Michael Hurley: “It’s just a compulsion. It won’t go away.” Interview by Erica Dunn


At a sprightly 76, American folk singer, cartoonist, and watercolour artist Michael Hurley visited Australia last month, playing everywhere from Castlemaine to Gympie. A wandering troubadour, his “jazz-hyped blues and country and western music” has seen him touring and releasing records on esteemed labels like Folkways, Warner Brothers/Raccoon and Rounder, Gnomonsong, Mississippi and Tompkins Square since the mid 60’s. He also has a new album out on the Mississippi label in spring. Whilst in Melbourne he dropped into the PBS community radio station for a wide ranging conversation with freelance writer, musician and announcer Erica Dunn. Erica has kindly provided Cyclic Defrost with a transcript of their conversation.

Erica Dunn (ED): I’m delighted to welcome to the studio today Michael Hurley, welcome.

Michael Hurley (MH): Great to be here

ED: Great to have you here! It’s very exciting for us, last time you came to town I was wondering if we’d see you travel so far back here again. I’m so glad you made the trip!

ED: Thank you so much for joining us.

MH: If you’ve got another forty minutes I could sing you one more song!

ED: Forty minutes! Gee I’m not going to say no to that. You in the mood?

MH: I was just joking, I know that was a long song!

ED: It was a long one! It was good! I’m sure the listeners will be enjoying it… Look there’s so much that I would like to talk to you about today, you’re such a prolific artist, with more than forty years and twenty nine or so releases behind you, but I thought maybe we could start by having a brief chat about the first album First Songs from 1965, one which I own and have loved. I’ve always been intrigued about that time in your life and that recording and how that came about, how that opportunity came to you.

MH: Well, I happened to live in the neighbourhood, in the county, not too far away from the folklore-ista. Fredrick Ramsey Jr picked me up hitchhiking one afternoon, and he picked me up, I think, he probably picked me up because I noticed I was carrying a guitar. It was a stellar guitar with no case, and he says “oh what’ve you got a guitar for?” and I said “well I play the blues!” and you know I didn’t know he was this uh…

ED: Big shot!

MH: Big shot, folklorist, now I know every folklorist in the country. He said, “the blues huh?” and I began to twang a little bit of the blues for him…

ED: And how old are you at this time, 22? abouts?

MH: Something like that. And I played the blues like this (twelve bar scale) and he said “well, come over and listen to 78s at my place, I got a lot of blues records you can listen to them” so uh, eventually, one time he says “let’s make a demo and send it into Folkways and see if they want to put out an album. And we recorded a three song demo in Fred’s house and then uh, we took that in and played it for Moses Ash. And Moses Ash said “make an album” and we went back and made an album in Fred’s house again.

ED: Right so it was recorded at a home studio?

MH: Right. Probably why I’m still making albums at people’s houses a lot. I’ve been in a few studios. But the last few albums, I’m making at my house.

ED: I was going to ask, about you’re being a sort of 8 track aficionado. Those first songs were recorded infamously over the Leadbelly Last Session tapes right? The same reels?

MH: That was just stereo tape. Two track. It might have even been full track mono. That’s probably it, wasn’t stereo. The old reel to reel.

ED: That’s right reel to reel. Pretty interesting. And that’s something you’ve continued in your recording career, is to stick to the minimal 8 track.

MH: Well I never made anything… it took a long time after that record to make anything…I was never gonna make another one.

ED: I was going to ask yeah, there’s quite a big gap between ‘65 First Songs and ’71 Armchair Boogie. What was going on? You know because afterwards you were almost putting out a record every year but between one and two there’s quite a gap.

MH: Oh yeah, I guess in ’65 I was kinda shunned by the folk community, so I couldn’t get much traction going on, around then.

ED: Something particular you did?

MH: They didn’t think I was playing folk music and uh, it wasn’t right for them. And also you know, I had to make a living. I was just working a lot of jobs, supporting my family, so I paid rent, those things. I continued to play guitar, write songs, but I never uh, bothered to try and get gigs, talk to record companies, stuff you know, I was just busy, moved around. And then, this friend of mine from… (somewhere??) PA, Jesse Colin Young, he was… he had been initiating for himself a career, and I had not been doing that. And he said, “if I ever get things going, I’m gonna make an album of you!” He then had this hit, “Get together”, a song written by Dino Valente, “Smile on your brother…everybody get together”. And that was on Warner Bros. so that was big for Jesse and his band the Youngbloods. He said, “I’m gonna come over now Michael”!

ED: So he honoured that commitment!

MH: And I was working as a janitor then, at the Paris Cinema in Boston. I used to practice on the stage, I’d take the broom, get on stage … “down in Louisiana down in New Orleans”…

ED: Nice rehearsal!

MH: The mop was good for that too! And I used to like to uh, the popcorn machine then had this big air bellows you know to suck up all the popcorn from the aisles. That would make such a noise it inspired me to break into a vocal. So I composed some material that way. So I was kinda ready when Jesse came over to my house. He just brought a little reel to reel tape recorder. There were all about the same size back then, still in the sixties, like a small suitcase you know. Just every time he came to Boston, he’d visit and record a few more songs. We got ready to put an album out round ’71. And when that came out I figured you know, if I’m gonna do that I may as well try and get some gigs. And funny thing was, round that time, it was the first time I started out in bars round where I lived it was rough, no room for hippies, no hippie would go in a bar around Boston, they weren’t appreciated. Things began to change then, Boston had two bars where you could go in and play the guitar and I just started doing that. But still I was, I was working all the time, different jobs,

ED: Yep, keeping yourself afloat there.

MH: Yeah and I always wanted an automobile and that’ll put a hole in your finances.

ED: True that. What was your dream car?

MH: Um, oh I liked the ’49 mercury.

ED: Nice

MH: Or the ’50.

ED: Did you uh, did you ever get on?

MH: No. but I did…uh, the first really old car that I had was a ’50 plymouth sedan and I blew that up and got myself another I think ’51 plymouth station wagon. And I painted a whale on it, on the side. It was black, it cost me fifty bucks and I painted a whale on the side and that was white see, and this friend of mine Captain Garbage says “Michael, I think you’re gonna have a baby with your friend, cos you painted a sperm on the side of your station wagon I can see and it’s on her side”.

ED: Auspicious!

MH: So that prediction, sounded ridiculous but he wasn’t too far off.

ED: Whale on the wagon! it’s funny you’re mentioning cars actually, because last year when I went to Portland I think I missed you by a day. You were with Darren Hanlon and I saw him the next day and he picked me and the band up in a Charger, a Mustang, and he said you’d been driving around in that car, and it was not quite the image that I had in mind of your touring. It was pretty, uh, high tech.

MH: When he rented it, he insisted on getting a muscle car!

ED: Uh huh! Well it was quite the image I had of you guys, travelling around the country in that crazy car.

MH: Yeah we went up to Seattle in that thing. A junkyard tour, I was looking for parts, I needed a manifold for my ’73 Dodge. Pretty hard to find that.

ED: Gotta dig around a lot huh? Let’s talk a little bit about some of your artwork because when I was first getting into your music I was then delighted to find this other world that was attached to it, in terms of your artwork, your characters Jocko & Boone and also how they appear in your songs. When did you first start to incorporate these alter egos or these characters from your artwork into your songs?

MH: Well um, those two dogs were actually these two collie dogs that I had when I was young, when I was growing up, Boone and Count. And Boone in particular, their characters were quite different, they were both sable collies, mostly black. And my brother and I, and another friend of my brothers used to sit around and make up stories, based on Boone’s actual deeds.

ED: Uh huh, so he was quite a character?

MH: We admired Boone’s character and then we began to exaggerate the possibilities of him being more human than he really was. And uh, he had a habit of raiding the kitchen garbage can at night. So we’d wake up in the morning, come down and he was lying in his own work, all the contents of the garbage can would be strewn all over the kitchen floor.

ED: Classic move.

MH: Yeah, we thought that was really cool. So my friend Toby drew a picture of Boone with his face in the waste basket. He had a long muzzle. That was the first one. And then we had to go back, to school I guess, probably 8th grade or something, it went from there. Making up stories. It used to be a tradition, in a lot of the different elementary schools I attended then, kids would draw cartoons and pass them up the aisle, during our lessons and stuff. Never were listening to them I guess, so that’s how I happened to be drawing was sitting there in elementary school…

ED: I wanted to recall to you an anecdote of mine from your last tour, which was that when you were playing “Tea Song”, friends of mine proposed and I wondered if this is something that’s happened to you before? They were so in love with the themes that you were expounding and really wanted that as the backdrop for their proposal, their romance. I just wondered, is that at all common?

MH: It’s a familiar thing! It’s a familiar happening… to others around me but not to me. The other song, I play it at weddings a lot is uh, “All my stars” and that’s caused a lot to say “yes”.

ED: Right! Some kind of alchemy? Magic?

MH: Yeah. Mostly it’s outside of me. Other people have taken advantage of my skills but they don’t realise that this is all fantasy. (laughing) All these marriages are gonna crash.

ED: You don’t say that after you play the song though. You don’t give them that warning! You let them leave with stars in their eyes.

MH: But that’s familiar.

ED: Yeah I wondered at the time, because it did seem very perfect. Another question, maybe obvious, but it’s so amazing your drive and commitment to continue working, as I mention more than 29 releases. What continues to motivate you to work, to play, that inspires you?

MH: Well, it’s just my love of music anyway. I listen to records, buy em, and in my spare time, whether I’m alone or whatever, I wanna play my instruments, it’s just a compulsion. It won’t go away. I see a piano, I wanna go over there and mess with that. So I’m just… it doesn’t turn off.

ED: Sort of a guiding principle.

MH: Yeah. Might retire though, from touring. One thing I don’t like is getting on the airplane. I don’t mind it once I’m on them, but the whole rigmarole of getting on, it’s taking it’s toll on my “noives”.

ED: I can empathise, it’s scary! Also, something that comes up in your songs that I just can’t help thinking about is a message to me about a simple life you know, often themes of just enjoying a cup of tea, blueberry wine, honey. Is that a correct assumption?

MH: Yes, yes. I’m always thinking about my breakfast, lunch and dinner. And my snacks. And you know, my beverages!

ED: Have you tried… there’s a kind of Greek thyme honey? Perhaps I’ll get some to you before you leave the country…

MH: T-h-m-y-e?

ED: Yeah the herb.

MH: That’s what they make vicks vapour rub out of. Thyme oil. It must be wild honey?

ED: Yeah it’s an island in Greece and the bees are only pollinated from the thyme plants. It’s got a beautiful, sort of medicinal, but delicious flavour.

MH: I used to be very fond of that thyme. Still am. It’s one of the only few spices I use when I’m cooking, I just douse it in thyme. So uh, I need that honey.

ED: We’ll get you some! You mentioned you’ve been recording for many years now, and in the initial stages you were shunned from the community.

MH: Right.

ED: Maybe you could describe what it was like though, when was that moment when you realised you had a far reaching community across the globe connecting to your music? There is the trouble of touring but there must have been some moment that was very gratifying finding communities that you didn’t know existed.

MH: It makes me think of a time… after those two albums on Racoon came out, near ’71, Armchair Boogie and Hifi Snock Uptown and I was living in the remote cattle country of northern Vermont near Canada and I was kinda like marginally playing gigs and this guy that was probably more active in it all than me said he found a response for me over across the lake in Plattsburg in New York in the college over there. And did I want to go over there and play a gig in Plattsburg. So I’m going over there and I’m driving to the site of this venue and park my car and this lady comes out and says “Michael, Michael, I’m so sorry I’m so sorry, I’ve heard you don’t like this at all but these people have been here all day long and they’ve all gone wild and they don’t even believe you’re gonna show up. And I know you’re a hermit and everything,” now I’m not a hermit. I’m thinking what’s going on and well, my record had gone infective …

ED: Haha viral…

MH: Yeah at the college, and the football team had all my songs on the backs of their shirts and they had concocted a play that they later invited me to, they had made masks to look like Boone and Jocko, and all the dialogue in the play was drafted from my songs. And that wasn’t when I first appeared though I didn’t see that play then, they were working on that I guess, but I just went in there and saw all these students that had been drunk all afternoon and they just couldn’t believe I was actually just walking in there. In my mind I was thinking well, aside from the college, the bars in Plattsburg are kinda rowdy and rough and I had been saying you know, lucky if I don’t get punched out at this Plattsburg gig.

ED: Yeah! And instead…. You get a giant fan club!

MH: Yeah. And then they uh, said come back for another gig and we’ll pay you! We’ll give you a ’57 Chevy station wagon which needed, it had been taken apart, it need a valve change, they knew I was into engine repair so um, and that’s when I came back and they had their play. And uh, it was based on the comic book that was inside of Armchair Boogie and it wasn’t very long, maybe about twenty minutes and I couldn’t stop laughing through the whole thing…

ED: It must have been surreal!

MH: I just went in there and just laughed and laughed all the way through.

ED: And I guess in some ways, maybe not to the details of writing a play about you, but there has been that repeated around the world, that sort of respect and admiration from different communities that you might not have expected.

MH: yeah. That was a surprise. It was a big surprise.

ED: I bet. And getting paid in cars! Is that common? Has that been a theme?

MH: No but I wish it was.

ED: well I’ll see what we can do…

MH: I’m getting to like this rental, that we have now…

ED: what’re you driving now? As a last note…

MH: A new Holden!

ED: what colour?

MH: purple

ED: really? That’s nice. Well don’t you go painting any whales on the side of that. Thank you very much for joining us today Michael Hurley, it’s been a real pleasure.

MH: I’m gonna paint a whale on it.

Michael Hurley photo by ROSS A. WATERMAN. (taken at Boogie Festival 2018)


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Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.