I have to own up to this right off the bat: This is the most rambling interview I've ever done. Not that rambling along with Michael Hurley is bad. The folk legend has lived in dozens of small towns all over the U.S.‚ recorded his first album for Folkways more than forty years ago‚ has been covered by the likes of Cat Power‚ and now releases albums on Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic's label Gnomonsong. He may be best known for collaborating with the Unholy Modal Rounders on Have Moicy!‚ a collection of loose‚ bizarre folk as American as anything Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie ever recorded. Rambling with this man is the way to go.
Usually interviews are done either in advance of a record release or after the record has dropped‚ and indeed‚ this was "in support of" Hurley's newest‚ Ida Con Snock. But we only talked about it for a minute or so. We also covered the fact that he used to make more money selling his paintings than gigging‚ that it's not a good idea to launch a record in Ireland‚ and how he wrote "Light Green Fellow" by playing it into a tape recorder in one‚ purely improvised take.
I met up with Hurley in Portland‚ Oregon in September. Singer/songwriter Nick Jaina was also there‚ interviewing Hurley for Portland's alt-weekly Willamette Week. (
You can read his interview edit here.
) I give Nick credit for trying to focus on the music. As you can tell‚ his questions are a bit more focused. I just keep moving along the thread with Hurley. I probably could have done it all day.
This could be for Hurley diehards only. It's hard to say. Dig in and enjoy.
Hurley: I lived in Vermont for about 20 years
MB: What were you doing there?
Just surviving. Just living. Started there in the late '60s and left in the late '80s. I've lived in probably about 35 different towns.
MB: Which one was your favorite?
I think Chelsea's pretty nice. I also lived in East Fairfax near St. Albans. That's where I was living when I joined my first electric band. I was about 30 years old.
MB: Were you playing in Burlington?
Sometimes. We were playing ski lodges--Madonna Mountain and Smuggler's Notch...
MB: That's still a circuit in Vermont.
…All kinds of weird bars and stuff. When I started there were only a few places to play and mainly they were ski lodges. The idea of a bar where you could play was new to the country. Like now it seems like every time someone opens a pub they're going to have music there‚ but that wasn't the concept in the early '70s. It was in this band we were going around trying to find gigs.
MB: Were you playing to Vermonters or were you playing to people out of state that just came to hang out?
Both. It was more fun playing for the Vermonters than it was for the ski people.
MB: In what way?
Well‚ the ski people wanted me to play Neil Diamond songs. The Vermonters wanted me to play Hank Williams [laughs] and my own stuff. They liked my own stuff.
MB: I could see how that could be more fun.
They kind of knew them. I first became familiar with this phrase that's still used today‚ "What time's the band start?" We had this buddy that would show up to all our gigs‚ all our local gigs‚ he would like to annoy us with‚ "What time's the band start?" I'm still saying that to people today. When they're taking too much time to set up and all this‚ doesn't look like they're in any kind of a rush‚ [laughter] I'll start saying that.
NJ: What was it like in the late '60s and '70s making a living from music and playing gigs? Were people more receptive generally because there were fewer venues to play in? When you had gigs‚ did they generally pay better and have better crowds?
They didn't pay too well‚ not where I started out. I played before in Boston‚ California‚ and New York City as a solo-folkie. I never played like up in the boondocks like this‚ where you kind of have to improvise a lot of your methods. No one was making a living‚ after a while a few of us were‚ not me‚ but a few of my friends were kind of making a living. Now here in Portland‚ I know a lot of people who are making a living. I never made a living on it or expected to. All the time‚ all the 20 years I was in Vermont‚ everyone just never expected to‚ it was just fun.