[22 November 2009]
How many good records are put out by musicians and songwriters over the age of 60?
Think about it. What recent release by a card-carrying AARP elder emeritus of music are you rushing out to hear? If you read this site regularly, then the names can probably be counted on one hand. Tom Waits is a definite. Leonard Cohen? Maybe. Neil Young and his concept album about crude oil? Probably not. Bob Dylan? Well, despite the critical acclaim of whatever he touches, most of us aren’t listening to anything past Desire, if you even get that far. This isn’t ageism but a mere observation that interest in a songwriter’s musical output tends to lessen the older they get. Maybe that is a mistake though.
Take Michael Hurley, for example. His name certainly doesn’t carry much prestige or notoriety. Hell, you might not even know who this guy is. The music he has released in the autumn of his life, however, is arguably more consistently solid in comparison to the records recorded by the previously mentioned elite. Unlike the case often with those other more famous musicians in the 60+ crowd, Michael Hurley’s music is able to stand on its own rather than requiring a legacy to prop it up.
Despite the strength of Hurley’s reliable songwriting, his music over the years has mostly only caught the ear of a select niche of listeners who usually tend to take a heavy interest in the roots of folk and Americana. This is partially because of Hurley’s consistency in style over the years, choosing to stay true to the stripped down nature of folk music instead of exploring and expanding his sound into other genre-bending territories. The small number of listeners that Hurley attracts is also due to his strange past and rambling lifestyle. Despite recording his first release for the legendary Folkways label, earning critical acclaim for his work with the Holy Modal Rounders and having his songs covered by Cat Power and the Violent Femmes, Hurley has never considered music a feasible way to make a living. Thus, Hurley has spent his life traveling all over the country, working part-times jobs as a Christmas tree salesman and more recently as a painter, while randomly settling down long enough somewhere to record a few tunes.
These years, Hurley spends his time in the vicinity of Portland, Oregon which can explain the guest featured on his latest record Ida Con Snock. As the title suggest, the record was recorded with longtime Northwest blues-troupe Ida and also includes contributions from young, Northwest folk-revivalist Tara Jane O’Neil. 40 years after his first record, Michael Hurley hasn’t lost one bit of his ability to write comical, though often heartbreakingly melancholy songs. Leadoff track, “It Must Be Gelatine”, is a perfect example of Hurley’s style. The chorus of “If it taste like jelly / And it looks like jelly / Then it must be Gelatine” seems ridiculous out of context. Although, when accompanied by slow guitar picking and Hurley’s seasoned-voice, the song about a woman serious about her Jell-O comes off both silly and undeniably endearing. Within the unadorned lyrics and music lies a hopelessly romantic layman whom we can’t deny.
One of the most enchanting tracks on Ida Con Snock is “Going Steady” where Hurley wistfully laments the desire to go steady with a young, lady friend. The song’s lyrical content juxtaposed by Hurley’s weathered pipes makes for an unusual result that ultimately strengthens the tracks simplistic words and sparse arrangement. Maneuvering between a time of young naivety and a melancholy realism, the track proves to be both nostalgic and engagingly forlorn. Hurley isn’t afraid of embracing his age in his music but doesn’t feel the necessity to act accordingly to it either. This allows Hurley to be himself—evocative, playful, melancholy, genuine—without ever alienating his listeners, young or old.
The undemanding solemnity of Hurley’s quieter tracks on Ida Con Snock are paired with more spiritedly upbeat tracks such as “Hoot Owls” or the childish “Ragg Mopp”. These songs are reminiscent of the more playful Pete Seeger or Jesse Fuller’s work on San Francisco Bay Blues in their sheer innocence and dedication to writing a song for folk’s sake. These moments exhibit a side of Hurley that are equally apart of whom he is as a songwriter and ultimately make the entirety of Ida Con Snock feel all that more complete.
Admittedly, Hurley has lost a bit of his voice in his old age and most of his songs are characterized by a fragility that didn’t exist on his earlier recordings. Where once Hurley sounded as if he was keeping American roots music alive with a vibrant flame on records like Armchair Boogie, now his music feels to be nothing but a small candle for the expansive array of music categorized under “folk”. In a way, though, this adds an element of nostalgic preciousness to Ida Con Snock that is hard to find today amongst auto-tuners, pitch-correcting software, and the ability to access almost any type of music with the click of a button. Fortunately, thanks to a little help from some younger friends and a steady knack for writing a decent tune, Ida Con Snock is a good record on its own without placing it in any particular musical or historical context. Unlike the records of those with a greater legacy than Hurley, we can genuinely listen to this latest release not out of some obligatory necessity as dedicated music listeners to hear the sounds from a time that has almost entirely passed, but because Hurley is a damn good songwriter. Plain and simple.