“1963 was the last time a great car was built in America & these Belvederes have it & they have it all.” So reads part of outsider folkster Michael Hurley’s most recent newsletter, in which he’s hawking a couple of Plymouths for $400 each. If it seems like a strange item to find in a musician’s newsletter, well, Michael Hurley is a strange guy.
The 56-year-old troubadour is one of America’s most distinctive if invisible fonts of folk–of his nine records only a pair are currently in-print–but he also paints and “fools around with old electronic stuff.” Although he’s spent significant stretches of time living in Vermont and Virginia, Hurley’s a modern-day hobo, stopping for short spells in Mexico, Oregon, Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New Orleans, among other locales.
In 1964–prior to spending six months in a New York hospital with tuberculosis and a threatening liver condition–he recorded an album for the legendary Folkways label. For the next 15 years he sporadically teamed up with Peter Stampfel, the loopy mind behind the Holy Modal Rounders. In the early 70s he recorded a couple of albums for a Warner Brothers subsidiary run by Jesse Colin Young of the Youngbloods, but Hurley made his mark on a 1976 collaboration with the Rounders called Have Moicy!, a bona fide modern folk classic that revealed a thorough knowledge and appreciation of folk roots while stressing a healthy irreverence for the scene’s increasing rigidity and seriousness.
Hurley never aimed to be a professional musician. “I didn’t think it was a practical way to make a living,” he says. “I always wanted some quick money more than I wanted some stupid fly-by-night gig in a coffee shop.” But by the mid-80s his fortunes changed, if ever so subtly. “I framed up a bunch of my paintings and took them down to a gig I had at Folk City, and I hung up 11 of them onstage. I sold 7. That was the beginning of the end for me doing other jobs–selling Christmas trees, house painting, working at a barbecue stand.”
While Hurley’s been able to support himself through his music and paintings–mostly wild, cartoonish renderings of folkies like Hurley as wolves–he’s anything but a household name. A few years ago he was approached by the German label Veracity, and the fruit of their negotiations was last year’s Wolf Ways, a collection of rerecorded Hurley favorites intended to introduce him to the German marketplace. The album was subsequently licensed to Koch in the U.S. “I’ve concluded that I needed to be introduced in my own nation as well,” Hurley says dryly.
“I could give up performing and just paint if I wanted to, but I guess I like performing. It’s something I have to do every so often.” His homespun gigs are legendary. Never using a set list, the often crotchety Hurley rambles through a performance guided only by his own idiosyncratic impulses. At a Chicago gig a few years back he pounded out barrelhouse versions of numerous pop standards and boogie-woogie classics on a nearby piano, but for the most part he sticks to playing his own songs on guitar, banjo, and fiddle.
Hurley’s music is a delirious blend of old-timey country, early blues, and classic pop melodies. Performed and sung with back-porch casualness, his tunes, when you can penetrate their oddball poesy, are actually simple, though poignant. His classic “Werewolf” is a lycanthropic parable of human lust. “I Paint a Design” offers a personal monologue–“I paint a white horse or a fire-breathing dragon / I paint a design on your wagon”–while “Somebody to Say Bye Bye To” provides an aching meditation on loneliness.
In addition to his musical and artistic proclivities, Hurley is a natural tinkerer. “I’m one of the best eight-track tape repairmen in Richmond,” he says with little irony. “There’s another guy there named Pop with a big bushy white beard. We had a conversation about some of our tricks. Pop said, ‘When they’re really bad and you have to throw all the tape off the reel, the best thing to do is walk around your yard a couple of times and just lay the tape in the grass as you walk around so it won’t get all tangled up, and then it’s easy to rewind.’ I tried it once but there was a high wind and the tape balled up like a plate of spaghetti.”
At this year’s South by Southwest conference Hurley played with Giant Sand and formed a bond with the group’s offshoot, Friends of Dean Martinez, who are backing Hurley on his next Koch release. He tours Ireland in July, and Veracity wants him to tour again in Germany this fall, but Hurley’s not so sure. “I don’t get time to do my own projects anymore,” he complains. “My van needs its engine overhauled, and I have a 1944 Chevrolet that needs to be fixed up. The summer months are my busiest time for music, but it’s also the best time to work on cars.”
Hurley opens a sold-out Son Volt show Thursday, June 27, at Metro and plays at Abbey Pub Friday, June 28. Call 478-4408 for more information.