Off the Record: First Songs by Michael Hurley - Birthplace of Country Music

Off the Record: First Songs by Michael Hurley

Our Radio Bristol DJs are a diverse bunch – and they like a huge variety of musical genres and artists. In our “Off the Record” posts, we ask one of them to tell us all about a song, record or artist they love.

One of the things that I love most about music is how we form bonds with sound internally, that moment when a song or an album can become “part of us.” It’s not always about how great the production is, or how perfectly everything is written; it’s about something we can’t grasp consciously, something that “strikes a chord” within us. I also find it interesting that periods of my life have been defined by what music I was listening to at that time. I’ve been inspired to think differently by a song, to pick up a new point of view and run wild with it after hearing a line in a verse. 

When I first started writing songs I was listening intently to two artists, for no apparent reason, other than they were resonating with me, and therefore defining that space in time. Those artists were the “King of Country” Hank Williams Sr. and the lesser known, though still reverently followed, Greenwich Village folkie Michael Hurley. His album was passed along to me on a scratched, Sharpie-scribbled burnt CD. When I pushed it into my old van’s disc player and listened, it turned my world upside down, or right side up…or whichever direction my head might have been headed in – expanding what I thought about songwriting, and what experiencing music could be for me. 

Picture shows album cover with Mike Hurley holding a guitar in front of a wood paneled wall. Record is slightly out of record sleeve.
Vinyl album of First Songs. Image from www.merchbar.com

Recorded in 1963 by Smithsonian Folkways on the same reel-to-reel machine that taped Lead Belly’s Last Sessions, First Songs is a collection of early work, put down when Michael Hurley was just 22 years old. The album was created with absolute simplicity, featuring only Hurley’s raw and expressive singing and a thumping acoustic guitar. The immediacy of his voice is lulling and warm, and his effortless crack into a yodel-esque vocal break lets us know that we are listening to a very special singer. The album sounds somewhere between a lethargic summertime country blues romp and a roughhousing porch jam. You can hear a foot tapping naturally throughout the recording, and every note is at once unapologetically quirky and endearingly human.

Black-and-white photograph of Michael Hurley in a check shirt and cowboy-style hat, standing beside a car and holding a drink bottle.
A young Michael Hurley looking rowdy and ready. Image from www.last.fm

The album starts with the dreamy and nostalgic tune “Blue Mountain” – perfect for a sluggish sun-drenched afternoon during the “dog days” of summer. The track rounds out at over six minutes long, shrugging off any constraints of time, or care for the workaday world. This song has sent me past worry, feeling like a relaxed remembrance of a beautiful place, perhaps inspired by the singer’s childhood home in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Another track that lingers well past commercial playability is “The Tea Song,” which is over seven minutes long. Possibly made to be listened to as you wait for water to boil, the song highlights Hurley’s unique qualities as a songwriter, showcasing his ability to pair everyday experience with philosophical outlooks. I enjoy how his voice seems to be at once masterfully crooning/mournfully hollering about a lost love and “his thoughts and dreams that are distilled in the tea.”

The track “Just a Bum” feels like a nod to Woody Guthrie as it romanticizes the idea of a fireside poet who accidentally stumbles onto love while “traveling over land like a natural-born man.” To me this song speaks of the American folk music tradition, giving us a glimpse at the inner world of a roving performer, train hopper, and truth-teller. It’s jangling strum and unbridled singing make it feel up to snuff with anything else that’s part of the folk music cannon. 

After recording First Songs, Hurley went on to become a fixture of the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the 1960s, recording with bands such as The Holy Modal Rounders and Jeffrey Frederick & the Clamtones. He has also been held in high regard by artists such as Lucinda Williams, Vic Chesnutt, Woods, Calexico, Cat Power, Robin Holcomb, and Julian Lynch. Throughout his career of 31 releases, he has continuously blurred the edges between traditional folk, country, blues, and outsider music. Hurley has recently gained a dedicated following after Locust Music reissued First Songs under the new title of Blueberry Wine in 2001. Since then, he has been touring and has released more than 12 albums.

Black-and-white photograph of an older Michael Hurley wearing a cap and strumming a guitar.
Michael Hurley pictured looking contemplative with arch top guitar. Image from www.last.fm

I hope that this album is as special to some of you as it has been for me. And I want to encourage folks to follow their own “folk process,” finding music that for some reason feels meaningful and becomes part of your own story!

Originally from the Pines of North Carolina and currently based in Bristol, Virginia, Ella Patrick performs as Momma Molasses and has toured throughout the southeast as a breakout D.I.Y. musician. Her radio show Folk Yeah! can be heard on Radio Bristol on Mondays at 2pm.

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