The Ancestral Swamp is the recently released 20th full length album by legendary rambler, cartoonist, and “outsider” folk singer, guitarist Michael Hurley and his label debut for Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic’s Gnomonsong label. It was primarily produced by Hurley, compiled at Mississippi Studios in Portland, OR, mixed by Jim Brunberg. It comes in just in the nick of time for the rabid Snockophile. A batch of new vittles and encores of some of his classic tunes, The Ancestral Swamp” bubbles with laid back ease and tremolodic goodness. It seems like the devil is finally getting his due in that Hurley was just featured on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday” this passed Saturday – that show being archived here –
In addition he’s completed an interview with public radio’s prestigious “American Routes” program and will be taping a segment of NPR’s “World Cafe” tomorrow/Tuesday November 20. Beyond that there’s been a marvelous outpouring of adulatory press, a segment of which I include below. If you haven’t had a chance to cover this remarkable artist with a CD review or feature I do hope you’ll consider doing so at this time. Lemme know how I can be of assistance.
He calls his style “baroque blues,” but there’s nothing baroque about Michael Hurley’s minimal acoustic songs, which turn thoughts of the uncomplicated rural life – sign painting, clear water – into poignant, existential meditations. Ben Sisario/New York Times 11/16
With an off-kilter, sporadic yet oddly prolific career and cult following dating back to the mid-1960s, Michael Hurley was an outsider folk artist long before the likes of Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom were even the faintest of gleams in their parents’ eyes. These days, the alchemy of a fantastical or insular world view, back-to-the-land acoustic instrumentation, and idiosyncratic arrangements is called “freak folk” in hipster-speak. It’s only fitting, then, that after stints on both Folkways and Rounder Records – not to mention a handful of self-released albums – this wizened, genially weird old soul who goes by the name of “Snock” should land on the young Turk Banhart’s Gnomonsong label. Like most of his past work, Hurley’s 20th album is a relaxed, ramshackle affair that meanders along at its own shambling pace and under its own rickety power. Hurley’s homely, brambly voice – cracked, conversational, ancient – and the spare instrumentation of plucked acoustic guitars and banjo give standouts like “1st Precinct Blues” and “New River Blues” the spontaneous feel of a campfire session… Jonathan Perry/Boston Globe 10/7
In his 60-odd years, Michael Hurley has been a cartoonist, a watercolor artist, a thief and-the coolest gig in the history of mankind-a hobo. Hurley’s biggest triumphs, however, have come through folk music, which he began recording for the famed Folkways label in 1965 and continues 20 albums later on Ancestral Swamp, which was recently issued on Gnomonsong. That label is operated by Vetiver’s Andy Cabic and Devendra Banhart, yet tagging Hurley as some kind of proto-freak-folkie would be imprecise. He is a traditionalist, with a gruff, lived-in voice and a manner of playing that recalls the hobbyist zeal of rural artists from way back when.
It is not with excessive reverence that Hurley turns to bygone styles-he’s never stuffy. AncestralSwamp is loose and relaxed; its liner notes include a cartoon wherein a dog gives the middle finger to a bartender while saying, “The son of a bitch can smell it alright!” Hurley’s best-known work remains Have Moicy!, a fantastic 1976 collaboration with the Holy Modal Rounders that manifests an anarchic joyfulness reminiscent of a toddler’s birthday party. Playing the Knitting Factory in 2003, the musician revisited that album’s “Slurf Song,” a classic food tune detailing eating, digesting and the dread of dish washing. “We fill up our guts, then we turn it into shit,” he matter-of-factly croaks. “Then we get rid of it.” Best of all, Hurley performed the song while holding his fiddle down low like a hillbilly, a style of play advised against by Juilliard yet beloved by hobos worldwide.-Jay Ruttenberg/Time Out NY 11/15
Michael Hurley: This guy has been delivering a raw, nerves-exposed rootsy blues and folk since the ’70s. And his new album, “The Ancestral Swamp,” shows that Hurley is still up to his ears in it. Jon Takiff/Philadelphia Daily News 11/16
Michael Hurley’s carefully crafted songs and hand-painted album covers have endeared him to a small but devoted group of musicians and critics. Now, more than 40 years into his career, Hurley is reaching a broader audience – including a younger generation of fans who are covering his songs – and releasing his new record, Ancestral Swamp, on Devendra Banhart’s Gnomonsong label.
Hurley drives a car he calls the “Blue Alligator,” a 1973 Dodge Coronet station wagon, and he talks like he drives: His thoughts are separated by long pauses. His songs don’t seem to be in a hurry, either. Knowing Hurley since the 1970s, music journalist Byron Coley agrees.
“To go to a Michael Hurley concert or listen to one of his records really is to enter another kind of universe where time moves a little more slowly, and narratives develop at their own pace,” Coley says. “But they develop very fully.
“His songs are an unusual combination. The lyrics can be very funny. But few of them tell stories of triumph.”
Hurley briefly recorded for a major label in the 1970s, but those records quickly fell out of print. He’s probably best-known for his contribution to the 1975 recording Have Moicy, a collaboration with the Holy Modal Rounders.
Hurley grew up in Bucks County, Penn., with one of the original Holy Modal Rounders. They were all hanging around New York City in the early 1960s, says Rounders member Peter Stampfel, when they started playing a new kind of folk music.
“It’s a confluence of traditional folk music and, um, drugs, basically, with the latter having a very active influence on the former,” Stampfel says.
According to Stampfel, Hurley’s 1965 song “Intersoular Blues” is one of the first examples of what’s now called “freak folk,” which he calls an unfortunate phrase.
Today, this scene that’s been dubbed “freak folk” by the music press is an informal movement of acoustic musicians around the country. Some are inspired by the same recreational influences of the Holy Modal Rounders, as well as an earlier generation of acoustic performers from the 1960s and ’70s.
Hurley’s songs have been covered by a number of younger artists, including Cat Power and the Philadelphia-based band Espers. Espers’ bassist, Chris Smith, found inspiration in Hurley’s music.
“He was almost like my Bob Dylan, like our Bob Dylan of my friends,” Smith says. “Where he was so American to a point where it was accurate, but it wasn’t based on a decade or an era.”
Bob Dylan and Hurley were born a few months apart in 1941. They both cut their teeth on traditional American folk music, and they’re both painters. Hurley has painted most of his own record covers. They’re populated by roughly drawn animals in human hipster clothing – characters from the comic books Hurley had been drawing since the ’50s, before he was even writing songs.
“A lot of kids were doing that in those days, drawing little stories out and passing them up the aisle,” Hurley says.
Two of his earliest comic-book characters were Boone and Jocko, a pair of wolves who amuse themselves by drinking wine and flirting with women. Stampfel says they were way ahead of their time.
“They’re actually the first underground cartoons, I would say. He was drawing them in 1959, 1960, before there were any underground cartoonists. They were basically Bohemian, ne’er-do-well, layabout, slacker wolves,” Stampfel says.
Conflating Art and Life
The line between Hurley’s art and his life can get blurry. He refers to himself as Snock and sometimes takes on the persona of his cartoon characters. He’s never stayed anywhere long, and he’s been equally restless when it comes to holding a day job.
“I picked string beans. I planted ginseng. I sold hot tamales on the streets of New Orleans. I sold pretzels on the streets of Boston,” Hurley says.
Hurley says that he’s never held a job for more than six months.
“I don’t like having to do something when I get up in the morning,” he says. “I’d rather just hang out, do what I feel like doing, putter around the house, take a walk, you know.”
Coley says it’s partly this refusal to grow up and get a full-time job that’s endeared Hurley to a younger generation of artists and musicians.
“The fact that he’s been creating the way that he has for so long gives a lot of these younger musicians [the idea] that you can do this: be a nomadic, traveling musician in an Middle Age type of mode, today,” Coley says. “And that it actually works.”
Well, sort of. Michael Hurley isn’t getting rich. But he does make a modest living from his paintings and music. He seems grateful that a younger generation is paying attention and helping him get decent gigs.
“They have to have their festivals,” Hurley says. “Whenever they have one, they have to have their grandfather with them, which is good for me, because my peers aren’t going to come out that night anyway.”
Hurley turns 66 next month, though he still doesn’t sound ready to settle down. After six years on the Oregon coast, he may be getting ready to point his old car toward its next destination.
“The floorboards start to seem like they’re coming up at me,” Hurley says. “And I just have to go.” Joel Rose/NPR.org 11/17
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, AncestralSwamp (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 TheDog 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. Mike McGonigal/Baltimore City Paper 11/14
Things aren’t always the way they seem. A guitar-toting figure with in wire-rimmed glasses, train-driver’s hat, and a wild thatch of whitening hair, Michael Hurley is the picture of an old folk singer. He even released his first album over 40 years ago on Folkways Records. But notice how on the cover of Ancestral Swamp, the cartoon wolf that Hurley often draws as a stand-in for his own self sits lazily on a porch, guitar in hand, while another shaggy sort paddles idly by on a pimped-out skiff. Not much happening here, right?
Not so fast. Note the catfish in the swamp’s depths, twisted at a near-convulsive angle that augurs some turbulent action down below. Hurley has also declared that he plays “for the action crowd.” (See this end of a Willamette Weekly article)
At first, AncestralSwamp seems to belie that claim. It starts out with “Knockando,” a lazily plucked-out negation of effort that would stop an armament factory on war footing with its sheer indolence. But while the next song sounds every bit as laid back, beneath its unhurried Pop Staples twang, “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues” offers plenty of action. It recounts an unrepentant gambler’s send-off, launching himself toward hell with one hell of a party, nine fellow flint-hearted cardsharps hoisting his corpse while 26 hotel hookers dance the Charleston.
The Charleston? For Hurley time is no linear thing, but a fleet and volatile current running in no fixed direction beneath the music’s rustic folkie surface. His cracked voice and creaking violin sound positively 19th century on “Gambling Charley.” “Streets of Laredo” situates itself in some mythic Wild West that is equal parts cowboy country and Hollywood back lot. And he proudly pounds the keys of an electronic piano on “Lonesome Graveyard.” His guitar playing takes history for a spin. It sounds like the blues blanched of belligerence; people die in his songs, hearts break, but he never sounds too angry about it. After all, as he points out in “When I Get Back Home,” he can look forward to a talking catfish and a tributary of pure wine. And if that’s not action, what is?Bill Meyer/DustedMagazine.com 11/19
Michael Hurley’s career as a folk singer is the stuff of folk legend: A born wanderer who stumbled into his first release-a 1965 LP for Smithsonian Folkways-by walking up the road, Hurley has released material on Warner Brothers, toured with big acts and enjoyed minor revivals since Koch Records latched onto his legacy in 1996. His appeal is instant and subversive: A bent blues guitar player with an aged hand at old-time fiddle, Hurley reworks traditionals with idiosyncrasies and warts. His originals-steeped in Leadbelly, etc.-are like love letters from some other gloried side of whimsy and sweetness. 10 p.m. -Grayson Currin/Independent Weekly11/14
Michael Hurley has been recording for over forty years. On his 1965 debut, First Songs, he was a young man carrying the foreboding mortality of a 75-year-old. Now in his mid- sixties, he tempers a knowing sense of death with sly winks that can only come with age, while youthful hijinks are sprayed across his songs like buckshot. Such is the consistency of Hurley’s vision that this set has songs written and recorded during the recent past half decade, flowing like one organic whole. The opener “Knockando,” immediately joins his pantheon of classics. The easy familiarity of his writing, singing and playign belies a highly controlled aesthetic The sturdy construction of a number such as “Light Green Fellow” shows him to be a more artistically barbed J.J. Cale, making it al the more puzzling why legions of troubadours and barely-voting-age garage bands don’t get on board and start covering these unassumingly perfect songs. David Greenberger/Harp November
Before Devendra, before Jana and Joanna and that whole crowd, there were some freaky people making the folk. It’s easy to forget in this ever-onward culture of ours, but Devendra’s always been good at looking back. D’s pulled Michael “Snocko” Hurley into the Gnomonsong stable for The Ancestral Swamp, giving the folk legend (and frequent Cat Power coveree) a home for his umpteenth album of skewed shanties and lonesome whistles.
Produced in part by fellow freak Tara Jane O’Neil, Swamp emerges September 18. Meanwhile, Hurley’s got quite a few dates lined up in the general vicinity of his Northwest. Paul Thompson/Pitchforkmedia.com 8/22
The album begins casually, a clamped down strum answered by a vertiginously bent blues note, the instrumental accompaniment moving in stops and starts as if its ideas are just occurring to Michael Hurley. When he sings, this 40-year veteran of folk and blues has a worn-in grace, his voice warm and unforced and seemingly right in your ear. “Had a glass of knockando,” he breathes, and you can almost smell the single malt. He is right there, telling you a story, in no particular hurry.
Hurley can afford to be laid back. This is, after all, his 20th album in a career that has spanned five decades. He started all the way back in 1965, with First Songs, a record made on the same reel-to-reel that documented Leadbelly, and released on the Smithsonian Folkways label. Robert Christgau called Have Moicy, his 1976 collaboration with the Holy Modal Rounders’ Pete Stampfel, “the greatest folk album of the rock era”. He has been covered by everyone from the Violent Femmes to Cat Power. He still plays shows, hitching up with new psych folkers like Espers, the Black Swans and Vetiver, and he still writes and plays songs about elemental things: liquor, love, death and gambling.
With AncestralSwamp, Hurley gathers 11 songs, many longtime staples of his live show. There are covers-Blind Willie McTell’s “Dying Crapshooter Blues”, Lightning Hopkins “Lonesome Graveyard” and the traditional cowboy song “Streets of Laredo”-as well as his own skewed originals. He plays most of the instruments, though Holy Modal Rounder Dave Reisch and Portland roots musician Lewi Longmire make appearances, and Tara Jane O’Neill sings harmonies and plays guitar on one song.
Hurley often gets lumped in with the folk revival, but his roots are more in Delta blues. “Dying Crapshooter Blues” is haunted by shivering, shimmering swamp blues guitar, the sort of wavering notes that hang like a mirage over the words. The words are, like much of the album, calm and somewhat humorous in the face of death. It’s a wry nod to the reaper when he observes, “Folks don’t be standing around ole Jesse crying / He wants everybody to do the Charleston whilst he’s dying.” He shifts to electric piano for “Lonesome Graveyard”, but the sentiment is just as stoic and accepting. Hurley didn’t write these songs, but he chose them, hewing to the natural acknowledgment of mortality that all traditional music brings.
One of the album’s high points is “Light Green Fellow”, an original that Hurley first recorded in his 1971 album Armchair Boogie. It’s full of lust and longing and the taint of death, a slapped and slashed guitar keeping pace as Hurley croons about midnight visits to a lover. There’s something especially moving about this song, an older voice cracking and fraying as it conjures desire, as if love really does persist through unimaginably long stretches of time, and maybe even past death.