Michael Hurley: Snockgrass
MICHAEL HURLEY'S songwriting career can be imagined as one long, lonely yodel in the valley. In 1980, when he recorded his bluer-than-bluegrass masterpiece, Snockgrass (just reissued on Rounder), the backwoods porch-poet had just completed a nomad's saunter through the utopian '60s and the harried '70s with nothing to show for his long journeys but a handful of lazily sublime, hard-to-find records. Only Have Moicy! (1976), his perfect collaboration with pals Peter Stampfel and the Unholy Modal Rounders and Jeffery Fredericks and the Clamtones, has come within spitting distance of the rock canon. And it's only through a fluke of rock-crit eclecticism that Moicy! sits at # 81 on the Spin Alternative Record Guide's list of the "Top 100 Alternative Albums"--nudged out of the top 80 by ABBA: The Singles. (Yes, friends, pop music is a beautiful thing.)
Snockgrass was Hurley's greatest moment. Couching each song in a languid, inverted skank-guitar strum that can only be characterized as a sort of Appalachian skiffle riff, his pearly, surly odes address love, food, sex, sex, food, sex, and food. In so doing, the songs bespeak plain (often gross, usually pathetic) truths ignored in utopian folk music's grasps at the universal. His gift here is for small things, trite sentiments, and sap. ("The sun's goin' down and sky's different colors/Baby come on see the different hues.") His delivery is always deadpan (but wily), pretty, and grim; he's a dirty young coot thirsty for "Moicy!" (read: "mercy") and drunk with the quest. His band--especially piano guy Richard Tyler and mandolin guy Nick Branch--backs his porchy songs with equally porched musics, both reverent and giddy. The resulting mood is goofy, but it's a religious goofiness--a poke at the porch Pope's belly, so to speak. The band bounces between hippy ditties (the spiritual "Gettin' Ready To Go"); doleful ballads ("O My Stars"); a Cajun cover ("Jole' Blon"); and a hilarious voodoo curse ("You're Gonna Look Like a Monkey").
All of these are gorgeous, and the sweeter the song, the deeper the pathos. Hurley never wins ("She pulled my hair and tried to make me listen to her/I broke a porter bottle on her head" is an indicative sample). His weirdly cute mountain-misogynist sad-guy/mad-guy shtick leaves him sounding like a folky hybrid of James Taylor, Robert Bly, and Gene Ween. And with an emotional mix like that, it makes sense that his record's prettiest moment is a plea for the soul of another lost (male) folky, "Automatic Slim and the Fatboys." Slim, like Mike, is a nobody; no matter how hard he works or how purdy he sings--and he does sing purdy--he'll always be a loner.
It's fate's decree. "You fall into the river and you're drifting in the current/Don't have no fear, the Fatboys are here," Hurley sings with empathy and grief, looking in the mirror and drifting in his own life's current. Where that current ultimately took him in this moicyless world, I really can't say.
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