Folk singer, songwriter
Michael Hurley, known by friends as the Snock, Hi-Fi Snock, and Elwood Snock, has resided at the outer realms of the folk music scene for over 40 years. In 1965 he recorded his first collection of songs for the small Folkways label in New York City; in 2004 he recorded Down in Dublin for the small Blue Navigator label in Ireland. Like a troubadour of old, he has lived in Virginia, New York, Kentucky, Florida, California, Oregon, and Massachusetts, and has seldom remained in one location for an extended period of time. Although Hurley has never gained a large audience, critics, musicians, and loyal followers alike have sung his praises. In the mid-1970s Rolling Stone chose Have Moicy! (1976) as one of the year's best albums and, more recently, Cat Power recorded two Hurley songs, "Sweedeedee" and "Werewolf."
Never viewing his music as a realistic way to make a living, Hurley has also worked as a Christmas tree salesman and an eight-track tape repairman. "I didn't think it was a practical way to make a living," Hurley told Peter Margasak in Hitsville. "I always wanted some quick money more than I wanted some stupid fly-by-night gig in a coffee shop." Financially, Hurley has had more success as a painter, selling his paintings at his shows. "I could give up performing and just paint if I wanted to," Hurley told Margasak, "but I guess I like performing. It's something I have to do every so often."
Hurley was born on December 20, 1941, and grew up in Pennsylvania. Between the ages of eight and eleven, his family traveled between Pennsylvania and Florida, where his father directed operettas for productions of Showboat, The Merry Widow, Carmen, and other musicals. While traveling, his family stopped at "steel joints," establishments that introduced Hurley to country music. "That was how I first came to hear the pedal steel guitar of country western music," Hurley told Popwatch (as reprinted at Perfect Sound Forever). "Hank Williams was still alive. Every year we went to Florida, Hank Williams was still pickin' and puttin' out hits like 'Hey Good Lookin'." When Hurley was 12, his family traveled to California, where his father attempted to market a smog-reduction device, but they soon returned to Pennsylvania and settled along the Delaware River.
Hurley left home when he was 17 "to ramble," hitchhiking to New Orleans, New York, and Mexico. Inspired by folk music, blues, and rock 'n' roll, he learned to play the guitar. He also met and befriended Robin Remaily, Peter Stampfel, and Steve Weber, three performers who would later become musical partners. Hurley's itinerant lifestyle, however, began to wreak havoc on his health by the early 1960s, leading to a stay in a New York hospital for mononucleosis. In the mid-1960s he recorded his debut, First Songs, for Folkways Records in New York City. The album showcased Hurley's unusual songs, including "The Werewolf Song," a song written from the wolf's point of view. Rumor also had it that First Songs was recorded on the same tape player used to record folk legend Leadbelly's last sessions in the 1940s.
Hurley made no attempt to build a music career following the release of First Songs in 1965. Instead, he lived a hand-to-mouth existence, residing for short periods in New Orleans, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, and, in one instance, traveling to Mexico. Around 1970, he drove to California with his girlfriend to record his second album on the Raccoon label. An imprint of Warner Brothers Records, Raccoon was operated by the Youngbloods, a popular group fronted by Hurley's friend Jesse Colin Young. Armchair Boogie was released in 1971 and was followed by Hi Fi Snock Uptown in 1972. Hurley told Popwatch, "If they hadn't shut Raccoon down when they did, I would have made a third WB/Raccoon record, designed to be the punch line deliverer of the trilogy, the conclusion; but WB struck out."
Hurley's next project would become one of the most renowned recordings of his career. In 1976 he joined up with old friends Peter Stampfel and Robin Remaily, plus a large cast of misfits that included Jeffrey Frederick, Jill Gross, and Dave Reisch. After a weekend gig together in Vermont, the group of friends gathered in the studio with engineer John Nagy. Released on Rounder Records, Have Moicy! combined the whacked-out sensibilities of Frederick and the Holy Modal Rounders with Hurley's left-of-center approach, to create a progressive folk classic. Hurley completed four songs for the album, the "Slurf Song," "Fooey Fooey," "Sweet Lucy," and "Driving Wheel," and painted the album cover. "Every time I listen to it, it sounds more together," Hurley told Popwatch. "It sounds like a bunch of loonies, too." Hurley's association with Rounder also led to two other recordings for the label, Long Journey in 1976 and Snockgrass in 1980. "As with his best work," wrote Steven Stolder in Music Hound Folk, "Snockgrass is informed with folk familiarity yet is as idiosyncratic and unconstrained as its creator."
Hurley continued to release albums in the 1980s and 1990s, but they were issued on small labels and were often hard to obtain. He also sold a number of privately produced tapes at concert appearances. Blue Navigator was released in 1984 on Rooster and Watertower followed in 1988 on Fundamental. In the 1990s Hurley issued Wolfways (1994) and Parsnips Snips (1996) on Veracity. He also completed two tours of Germany and one of Ireland, along with numerous stateside appearances in North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York.
Reviews and newspaper biographies of Hurley have often noted that he is less well-known than he should be, but Hurley has seemed relatively unconcerned about his lack of success. "I don't think I really had a 'career' to lose," he told David Pollock in Scotland on Sunday. And Hurley's music has had a broad influence on other performers, including Lucinda Williams, Smog, Yo La Tengo, and Cat Power. "It's good when people say they're fans," Hurley told Pollock, "I can't help but like it."
Hurley resurfaced again in 2003 and 2005, with Sweetkorn and Down in Dublin, respectively. "Talking about individual tracks on a Michael Hurley album is almost beside the point," wrote Sam Eccleston of Sweetkorn on the Dusted website. "The project here is the totality: the ringmaster's bruised cheeriness and worn optimism carry the day." Both albums showed Hurley still capable of creating meaningful music. "You get the feeling whenever Hurley's spotted success, or it's spotted him, he's turned the other way," wrote Tom Gilmore in Inversion. "Nearly forty years after he began making music it's caught him, sort of, but entirely on his own terms. That's what he'd call emerald luck. In any case, it doesn't matter. It's for listening to, not a museum, as he'd say."
First Songs, Folkways, 1965.
Armchair Boogie, Raccoon, 1971.
Hi Fi Snock Uptown, Raccoon, 1972.
(With Holy Modal Rounders, Jeffrey Fredrick) Have Moicy!, Rounder, 1976.
Long Journey, Rounder, 1976.
Snockgrass, Rounder, 1980.
Blue Navigator, Rooster, 1984.
Watertower, Fundamental, 1988.
Wolfways, Veracity, 1994.
Parsnips Snips, Veracity, 1996.
Sweetkorn, Bellemeade Phonics, 2003.
Down in Dublin, Blue Navigator, 2005.
For the Record …
Born on December 20, 1941.
Recorded First Songs for Folkway Records, 1965; recorded two albums for Warner Brothers' Raccoon imprint, Armchair Boogie, 1971, and Hi Fi Snock Uptown, 1972; recorded joint project with the Holy Model Rounders and Jeffrey Frederick titled Have Moicy!, 1976; released Long Journey, 1976, and Snockgrass, 1980, on Rounder Records; released albums on a variety of small recording labels, including Blue Navigator, 1984, Watertower, 1988, Wolfways, 1994, Parsnips Snips, 1996, Sweetkorn, 2003, and Down in Dublin, 2005.
Addresses: Record company—Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140, website: http://www.rounderrecords.com.
Waters, Neil, editor, Music Hound Folk, Visible Ink Press, 1998, p. 384.
Popwatch, Winter 1997 (reprinted in Perfect Sound Forever, http://www.furious.com/perfect/michaelhurley.html).
"Dusted Reviews," Dusted, http://www.dustedmagazine.com/ (January 10, 2006).
"Hitsville," Chicago Reader, http://www.chicagoreader.com/ (January 10, 2006).
"Moicy Me, Here Comes America's Unsung Folk Hero," Scotland on Sunday, http://www.scotlandonsunday.com/ (January 10, 2006).
"On Being Michael Hurley," Inversion, http://www.inversionmagazine.com/ (January 10, 2006).