The album begins casually, a clamped down strum answered by a vertiginously bent blues note, the instrumental accompaniment moving in stops and starts as if its ideas are just occurring to Michael Hurley. When he sings, this 40-year veteran of folk and blues has a worn-in grace, his voice warm and unforced and seemingly right in your ear. “Had a glass of knockando,” he breathes, and you can almost smell the single malt. He is right there, telling you a story, in no particular hurry.
Hurley can afford to be laid back. This is, after all, his 20th album in a career that has spanned five decades. He started all the way back in 1965, with First Songs, a record made on the same reel-to-reel that documented Leadbelly, and released on the Smithsonian Folkways label. Robert Christgau called Have Moicy, his 1976 collaboration with the Holy Modal Rounders’ Pete Stampfel, “the greatest folk album of the rock era”. He has been covered by everyone from the Violent Femmes to Cat Power. He still plays shows, hitching up with new psych folkers like Espers, the Black Swans and Vetiver, and he still writes and plays songs about elemental things: liquor, love, death and gambling.
With Ancestral Swamp, Hurley gathers 11 songs, many longtime staples of his live show. There are covers—Blind Willie McTell’s “Dying Crapshooter Blues”, Lightning Hopkins “Lonesome Graveyard” and the traditional cowboy song “Streets of Laredo”—as well as his own skewed originals. He plays most of the instruments, though Holy Modal Rounder Dave Reisch and Portland roots musician Lewi Longmire make appearances, and Tara Jane O’Neill sings harmonies and plays guitar on one song.
Hurley often gets lumped in with the folk revival, but his roots are more in Delta blues. “Dying Crapshooter Blues” is haunted by shivering, shimmering swamp blues guitar, the sort of wavering notes that hang like a mirage over the words. The words are, like much of the album, calm and somewhat humorous in the face of death. It’s a wry nod to the reaper when he observes, “Folks don’t be standing around ole Jesse crying / He wants everybody to do the Charleston whilst he’s dying.” He shifts to electric piano for “Lonesome Graveyard”, but the sentiment is just as stoic and accepting. Hurley didn’t write these songs, but he chose them, hewing to the natural acknowledgment of mortality that all traditional music brings.
One of the album’s high points is “Light Green Fellow”, an original that Hurley first recorded in his 1971 album Armchair Boogie. It’s full of lust and longing and the taint of death, a slapped and slashed guitar keeping pace as Hurley croons about midnight visits to a lover. There’s something especially moving about this song, an older voice cracking and fraying as it conjures desire, as if love really does persist through unimaginably long stretches of time, and maybe even past death.
Tara Jane O’Neill joins in for “El Dorado”, a song inspired, Hurley says, by Edgar Allen Poe. It’s a new song, but already worn-in and comfortable, its waltz time guitar and mournful harmonies as traditional and resonant as the covers. Other originals “New River Blues”, “1st Precinct Blues” and “She Got a Mathematic” have the same well-burnished patina. The eccentricities and personal touches are there, but embedded in very authentic, old-time arrangements. Production is warm but minimal, capturing Hurley’s casual grace without a lot of manipulation. The CD booklet includes one of Hurley’s cartoon strips, like his music, eccentric and minimally drawn.
The music reminds me a lot of the last Ramblin’ Jack Elliott CD, and like Elliott, Hurley has been an outsider all his life. He’s criss-crossed the country, lived in dozens of little rural towns with various women, rode the rails, lived off the land, and always, always, made music. Ancestral Swamp is about as far from commercial folk and country as a record can get, a fine, unhurried contemplation of life, love, sin and death… by a man who’s seen most everything and never let it bother him.