Michael Hurley :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

With a career that stretches back to his 1964 glistening debut on Folkways, Michael Hurley has continued to churn out wholly singular albums of interstellar country blues, scattered across decades and labels. Released in December just prior to his 80th birthday, his latest (and first for No Quarter) The Time Of The Foxgloves finds a reinvigorated Hurley in a studio for the first time in a while. Joined by a bouquet of sympathetic collaborators both familiar and new, it’s a loose, unhurried, and joyous collection—his finest in years, though he’s never really made a musical misstep.

Aquarium Drunkard recently had a lengthy phone call with Hurley to discuss his new album, the pleasures of listening to the CBC, inspiration and collaboration, what he learned from listening to Duke Ellington, the book he’s working on, and more. | k evans

Michael Hurley: So, you’re in Canada?

Aquarium Drunkard: Yeah, I’m up in Saskatchewan. 

Michael Hurley: Saskatchewan!

AD: Yeah! I thought maybe I’d start there. I’m interested in your connection to Canada—you mention Manitoba on the new record, and the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] on Blue Hills. 

Michael Hurley: Yeah.

AD: And you do a really good Stompin’ Tom cover [“Moonman Newfie” on Bad Mr. Mike].

Michael Hurley: Yeah, I love Stompin’ Tom Connors. Great guy. So sorry he passed away, but I guess his time had come. Well my connection is: In Vermont, I lived in the extreme north of Vermont on the border of Quebec. With AM radio, even in the daytime you could get a clear signal from the CBC. It was great then and it’s still great now, I think. I loved the broadcasting. Also, it was a habitual thing—for a lark we would always go to Canada across the border and it was really easy. They would say, “What is the purpose of your trip?” We’d say, “Well, we’re gonna go get some beer and cheese and bread.” And then they’d pass us through. Usually there was no hassles but as the years went by we’d run into problems at the border. Never got into deep trouble though.

Then, I left Vermont in the mid-80s. I’d been trying to escape the state for about 20 years but every time I’d get out somewhere they’d throw me back into Vermont. I couldn’t even get a job. After a while, I wanted to go to North Carolina and stuff like that and just couldn’t cut it. So, they always tossed me back into Vermont. I began to think of it as a looney bin for hippies. It’s always acceptable in Vermont no matter what. And then when I finally did escape Vermont and got down south where I always wanted to be—Virginia, North Carolina. And late at night, I could pick up the CBC on AM radio.

AD: Even way down there?

Michael Hurley: Yeah, even way down there. In fact, in the mountains of Virginia, the Blue Ridge Mountains, I was doing gigs in various places. Late at night coming back from a gig—late at night was the best time to pick it up. It didn’t even have to be that late. It would often come in strong and you’d be hearing a story, and when it comes to the conclusion it fades away so you never know the conclusion. But I remember some really good moments. I think it was Andrea Kujesku or a name like that [Andrea Ratuski]. She had a show that came in at midnight, and it was like new classical music. Instead of playing Bach and Mozart and stuff, they’d play modern living people that go in that format of classical. There were really great moments coming back from gigs up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I was going around in my van. I’d been sleeping in my van and stuff and I’d get to crash and hear this wonderful—do they call it neo-classical? 

AD: Modern classical, maybe? Were you mostly listening to music or talk—or did you like both?

Michael Hurley: Well, in Vermont when the signal was strong even in the daytime, you’d just turn your radio, tune it to that and you could listen to that all day. Great stuff. Still is. Mostly!

AD: Mostly, yeah.

Michael Hurley: Couldn’t say I loved everything.

AD: No, me neither.

Michael Hurley: I migrated out to Oregon here in ’02, I think. I never came back to the East Coast again. And then I could get my CBC at night, coming from Vancouver, BC. I began to really appreciate that. I’m kind of a fan of AM radio. Well, I like antique radios powered by vacuum tubes. And I could pick up the CBC from Vancouver. Also, I’d gone up there a few times to play gigs. Much more difficult to cross the border now. Back in the ’70s in Vermont you’d get together with a bunch of your pals and say, “Well, what do we do now?” “I dunno, let’s go to Canada!” It was just like breeze in, breeze out. Sometimes we’d come back to the border all drunk and they’d say, “There you go! Just get your beer and bread and everything. Go on! Get out of here!” It’s no way like that anymore.

AD: I’d like to ask you a bit about the new album. Was the original plan to do it in Kentucky? Did I read that correctly?

Michael Hurley: I think that’s what started my communication with Mike Quinn of the No Quarter label. Because my friends Will Oldham and Nathan Salsburg and Joan Shelley made a plan in Louisville, Kentucky that we’d get together and make an album. Nathan and Joan were on No Quarter in the first place. So, Mike Quinn, he was up for getting me on his label. I was very disappointed when the pandemonic came about. But he wouldn’t quit and just started writing me. “Make an album on No Quarter. Make an album on No Quarter.” “Alright, alright.” And so I recorded in my house—I got a recording studio set up in my house. I’ve been collecting songs all along, it’s just a habit. I’m habitual.

AD: Then you brought that home recorded stuff to the studio in Astoria and called some collaborators in?

Michael Hurley: Yeah. For the ease of it. I could’ve brought people into my studio but I only have four tracks, at the max. And it’s difficult with my setup—it’s not state of the art. So, we loaded a lot of my recordings—about twenty songs I think—to an up-to-date, sort of digital board. They have it in Astoria, under the wing of the Fort George brew pub, which is now probably the most successful business that’s been in Astoria for the last 50 years or so. Fort George looms large in Astoria. Fortunate to be part of their industry, you might say.

AD: Did the album end up how you imagined or are you pretty loose and open when you’re approaching an album? Like you said, you brought in 20 songs so you must’ve had way more than enough, and more than ended up being the finished record.

Michael Hurley: Yeah. I figured we’d work with them and I wanted accompaniment, y’know? Adding a bass and vocals, other instruments—banjo, fiddle, guitar. And we’ll see what comes out the best. Now we’re thinking of doing another album there and in that same way. We’ll call it The Time of the Foxgloves: Volume II.

AD: Oh perfect. With all the leftovers?

Michael Hurley: Well, I’ll probably bring in about six new ones by that time. I think we might get around to it this spring. It’s a good time to get busy.

AD: What drew you to record The Louvin Brothers’s “Alabama” for the new record? You always choose such interesting cover songs, but that one—that’s a favorite of mine as well.

Michael Hurley: Yeah, their version of it is super. It’s superb. But no one knows it. I read a biography written by Charlie Louvin and they recorded that at least three times on different labels and it never took off. But I have this friend—I met her in Boston, but she’s from Nashville. I was in Boston recording an album in 2001, I think, and I met Betsy Nichols. We were gonna do this song called “The Last Time.” It was kind of a country western, Civil War tune. Anyway, I’m sure that in the whole city of Boston there was no one who knew that song except Betsy Nichols and myself. Probably still true today. So, we tried to get a take of it. It never made the cut for the sounds we were making for Germany. But I think she’s the best harmony singer that I’ve ever worked with. We both kind of migrated around to different places after then. She’s now presently living in San Francisco and I’m living in Brownsmead, near Astoria. She likes to come up now and then, just for the hell of it, to record more songs and stuff. She has no kind of ambition to be a professional musician, but she’s just really expert at a lot of things. She prefers to get decent jobs like a librarian, or things like that. Anyway, one of these times she came up to record with me, she said “Well, why not do this song?” And she brought me “Alabama” and I’d never even heard it before. She said, “Let’s do this one.” I’d got all the stuff together that I’d been collecting for about three years or so and that stood out. Brian Bovenizer works in the studio in Astoria—they call it the Rope Room. He liked it. Namely, I was going with what he likes because he had good opinions about things and there weren’t many people there to confer with. We couldn’t find no flies on that one. 

AD: You’ve played with so many musicians over the years. You must just love collaborating in general, but how about singing with others in particular? 

Michael Hurley: Well, I really love female voices. Singing female voices. It probably goes back to my mom who had a high soprano voice and loved to sing. And my two older sisters could sing together in harmony and probably gave me a background for liking harmony and female voices. When I think about putting a song together for recording—building tracks, that kind of thing. One thing that always pops up is, “Where’s the female vocals?” 

I find people who are around and as close to me as possible. Like Lindsay Clark, I just met her a couple weeks before the pandemonium came about. I played a show and she was on the bill. I remembered her set and she seemed pretty nice to me and she gave me her album. So I got her to sing on some of my songs that we made afresh at the Rope Room. Then those fiddle players—what the hell is that song? Y’know, “Have you ever left Nelsonville?” Our lead recording, there. 

AD: Oh, “Are You Going To The Festival?”

Michael Hurley: “Are You Here For The Festival.”

AD: There we go.

Michael Hurley: That band The Hackles, they live in Astoria. For the last few years I played gigs with them as my band. I’d get booked and I’d say, “Well, I need a band.” I had other people I play with in Portland but that’s actually almost 100 miles away. I could work with The Hackles much more conveniently for everyone. If we’re playing at the Fort George bar, we all live there, basically. 

It’s hard to import people like Gill Landry. He lives, currently, like 400 miles away. If you want me to go 400 miles away it’s gonna be a big deal for me. I’m gonna have to pack my grip, y’know? Did I bring my toilet kit? Or did I bring some cassette tapes to listen to in the slack hours? Did I bring olives and bread and cheese for the train ride or whatever? So it’s a big deal, man. When I get there who’s gonna put me up? Do I have to get a motel, or what? Fortunately, locally there’s a lot of good players around where I live now.

AD: Has your relationship with recording changed over the years? Because it seems like First Songs paved the way for your entire career—the way you recorded that one doesn’t seem too different from any record you made throughout your decades.

Michael Hurley: Right! Yeah, you’re exactly right. It was recorded in Fred Ramsey’s house. Quite local and ultimate comfort. Fred Ramsey always had a crock of his homebrew beer. He never even bottled it. It was in a big earthen crock. I can’t estimate how many gallons were in there. It was probably two and a half feet high, one of those big earthen crocks. He’d cover it with a towel or something like that. We’d do a session, have lunch, and he’d give everybody beer. Scooped right out of that crock. I don’t know if he ever drank anything else.

AD: Was it good beer?

Michael Hurley: Yes it was! It was good. I don’t think it was very strong. He was the first guy that defined for me what organic meant. The word “organic.” He would be talking about his garden and he’d say “Well, it’s an organic garden.” I’d say, “Organic? What’s that mean?” He said, “We’re gonna share our crops with the bugs and stuff. We don’t need to put any pesticides on it or anything.” He said, “I feel very different in the spring when I start eating the greens out of the garden. I feel really different.”

I could drop in any time. The way I met him—I was hitchhiking up the road. The Hurley family house was located on that same river road on the Jersey side. I could’ve walked to his house in about 45 minutes from my house. For some reason, I was hitchhiking up the road and I had a guitar with no case. He picked me up and he said, “What do you play on that guitar?” I figured, this guy doesn’t know a damn thing about what I play. “Oh, mostly the blues!” and I twanged a few notes. And he said, “Well, if you wanna learn more about the blues, come up to the house, I’ve got a lot of records.” He had an established wall of 78s, all rock and rhythm and jazz. He said, “Come on up and listen to that stuff. You know that guitar you got is a Stella. That’s exactly the kind of guitar all those guys played—just the cheapest guitar available.” He was always open about it—he’d entertain people that’d want to listen to his 78s. 

I was supposed to make another record for Folkways, after the First Songs one I made. They wanted to send me to a studio in New York City. But I said, “I’ll go back to Fred’s house and do it that way.” We started doing it but Fred didn’t like my new songs. But we were just working and collected a bunch of them. And then I eventuated out of the area, I moved to Boston kind of in the middle of it. I was working and doing other things to make money. I never figured playing music or making records was any way to support myself. I just wanted to pay the rent. Sessions for that second Folkways album with Fred had kinda discontinued, but by the time I reconnected with that project Moses Asch had closed his office. I didn’t know how to get to his office so I went to another place that was handling the Folkways business—they didn’t know me from a scarecrow.

AD: One thing I’m curious about is when you revisit songs from across your catalog. Are those songs you like to go back to ones that have stuck with you over the years or is there something else going on there?

Michael Hurley: There’s a couple of songs that I’m surprised I really still like them—songs I’ve forgotten. I have to listen to old records to figure out how I play the chords. Like, if someone requested at a gig or something to play “The End of the Road,” I’d have to say, “Well, I can’t play that.” I’d have to go back and listen to the record and see how it goes. The melody would be in my head, but maybe not the chord progression. There’s two songs right now that I’m working on like that—the last couple of days, actually.

I’m down here in Portland now for a few days. I brought my guitar with me to gig. I kinda had a feeling that I needed to bring a guitar. I’ve been working on two songs from this album that I recorded for Germany the last year before the Trade towers got hit. I spent like six weeks in Boston gathering people to help me to record this album which we ultimately called Sweetkorn and it was released in Germany. So Germany had funded my six weeks existence in Boston to make this. Lots of times, once I record a song it’s dead to me. I don’t go back to it. Once it comes out, there’s something about that. But if I ignore it for 15 years, 20 years—I hear it and it’s like new, totally new, and I say, “Hey, that’s a pretty decent song. Does it really go that way? I don’t think so.”

AD: So you decide to give it a little update?

Michael Hurley: Yeah. I’ve always been a fan of Duke Ellington’s career. He had several big hits, like you could put them on five fingers. And he would record those over and over and over and over again. Nobody questions him about it. I think growing up listening to Duke Ellington, I figured that was legitimate. But I think I’m done with “The Werewolf Song” now. I think I’ve put it out on three different albums. I don’t think I’ll ever put it out on another one, unless it’s maybe a live show or something. But even at a live show when people request it I won’t play it.

AD: In general, what does your creativity look like, just on a daily basis? And how do you handle inspiration when it strikes you?

Michael Hurley: Well, I kinda have a compulsive making music thing. Like right now, I’m staying with my friend Mike Henrickson and he’s got an upright piano here. I have a Wurlitzer piano in my music room. I can’t pass a piano or keyboard without saying, “Wait a minute,” doodle-doodle-doo. Play something on that piano or I own about seven guitars. They’re laying all over the place. Mike’s got a guitar here. It’s a Martin D-28. It’s exactly what I brought down here, but mine’s made in Korea and his in Japan. So, it’s not enough that I got my Korean one, I gotta go plunk on his Japanese one.

Anyways, music’s always running in my head. Music. I get in my car and drive, and I got the radio on. I play tapes. I’m just always at it. I don’t try to write songs. I don’t sit down and say, “I need to write some more songs. That starts at 9 o’clock, here I go.” I might do that on requests, if someone asks me, “Will you please write an anti-war song?” 

AD: Do things come to you differently on a banjo or your Wurlitzer versus a guitar?

Michael Hurley: No, the songs are central. But with the fiddle and the banjo, those songs kind of create themselves on those instruments. The stuff that drifts into my head, I can choose sometimes—I might be on a walk, and something starts up in my head and I figure, “Well, this is pretty nice. I wonder what key it’s in?” But I’m not gonna know until I get home and see the pianos. I still got it in my head—bing bingWhat’s that gonna be?” It’s usually in F or B. If I’m walking around in the woods or something and my voice, just naturally if I start singing, will go in those keys. Both those are difficult keys for the guitar but not for the piano.

AD: I love the sound of that Wurlitzer you have. It almost doesn’t sound like anyone else’s.

Michael Hurley: I wish it did sound like everyone else’s Wurlitzer! One time I blew the whole amplification system on it. I was messing around with the electronics and I did something wrong and fried the whole system. So I had to have it reconstructed. Once it was reconstructed it never had that great sound again. I still wanna restore it to the original sound it had. It was much, much better. But, if I go out to an amplifier, I can get a unique sound out of it. Since the time I bought it—I actually bought the Wurlitzer from Canada. Someone in Quebec sold it to me. That’s still the one I’m playing now. It’s a reconstructed Wurlitzer.

AD: I’d like to ask you about your art practice. Obviously your characters Boone and Jocko show up on album covers and in songs, but do you see any other connection between your art and music?

Michael Hurley: Well, I like to draw and paint. Currently, I’m not as compulsive about it as I am with music. But it’s definitely related. 

I can remember when I lived in Richmond, Virginia with my drawing board. I had everything there. I had my hi-fi, my radio, my guitar. At the time I was making most of my money by selling my paintings. It was kinda like my daily effort to finish the next painting. I’d be there at the drawing board until I’d had enough of it. If you stare at the same picture you’d been painting on for hours, you get—well, I do—to the point where, “So, what color for this? I don’t give a shit. What color for this? Fuck this!” Grab the guitar, even if I was still sitting at the drawing board, and start singing a Dock Boggs tune or something like that. I think I’m mostly on the music channel now. There was a period in the ’80s where I couldn’t make any money on my music and I could make money selling my paintings. Now, I really don’t need to sell paintings. But I’m still painting them. I have to force myself to paint. Once I get into it, it’s good for me. It’s relaxing and stuff, once I get into it. But mostly what I’m into is just the music. So, I think even for my next release—we’re gonna re-release Sweetkorn. I’m gonna get a Canadian to draw the cover painting. That’s my plan.

AD: You don’t want to do it again?

Michael Hurley: I don’t wanna use the same cover painting. Sweetkorn was never released as an LP. It was released in Germany. I don’t know what happened with that label or anything. They might be really pissed off if we come out with this, but it’s remixed, explicated, and instead of being 80 minutes, it’s gonna be only 40 minutes worth of music. I don’t wanna redraw the old cover I had, but I like the idea of the cover. I got this friend from the Okanagan Valley that can make a really nice painting, so I’ll go for that.

AD: That sounds great. You’ve been in Oregon for quite a while now but you moved around a lot over the years. What is your relationship with place and the land and nature? Do you still grow a garden?

Michael Hurley: Yeah, I’m still eating out of it, a little bit. I’m still getting my mustard greens, even though we’ve had a few freezes. And the plants have been buried in snow. Nine inches of snow. They recovered from that. I’m not comfortable living in the city. I’m kind of a small town guy. Astoria’s got 10,000—that’s about my size. I can go to Astoria and walk around and I’ll meet somebody I know. I could go to Portland and if I don’t go to the same old haunts then I won’t meet anybody. I spend a lot of time in Portland because of the needs that need to be done which you can’t do in Astoria. But I’m always grateful to get back to the woods. Now I don’t even live in Astoria. I live about 18 miles out of town in the hills, close to the Columbia River. I’m always grateful to be back there, returning and stuff. A friend of mine once said, “If you can’t walk out your front door, take a piss, yell ‘fuck you,’ and blast off a shotgun, you’re not living in the right place.” I’m not living in a place like that but I kinda know what he was talking about.

AD: Are you still working on a book of some sort? Can you tell us what it’s about?

Michael Hurley: Yeah. It’s kinda like a memoir thing that will run up to about what I figure was the prime of my life and after which I kind of plateaued out—I established who I was and what I do and everything, at a certain point in time. Which was probably about 40 years old or 30-something. I just want people to know where I’m coming from. My background. Not my career or not my love life or whatever. The thing is my own reflections of where I’m coming from. Which is mostly the study of interests to me. I wanna know where I’m coming from. While I investigate it, I’ll tell you. So I bring up things and figure it out. That’s all I want to do with that. 

I want to include my cartoon stories that I’ve made and the paintings that I’ve made that I could reproduce—I could put them in pages of color. And the songs that I like—maybe put them in there with the words. Also translate it to French. Oh, photographs! Old photographs. I’ve retained some old family photographs. There won’t be a big volume of anything. Say, not quite an inch. Like if it was a paperback book laying on the table, and you measured the height of the spine, it wouldn’t be quite an inch. So the idea was, like if you’re sitting in the high school cafeteria with all those long tables they have where you eat lunch. And they’d say, “Hey, what’s that book you’re reading?” So you throw it at them. It hits the table—bap! It has to have a certain sound. That’s the goal.

AD: Well that sounds great. I can’t wait to read it. I hope it comes sometime soon.

Michael Hurley: Working on it. I have an assistant, she’s a native of Auckland, New Zealand. She started working with me when she was still living in Manchester, England. Actually I met her in New Zealand, but it was her idea to write this book. I’m just making these pages, sending them to her, and she’s sorting them out. She’s trying to keep me going on it. And I think we’ll get it done. 

AD: Last up here, I just wanted to ask how are you handling the pandemonic overall? Do you have any routine or did you take up some new hobbies or are you focusing on your old standbys like making cider and stuff?

Michael Hurley: I’m making a lot of cider. That brings me to the earth, because I like the idea of drinking what came out of the ground around me. But I think I’m more comfortable with it than a lot of people would be, because of all my hobbies and stuff. It gives me time to focus where I’m at. It strengthens my friendships with people that are also in the same boat. And we make do.

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