Forever nomadic, Michael Hurley dives into the Swamp

Dec 4, 2007 at 7:19 pm

It is hard to imagine a more American musician. For more than 40 years, Michael Hurley’s distillation of the blues, country, folk, bluegrass, jazz and rock ’n’ roll has created a songwriting legacy few living artists can match.

Though far from a household name, Hurley’s presence looms large. His Have Moicy album collaboration, alongside the Holy Modal Rounders and Jeffery Fredrick and the Clamtones, was cited by former Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau as one of the top 10 albums of the 1970s.

His songs show up everywhere —  HBO’s “Deadwood,” Ray McKinnon’s Oscar-winning film “The Accountant” and Russ Forester’s documentary about 8-track tape collectors, “So Wrong They’re Right,” to name a few — and have been covered by Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Barry Dransfield, Yo La Tengo, the Violent Femmes and many more.

Still, most of Hurley’s catalog is out of print. Those grassroots pillars — word-of-mouth and timeless live performances — fuel his following.
A typical Hurley show draws folks from all walks of life. Aging couples from rural regions far outside of town pull up a chair next to young, urban hipsters. Blue-collar workers sit at the bar alongside professors. Old bluegrass folk-niks mesh with punk-rock kids, proving Hurley’s charm caters to no particular social club.

Born in Pennsylvania in the same year as Bob Dylan, Hurley spent most of his youth traveling between Pennsylvania, Florida and California. At 17, he left home to roam and learn guitar. He traveled to Mexico, New Orleans and beyond, rambling, robbing and doing a stint at Bellevue.

At one point, Hurley barely escaped death after he was shot in the head with a .38. Eventually he ended up in Greenwich Village, where he met Steve Weber and post-Marxist agitator Pete Stampfel, both of whom founded the Holy Modal Rounders.

By the early ’60s, Hurley was ready to sign a major record deal when he contracted mononucleosis. Following a long stay in the hospital, Hurley returned to music and recorded his first album for the Folkways label in 1964, on the same tape machine Leadbelly used on his final sessions in the 1940s.

Soon Hurley grew weary of the city and became a nomad. His life has taken him from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore., and just about everywhere in between, making a living playing music and painting.
At 66, he lacks any sign of dullness and embodies an effortless mastery on stage that only years of experience can provide. He has avoided the typical perils of the artist, in which early success precedes a fading artistic merit, and has befriended time.

Hurley’s latest release, Ancestral Swamp, through Devendra Banhart’s Gnomonsong Recordings, is no exception. He is paired with Louisville’s Tara Jane O’Neil and the Rounders’ Dave Resich, and the album is easily on par with his best work. Gnomonsong offers Hurley his strongest distribution in quite some time.
Opening Sunday’s show is ANS, a duo made up of Meara O’Reilly and Brooke Sietinsons of the bands Feathers and Espers.

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Michael Hurley
Sunday, Dec. 9
Lisa’s Oak Street Lounge
1004 E. Oak St.
$5; 8 p.m.