Michael Hurley – Primary Colors
No matter the circumstance, Michael Hurley is a quintessential practitioner of the less-is-more dictum. As a writer of riveting and timeless songs, his phrases are short and potent, in service to verses at once elegantly concise and mysteriously layered. In conversation he favors one-word answers, though if he’s inclined, vivid anecdotes will pour forth, bearing remarkable similarity to the flavor and substance of his lyrics.
The formidable craft in his songwriting has remained remarkably unchanged over 35 years, without ever becoming stagnant. “I stick basically to primary colors,” he said, “and I stick basically to primary chords. A three-chord song is real good with me.”
There’s an ease in his songs that’s more readily apparent than in his social interactions. The few words he wishes to use in song, as in life, are supported by simple chords. Hurley, who also answers to the name Snock, plays guitar, piano, fiddle and banjo. He sings the songs he writes with a voice of confident individuality — quirks and all — bundled up in a folksy sonority. He eschews flash in his singing, but more importantly, it is a sound rich with personality. Hurley’s a natural.
His songs are about pork chops and neon signs, werewolves and watertowers. He turns small undertakings into magical experiences. If a person, place or thing falls within the scope of his creating, it is all given equal attention, be it painting a sign, watching the moon, or remembering lessons from ma and pa. He’d like life to go smoothly, but if it doesn’t, he’ll roll along anyway. The songs move at a friendly, but unhurried pace.
Hurley recorded “Blue Mountain” when he was 22, but it embodies the world-weary presence of an old man. “Don’t Call Me Sam”, on his latest, was recorded as he’s closing in on 60, and it’s mingled with the sassy hijinks of youth. This happens because, from the outset, Hurley found a way to put himself completely into his music. A small combo sometimes rounds out the sound, playing so sympathetically that the music sounds like a band of all Michael Hurleys. The voice of his solid songs shines through, no matter who’s playing.
When Armchair Boogie landed in my life in 1971, it was as if I’d discovered an intriguing parallel universe. When I heard Hurley’s mock trumpet on the instrumental “Penguins”, I was hooked. Clearly not marching to any contemporary drum beat, Armchair Boogie album was full of songs that seemed too perfect to have been written — more like he dug them up from under a 300-year-old tree. However, he is no blindly reverent folkster; he draws on the past, but it has never overshadowed him. His songs are built of simple components. Solo numbers can invoke romance, pathos, solitude and loss; the songs with an ensemble have a sense of playfulness, camaraderie and humor. It can also be the other way around.
Born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1941, Hurley gravitated to music in his teens, wandered the country a bit, and landed in New York City, then flush with the coffeehouse and folk music boom centered around Greenwich Village. He was there long enough to forge alliances with the similarly inclined Robin Remaily (who Hurley nicknamed Rube the Card), Steve Weber (The Weeb), and Peter Stampfel. The last two were already trouncing through old-time songs with hallucinogenic glee in their Holy Modal Rounders. They would become the first performers to cover songs by Hurley.
Unable to reconcile himself with the pace and density of large-scale urban life, Hurley moved to and fro, landing back in eastern Pennsylvania. It was there that folk and blues scholar Fred Ramsey Jr. heard him and recorded a demo tape, which Ramsey brought to Moses Asch of Folkways Records. Recognizing the real thing when he heard it, Asch gave a green light to a Hurley album. And small though the traffic lights of Folkways may have been in the bigger scheme of things in the music world, their enduring glow has continued to outshine many erstwhile powerful beacons.
Recorded in 1964 and released the following year, First Songs is a complete and honest introduction to Hurley. The record touches on all the themes he has returned to throughout his career. The back cover describes a young man, then going by “Mike,” with one sentence that has remained accurate over the decades: “Self-taught songwriter/singer/guitar player/artist/wanderer, who has written songs for people like the Holy Modal Rounders, and done album covers.”
As is common for an itinerant musical outsider, no new recordings appeared for another six years. Armchair Boogie was released in 1971 on fellow Bucks County native Jesse Colin Young’s Raccoon label. Young was then enjoying so much success with his Youngbloods that Warner Bros. granted them an imprint on which to put out their own new albums, as well as anything else they wanted to.
Striking while the iron was hot, Hurley released Hi-Fi Snock Uptown the following year — the only time he’s ever had back-to-back albums out in two successive years. However, the iron quickly cooled as Warner pulled the Raccoon plug, leaving a planned third album on the drawing board. According to Hurley, it was to be “the punch line deliverer of the trilogy, the conclusion.” More mystery, more fragmentary tales.
Hurley next reappeared on the pivotal Have Moicy album, released by Rounder and credited to Hurley, the Unholy Modal Rounders and Jeffrey Fredericks & the Clamtones. They were a free-ranging crew of musical compatriots who in two days recorded a work that has been a clarion call for legions of like-minded musicians and listeners. The album contained several enduring Hurley favorites, including “Sweet Lucy”, “Slurf Song” (which follows a meal on its course through the human body) and “Fooey Fooey”.
Rounder also brought forth the next two Hurley albums: Long Journey in 1976 and Snockgrass four years later. Both feature some deliciously scrappy accompaniment and span the gamut from coffeehouse intimacy to roadhouse carousing.
The ’80s saw the release of only two new studio albums, on two different labels: Blue Navigator in 1984 on Rooster and Watertower in 1988 on Fundamental (also then home to the Colorblind James Experience and Eugene Chadbourne, who was instrumental in bringing Hurley into the fold). Watertower introduced yet another of Hurley’s stirring laments, “Lush Green Trees”, in which he requests, “Sorrow, sorrow ignore me.” He doesn’t plead; he just asks quietly. His resignation is tempered by the solace he derives from verdancy.