Bucks County-born folk singer Michael Hurley has gorgeous new album on Philly label

Michael Hurley has always been on the move.

“Even in the womb,” says the beloved Bucks County-born songwriter. “I was conceived in New York. And before I was born I had been to Florida and back. “

Days before his 80th birthday in December, Hurley was speaking from his home outside of Astoria, Oregon, celebrating The digital age, her charming and free-spirited new album released on Philadelphia’s No Quarter Records label.

The digital age takes its name from the purple bell-shaped flowers that bloomed last summer when his 11 songs – nine Hurley originals and covers of the Louvin brothers’ “Alabama” and Rob Keller’s “Boulevard” – were recorded with a team of musicians who , like his fan base, are generations younger than him.

Hurley painted the album’s colorful cover, showing two women sitting on the side of a car pouring wine on a summer night with foxgloves at their feet.

Earlier this year Irish label Blue Navigator released Snockument, a vinyl tribute to Hurley which includes contributions by independent artists like Yo La Tengo, Calexico and Cass McCombs with Lansdowne guitarist Steve Gunn.

(“Snock” is an onomatopoeic nickname that Hurley began to call himself about 60 years ago. “It’s the sound of a clave, of two blocks of wood colliding. Or a shell hitting each other. breaks. ”He makes the sound with his tongue above his mouth.“ It’s a snock. ”)

“I have always lived in a sea of ​​youth, which seems to be constantly replenishing itself”, says the singer. “Being my age and still outstanding, there aren’t a lot of people doing the things that I do. So the people who do it keep getting younger and younger, it seems. But it’s really just me getting older and older.

The digital age comes just 57 years after Hurley debuted with First songs on the Folkways label in 1964. The singer-guitarist who grew up in Solebury and across the river at Raven Rock in Hunterdon County, NJ, was among the new faces of the Greenwich Village folk scene, with Phil Ochs, Karen Dalton and Bob Dylan.

The conventional wisdom was that the young folkie didn’t have what it needed. A review of the New York Times of First songs said that “although some of Hurley’s songs show imagination and passion, he is not ready to be considered a professional singer or songwriter.”

Then as now, Hurley had a “laid back attitude” towards leading a booming musical career since being rediscovered in the ’00s by folk groups like Vetiver, Devendra Banhart and the band. of Philadelphia Espers.

In a two-hour phone interview – he doesn’t quite understand Zoom – Hurley discussed how growing up in a traveling showbiz family fueled his urge to travel. “That’s why I’m so ready to move,” said the singer, who has lived in New York, Vermont, Ohio, Virginia and Philadelphia and has five children in areas as far away as Thailand and Bulgaria.

The sense of adventure and wonder runs through his house songs, Digital the wide-eyed opening “Are You Here for the Festival” on the pump organ and guitar instrumental “Knocko the Monk”. The closer gossamer “Lush Green Trees” is a song of hope. “Grief, please ignore me,” Hurley sings. “Leave me everyday like this.” “

Hurley was shaped by a Quaker education. “They weren’t judgmental,” he says. “There weren’t a lot of habits to impose.” His father produced musicals and operettas like Showboat and The Merry Widow under a tent in Bucks County and Lambertville, NJ. Each winter, the family put the car away and drove to Florida to set up productions in the Sunshine State.

Her father played the drums, her sisters played the mandolin, and her mother sang. “My mother had a high-pitched soprano voice that she never lost. I think that’s probably why I never lost mine.

He absorbed the Jelly Roll Morton and Josh White records his parents played, bought his by Fats Domino. and Thurston Harris, and picked up a mandolin at age 16, soon switching to a guitar that was more suited to playing Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music”.

The family had border collies named Boone and Count who were immortalized in the music and visual arts of Hurley. Count has been renamed Jocko, after legendary Philadelphia DJ Jocko Henderson, whose afternoon TV show Jocko’s rocket was a kind of interplanetary American kiosk. “His music was much better than the rock and roll played by Dick Clark,” he recalls.

In the comics, paintings and songs of Hurley like “Werewolf” – covered by Cat Power on Snockument – dogs turn into mocking (and howling) beatnik wolves.

Hurley left school and hitchhiked in Mexico at the age of 17, and after returning to New Jersey he was discovered by Folkways Fred Ramsey, who had recorded Lead Belly for years. earlier.

Having a recording contract did not allow Hurley to consider himself a “professional” musician. “It never happened,” he laughs.

After being hospitalized with tuberculosis and mononucleosis in New York City in 1965, Hurley spent a year in Philadelphia, recovering on a macrobiotic diet. He worked as a “not entirely nude” model artist at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and made kielbasa in a Polish grocery store. He was so skinny that “the kids around here called me ‘the skeleton’,” he recalls.

He didn’t perform much, but continued to work on songs, living in a $ 25 a month apartment in South Philly with gas and electricity illegally hooked up where he wrote “Light Green Fellow,” which appeared on her second album, Boogie armchair, in 1971.

Hurley’s reputation grew. In 1975, he and a group of travelers from the 1960s counterculture released Have Moicy !, credited to Michael Hurley, The Unholy Modal Rounders and Jeff Fredericks & the Clamtones. Rock critic Robert Christgau called it “the greatest folk album of the rock era.”

Hurley has remained productive, releasing whimsical and surreal albums like Snock-grass in 1980, Parsnip shears in 1996, and Ida Con Snock in 2009. Over the past decade, Mississippi Records of Portland released a series of Hurley vinyl records, which is described on the label’s website as “maybe the great living singer / songwriter (besides Bob Dylan)”.

Mike Quinn, who runs No Quarter from his home in the Wissahickon section of Philadelphia, had a lifelong aspiration to bring Hurley into a real recording studio and release an album with international distribution.

“It was an absolute goal,” said Quinn, who is also sales manager for New York label ATO Records and who will release albums from Austin, Texas singer Jana Horn, Philadelphia guitarist Chris Forsyth and by British guitarist Richard Thompson. on No Quarter in 2022.

Hurley’s music “is so sincere and so sincere,” Quinn says. “It encompasses so many things… He’s famous, but I just felt he needed more notoriety.” No Quarter artist Joan Shelley, whom Quinn directs, urged him to approach Hurley, who she is friends with.

He did, when Hurley was playing three shows at the Brooklyn Union Pool Hall in January 2020. COVID-19 ended Hurley’s plans to travel to Kentucky to record. Instead of The digital age saw the light of day, with Hurley bringing home recordings to two Oregon studios in July, his favorite month of the year, and various players adding xylophone, banjo, violin, and ukuleles to the airy arrangements.

The inability to turn frustrated Hurley, especially with Digital collect positive reviews, including a list of the best of 2021 in The New Yorker.

He gets nervous, sitting in his kitchen waiting for 11 gallons of homemade apple juice to turn into hard cider. “It would be nice if I could move around and play high-level concerts,” he says. “It’s an emotional urge to express what you’re doing. Spreading it to people is part of my psychological makeup. “

The raw sound of Snock led Hurley’s music to be referred to as “foreign music”. It agrees with the tag, but has a better description

“I’m a pop star of non-commercial viewers,” he says. “” Spectator “means that I am watching the program. I’m not running it. And “non-commercial” means it was not intended for sale. But it is now. Since the mid-80s he has been supporting me, my music has done it.

Career issues have never been a problem for Hurley.

“I just play music for the sake of music,” he says, noting that he’s currently working on an arrangement of the theme for the 1952 film. Midi high, one of his mother’s favorite songs.

“If you really enjoy a moment in your life, you don’t worry about your future. This is my theory. And if you are involved and engaged and have things to do, this is your life. You are there. And it can be destroyed at any time. So enjoy. “

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