Nomadic Folk Musician Finds New Fans Michael Hurley's carefully crafted songs and hand-painted album covers have endeared him to a small but devoted group of musicians and critics. Now, more than 40 years into his career, Hurley is reaching a broader audience with a new record on Devendra Banhart's label.
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Nomadic Folk Musician Finds New Fans

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Nomadic Folk Musician Finds New Fans

Nomadic Folk Musician Finds New Fans

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Over the decades, Michael Hurley has carefully crafted songs and hand-painted album covers have endeared him to a small but devoted group of musicians and critics. This weekend, Mr. Hurley plays a rare pair of concerts in Philadelphia and New York City.

For member station WHYY Joel Rose reports that 40 years into his career, Michael Hurley is reaching a broader audience.

JOEL ROSE: Michael Hurley drives a car he calls the Blue Alligator. It's a 1973 Dodge Coronet station wagon.

Mr. MICHAEL HURLEY (Musician): I've crossed the country in it six times. It's pretty good for a $300 car, isn't it?

ROSE: Hurley says his cars last a long time because he takes good care of them.

Mr. HURLEY: I'm not a fast driver. I'll put it that way. I wouldn't work my car any harder than I would want someone to work me, you know.

ROSE: Hurley talks like he drives. His thoughts are separated by long pauses. His songs don't seem to be in a hurry either.

Mr. HURLEY: If you had one of them old fleabag apartments. You know the kind I mean. To walk up on fifth floor there, sometimes on a sunny day from the roof, you'd see them flying kites in Washington Square. I go up by the roof and I watch her hanging up the clothes and I'd say to her, wash the clothes, sweetie, and hang them on the line. And I can see by the way you wash your clothes, your cooking must be fine.

Mr. BYRON COLEY (Music Journalist): To go to a Michael Hurley concert or listen to one of his records really is to enter another kind of universe where time moves a little bit more slowly.

ROSE: Music journalist Byron Coley has known Hurley since the early 1970s.

Mr. COLEY: His songs are an unusual combination. The lyrics can be very funny but very few of them tell stories of triumph.

(Soundbite of song, "The Werewolf Song")

Mr. COLEY: (Singing) For the werewolf, for the werewolf, have sympathy. Cause the werewolf, he's somebody like you and me. Once I saw him in the moonlight when the bats were a-flying. All alone I saw the werewolf and the werewolf was crying.

ROSE: Hurley recorded for a major label briefly in the '70s, but those records quickly fell out of print. He's probably best-known for his contribution to the 1975 recording "Have Moicy," a collaboration with the Holy Modal Rounders.

(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Lucy")

Mr. HURLEY: (Singing) She run up the hill, she cried and cried. I run down the other side.

Mr. HURLEY and HOLY MODAL ROUNDERS: (Singing) Oh sweet Lucy, oh sweet Lucy. Oh sweet Lucy, let me go.

ROSE: Michael Hurley grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with one of the original Holy Modal Rounders. They were all hanging around New York City in the early 1960s, says Rounder Peter Stampfel, when they started playing a new kind of folk music.

Mr. PETER STAMPFEL (Singer, Holy Modal Rounders): It's a confluence of traditional folk music and, um, drugs, basically, with the latter having a very active influence on the former.

ROSE: Stampfel says Hurley's 1965 song "Intersoular Blues" is one of the first examples of what's now called freak folk.

(Soundbite of song, "Intersoular Blues")

Mr. HURLEY: (Singing) I'm going to join the Navy just to see the world. Because I ain't seen nothing since I quit seeing you.

ROSE: Today, the scene that's been dubbed freak folk by the music press is an informal movement of acoustic musicians around the country. They're inspired by - well - drugs. And in earlier generation of acoustic performers from the 1960s and '70s, one of the current scene's more flamboyant performers is Devendra Banhart. And it's his record label that put out Michael Hurley's newest CD.

(Soundbite of song, "Knockando")

Mr. HURLEY: (Singing) Penny lane(ph), knockando. This is what I say. You are there the fire, the spirit fire. Your soul has burned anew. Can you hear the crackling heart(ph) of the old pine wood?

ROSE: Hurley's songs have been covered by a number of younger artists, including Cat Power and the Philadelphia-based band Espers. Chris Smith is the band's base player.

Mr. CHRIS SMITH (Bass Player, Espers): He was almost like my Bob Dylan or like our Bob Dylan of my friends where he was so American and so to a point that was accurate and only his, but it wasn't like based on like a decade or an era.

ROSE: Bob Dylan and Michael Hurley were born a few months apart in 1941. They both cut their teeth on traditional American folk music, and they're both painters.

Michael Hurley has painted most of his own record covers. They're populated by roughly drawn animals in human hipster clothing — characters from the comic books Hurley had been drawing since the 1950s. Peter Stampfel says they were way ahead of their time.

Mr. STAMPFEL: They're actually the first underground cartoons, I would say. Because he was drawing them in '59, '60, before there were any underground cartoonists.

ROSE: Two of his earliest comic-book characters were Boone and Jocko, a pair of wolves who amuse themselves by drinking wine and flirting with women.

Mr. STAMPFEL: They were basically bohemian, ne'er-do-well, lay-about, slacker wolves.

ROSE: The line between Michael Hurley's art and his life can get sort of blurry. He refers to himself as Snock and sometimes takes on the persona of his cartoon characters. He's never stayed anywhere long, and he's been equally restless when it comes to holding a day job.

Mr. HURLEY: I picked string beans. I planted ginseng. I sold hot tamales on the streets of New Orleans.

ROSE: Hurley claims he's never had a job for more than six months.

Mr. HURLEY: I don't like having to do something when I get up in the morning, you know? I'd rather just hang out, you know, do what I feel like doing, putter around the house or take a walk, you know?

Mr. HURLEY: Music journalist Byron Coley says it's partly this refusal to grow up and get a full-time job that's endeared Hurley to a younger generation of artists and musicians.

Mr. COLEY: The fact that he's been creating in the way that he has, I think, gives a lot of these younger musicians like a working model, that you can still be really kind of a nomadic, traveling, you know, musician in an almost Middle Age-type mode. And there it actually works.

ROSE: Well, sort of. Michael Hurley isn't getting rich. But he does make a modest living from his paintings and music. He seems grateful that a younger generation is paying attention and helping him get some decent gigs.

Mr. HURLEY: They have to have their festivals, you know? Whenever they have one of these festivals, they have to have their grandfather with them, which is good for me because my peers aren't going to come out that night anyway.

ROSE: Hurley turns 66 next month, though he still doesn't sound ready to settle down. After six years on the Oregon coast, he may be getting ready to point his old car toward its next destination.

Mr. HURLEY: I noticed that the floorboards start to seem like they're coming up at me and I just have to go.

ROSE: For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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