Michael Hurley, an Original Folk Iconoclast, Turns 80

Michael Hurley, an Original Folk Iconoclast, Turns 80
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When the singer-songwriter Michael Hurley was 24, Moe Asch handed him $100 and told him to go make his second album. They never spoke again.

It was 1965, and Asch was a 60-year-old impresario of New York’s folk revival. As the founder of the label Folkways, Asch had released records by Pete Seeger and Lead Belly, plus foundational collections from Harry Smith and Alan Lomax. Hurley, however, was a scrappy itinerant from the rural Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. He had just issued his first home-recorded, noise-pocked set of tunes about wine, tea bags and werewolves on Folkways. Asch ordered him to take the money and cut his follow-up in proper studios.

“Now that was a different situation,” Hurley, 79, said in a recent interview, scoffing into his cordless phone as he puttered around the cluttered kitchen of his home near Astoria, Oregon. “I’m still uncomfortable with booking a studio, the mood. If you can record at home, you live there.”

Hurley used Asch’s cash to pay bills; five years later, he recorded his second LP in his bedroom for another label. “I was always very practical,” he said, laughing.

This reluctance to work by anyone else’s code epitomizes the recalcitrant idealism of Hurley, one of American folk music’s longest-running survivors and visionaries. For six decades, Hurley has chronicled his passions, problems and curious predilections on several dozen albums, often self-made or self-released. His dependable strangeness and self-reliance cast him as a spiritual forebear and elder ally for songwriters at the country and folk fringes of indie rock. Cat Power, Hiss Golden Messenger and Yo La Tengo have covered Hurley; others have called him “our Bob Dylan.”

“The refrain is, ‘What would Michael Hurley do?’” the songwriter Will Oldham said by phone from his Kentucky home. “His amount of aspiration seems sustainable.”

After a five-year absence, Hurley will release “The Time of the Foxgloves” on Friday, less than two weeks before his 80th birthday. A careworn clutch of country odes to booze or wildflowers and trickster warnings about lust or death, it is a fitting capstone for an artist who rarely cared if he sang only for himself. “I never thought of a career in music,” he said. “What I do is goof off — and try to get away with it.”

Hurley’s mischievous relationship with music predates his memory. When he was a toddler, his older sisters hoisted him onto a 78-r.p.m. turntable and spun him while he squealed. He wrote his first song at 5 while standing atop a board at the bottom of a rope swing, fantasizing he was an airplane that a passenger named Butch struggled to catch. He still sings it upon request.

The family sang at picnics and gathered around a hulking AM console. When Hurley was 16, one of his sisters’ boyfriends left behind a guitar when he headed to college. Hurley leafed through songbooks, learning what he could without understanding tuning.

“I started making up stuff right away,” said Hurley, who speaks softly and slowly until he happens upon something of interest. “If you don’t know the proper way, you do it your way. Sometimes, that gives you a better song.”

This guitar indoctrination coincided with the start of the ’60s and New York’s folk renaissance. While still a teenager in Bucks County, Penn., Hurley made frequent liquor runs 90 minutes northeast to the city, crashing in friends’ apartments. Often credited in that famous revival, he bristled at the idea six decades later. He was more interested, he insisted, in sitting on an abandoned outdoor sofa and people watching with a quart of beer and a salami sandwich than joining that scene.

During the summer of 1962, Jesse Colin Young and a cadre of other “Bucks County Boys,” Hurley included, shared a home in Pennsylvania. Young paid the rent with his restaurant job; Hurley, meanwhile, shimmied through a hole in the ceiling into the stifling attic, where he reused Tetley tea bags. His ode to his diet, “The Tea Song,” convinced Young that a peculiar talent roosted upstairs.

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

Young and Hurley’s paths soon diverged drastically. Young became famous 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 The New York Times panned it.) “I had no inkling that, if you have a record, you should tour,” he said.

For years after taking Asch’s money, Hurley hopscotched odd jobs near Boston. As the ’70s began, Young arrived unannounced at his small apartment, recording gear 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 — not a bad idea,” Hurley said, chuckling.

Hurley cut two albums for Raccoon, but the label folded before he could finish a third. Those LPs became de facto business cards for ski-town gigs in Vermont, where he lived off and on until 1986. There were other brushes with a proper career, like a stint on Rounder Records that included a joyfully demented collaboration with his cronies, the Holy Modal Rounders.

Still, Hurley balked at music executives who suggested he recruit rock virtuosos as a backing band or a German promoter who implored him to portray an American hobo for the European press. Every couple of years throughout the ’80s and ’90s, he released another record on his label, Bellemeade Phonics. He festooned the LPs with surrealist paintings of characters he’d drawn for years in his own comics, like wolves named Boone and Jocko or smiling tugboats.

Hurley’s sounds have always danced along the continuum between the blues and bluegrass, resistant to trends. Characters and entire songs recurred. He compared the process to jazz groups that recombine basic elements into novel results.

“If I liked something as a kid, I still like it,” he said boastfully. “There is a routine, but you pull up the blanket and shake off the dust. It’s an exercise in possibilities.”

Around the start of the millennium, just as Hurley settled in Oregon after time in a dozen states, a genre revival so strange it was christened “freak-folk” accepted him as its forerunner. A spate of reissues, exhaustive interviews and even a short documentary earned him young audiences. Devendra Banhart, a scene flag-bearer, remembered ordering records directly from Hurley and being stunned by comics stuffed inside. The connection between Hurley’s life and work was clear.

“He hasn’t created a character just to sell records,” Banhart said by phone. “He has created his own world for the sake of enjoying making it come to life.”

Mike Quinn was a Hurley convert of that moment, too. While working in a Philadelphia record store, he heard a 2002 reissue of Hurley’s debut and began buying more. In Hurley’s songs, he recognized that sincerity and silliness could share space. As Quinn’s label No Quarter grew, Hurley climbed the wish list.

When the No Quarter guitarist Nathan Salsburg mentioned that Hurley hoped to record with him and Oldham in Kentucky, Quinn offered help. When lockdown scuttled their plans, Hurley wondered if he’d missed one studio session too many. “I could sense his frustrations,” Quinn said.

But Hurley bided his time with hobbies he’d acquired over eight decades — fermenting homegrown apples, studying antique radios, tending his 1973 Dodge Coronet, growing mustard greens. In June of this year, while trimming blackberry bushes that threatened to overrun his two acres, he began longing for music festivals. He’d played Ohio’s Nelsonville Music Festival a dozen years running, after all, even meeting Merle Haggard there. Young musicians who played there for joy, not their job, reminded him of his blissful early days.

An entire new song — his ode to Nelsonville, “Are You Here for the Festival?” — flashed into his head. He raced inside and pressed record on his reel-to-reel. He took the tape to an Astoria studio weeks later and asked friends to play along. His neighbors’ twin fiddles felt so right that the song begins “The Time of the Foxgloves,” like Hurley had waited all lockdown for the tune to cross his door.

“At home, you can record at optimum times — instantaneously,” he said, as if he’d just taken Moe Asch’s money. “That’s how I caught it.”

Digging into any discography that is six decades deep can be intimidating, especially when it’s scattered among labels. Try starting with five songs about five of his favorite subjects: booze, breaking up, sex, wolves and art for everyone.

“Werewolf” (1971)

Hurley ended his first album and began his second with this radical expression of empathy for the monster inside everyone. He’s included it on so many of his LPs it’s 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 leave, “the floorboards are coming up at me,” he said. This breakup song grows bitter and mean, with any good feeling he’s ever had curdling in about three minutes.

One of the most guileless tunes in Hurley’s catalog, this feels like the hymn for his personal religion. Find a relationship that feels right, and the whole world can become your canvas.

“The Time Is Right” (2009)

For fear of self-incrimination, Hurley doesn’t say much about the subjects of his love songs. This one isn’t shy about its desire to push past the platonic once and for all. It’s a jingle for what comes after courting.

“Beer, Ale and Wine” (2021)

Rolling Rock, hard cider, orange Curaçao: Name it, and Hurley likely has a tale about drinking it. The soft harmonies of this ode to alcohol of all tastes and temperatures have the sedative charms of a nightcap, nice and neat.

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