Things aren’t always the way they seem. A guitar-toting figure with in wire-rimmed glasses, train-driver’s hat, and a wild thatch of whitening hair, Michael Hurley is the picture of an old folk singer. He even released his first album over 40 years ago on Folkways Records. But notice how on the cover of Ancestral Swamp, the cartoon wolf that Hurley often draws as a stand-in for his own self sits lazily on a porch, guitar in hand, while another shaggy sort paddles idly by on a pimped-out skiff. Not much happening here, right?
Not so fast. Note the catfish in the swamp’s depths, twisted at a near-convulsive angle that augurs some turbulent action down below. Hurley has also declared that he plays “for the action crowd.” (See this end of a Willamette Weekly article)
At first, Ancestral Swamp seems to belie that claim. It starts out with “Knockando,” a lazily plucked-out negation of effort that would stop an armament factory on war footing with its sheer indolence. But while the next song sounds every bit as laid back, beneath its unhurried Pop Staples twang, “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues” offers plenty of action. It recounts an unrepentant gambler’s send-off, launching himself toward hell with one hell of a party, nine fellow flint-hearted cardsharps hoisting his corpse while 26 hotel hookers dance the Charleston.
The Charleston? For Hurley time is no linear thing, but a fleet and volatile current running in no fixed direction beneath the music’s rustic folkie surface. His cracked voice and creaking violin sound positively 19th century on “Gambling Charley.” “Streets of Laredo” situates itself in some mythic Wild West that is equal parts cowboy country and Hollywood back lot. And he proudly pounds the keys of an electronic piano on “Lonesome Graveyard.” His guitar playing takes history for a spin. It sounds like the blues blanched of belligerence; people die in his songs, hearts break, but he never sounds too angry about it. After all, as he points out in “When I Get Back Home,” he can look forward to a talking catfish and a tributary of pure wine. And if that’s not action, what is?