of other “Bucks County Boys,” including Hurley, shared a house in Pennsylvania. Young paid the rent with his restaurant job; Hurley, meanwhile, squeezed through a hole in the ceiling into the stuffy attic, where he reused the Tetley teabags. His ode to his diet, “The Tea Song,” convinced Young that a special talent was perched upstairs.

“We were all getting alive, all in different directions,” Young said from his home in South Carolina. “What came out of the attic was a fully trained songwriter with a wonderfully original perspective, so different from mine.”

Young’s and Hurley’s paths quickly diverged dramatically. Young rose to fame with his rock band the Youngbloods. Hurley promoted his Folkways debut by decamping to Mexico with his then-wife Pasta Hurley. (He was there when Le New York Times panoramic he.) “I had no idea that if you have a record you should go on tour,” he said.

For years after taking Asch’s money, Hurley did odd jobs near Boston. In the early 1970s, Young unexpectedly arrived at his tiny apartment., recording equipment in tow. Warner Brothers had given the Youngbloods a label, Raccoon, and Hurley was Young’s priority. “They thought it would be hilarious if I got famous – it’s not a bad idea,” Hurley said with a laugh.

Hurley recorded two albums for Raccoon, but the label closed before he could complete a third. These LPs became de facto calling cards for gigs in ski towns in Vermont, where he lived on and off until 1986. There were other brushes with a real career, such as a stint on Rounder Records. which included a merry lunatic collaboration with his acolytes, the Holy Modal Rounders.

Still, Hurley objected to music executives who suggested he recruit rock virtuosos as a backing band or a German promoter who implored him to portray an American bum to the European press. Every two years throughout the 80s and 90s, he released another record on his label, Bellemeade Phonics. He decorated the LPs with surreal paintings of characters he had drawn for years in his own comics, such as named wolves Boone and Jocko Where smiling tugs.

Hurley’s sounds have always danced along the continuum between blues and bluegrass, resisting trends. Entire characters and songs have reproduced. He likened the process to jazz bands that recombine basic elements into new results.

“If I loved something when I was a kid, I still love it,” he said boastfully. “There is a routine, but you pull the blanket and you shake the dust. It is an exercise in possibilities.

Around the turn of the millennium, just as Hurley moved to Oregon after spending time in a dozen states, a revival of the genre so bizarre that he was called “freak-folk” accepted him as his precursor. A wave of reissues, exhaustive interviews and even a short documentary earned him a young audience. Devendra Banhart, a stage standard-bearer, recalled ordering records directly from Hurley and being stunned by the comics stuffed inside. The connection between Hurley’s life and work was clear.

“He didn’t create a character just to sell records,” Banhart said over the phone. “He created his own world for the pleasure of bringing it to life. “

Mike Quinn was also a Hurley convert of this time. While working at a Philadelphia record store, he heard a 2002 reissue of Hurley’s debut album and started buying more. In Hurley’s songs, he recognized that sincerity and silliness can share space. As Quinn’s No Quarter label grew, Hurley climbed the wishlist.

When No Quarter guitarist Nathan Salsburg mentioned that Hurley was hoping to record with him and Oldham in Kentucky, Quinn offered to help. When the lockdown scuttled their plans, Hurley wondered if he hadn’t missed one too many studio sessions. “I could sense his frustrations,” Quinn said.

But Hurley bided his time with hobbies he’d acquired for eight decades – fermenting local apples, studying vintage radios, tending his 1973 Dodge Coronet, growing mustard greens. In June of that year, as he pruned blackberry bushes that threatened to invade his two acres, he began to dream of music festivals. He had played in Ohio Nelsonville Music Festival a dozen years in a row, after all, even meet Merle Haggard. Young musicians who played there for fun, not for their work, reminded him of his happy beginnings.

A brand new song – his ode to Nelsonville, “Are You Here for the Festival?” – went through his head. He ran inside and pressed the record onto its spool to spool. He took the tape to an Astoria studio a few weeks later and asked some friends to play the game. His neighbors’ twin violins sounded so right that the song began “Digitalis Time”, as if Hurley had waited for everything. the lock for the song to pass through its door.

“At home you can record at optimal times – instantlyhe said, as if he had just taken Moe Asch’s money. “That’s how I grabbed him.”

Digging into any discography that is six decades in depth can be intimidating, especially when it’s strewn across labels. Try to start with five songs about five of her favorite topics: alcohol, breaking up, sex, wolves, and everyone’s art.

“Werewolf” (1971)

Hurley completed his first album and started his second with that radical expression of empathy for the monster inside everyone. He has included it on so many of his records that it has become his own tragic anthem. Bonus: Cat Power’s devastating take was a millennial boon for Hurley.

“I think I’ll move” (1980)

When Hurley is ready to go, “the floorboards fall on me,” he said. This breakup song turns bitter and mean, with all the good feeling it’s ever had to curdle in about three minutes.

One of the more naive tunes in Hurley’s catalog, it sounds like the hymn of his personal religion. Find a relationship that’s right for you and the whole world can become your web.

“The time has come” (2009)

For fear of self-incrimination, Hurley doesn’t say much about the subjects of his love songs. He does not hesitate to want to go beyond the platonic once and for all. It’s a jingle for what comes after court.

“Beer, beer and wine” (2021)

Rolling Rock, Hard Cider, Curacao Orange: Name it, and Hurley probably has a story about drinking it. The sweet harmonies of this ode to alcohol for all tastes and all temperatures have the sedative charms of a nightcap, well cared for.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Michael Hurley, an original folk iconoclast, turns 80
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