Various Artists. Snockument – Songs by Michael Hurley. Blue Navigator Records

Long rumoured to be in the works, an album of Michael Hurley songs performed by others has finally emerged, blinking, into daylight. For those not aware of him, Hurley is one of the surviving links to, as Greil Marcus has it, that Old Weird Americana. From his first recordings in 1965 for Folkways, up until the present, Hurley has inhabited a domain where country, blues and folk collide and he has peopled it with an amazing array of characters, some grim and doomed such as his famed werewolf, others, cartoonish, bawdy and, at times, lascivious – check out Boone and Jocko. Above all, Hurley allows us to view his world via some stunningly beautiful songs. Some are raw, gnawed from his hinterland, while there are several which have a rich groove and then others which are just quite achingly tender. It’s no surprise really that such a unique artist has rarely troubled the mainstream but, equally unsurprising, he has gathered a cult following which has included a good number of musicians over the years.

Many of those musicians have paid tribute to Hurley on their respective albums, covers of his songs abound, especially amidst the weird folk movement pioneered by Devandra Banhart. Snockument, punningly named after one of his many alter egos, is however, the first bona fide collection of cover songs. It has Hurley’s stamp of approval, an important issue as previous attempts at delivering such an album were nixed by him. As he declared of one of the earlier submissions, “He didn’t have the melody, he didn’t have the words, so what did he have…? I didn’t want the song represented that way. I figured, ‘This is one of my best songs and I want it out there in the public like it is’.” So, the album gathers some songs from those previous attempts which did make the cut along with a couple of previously released covers and some recorded specifically for what we might call “Snockument – Take 3.”

Despite such disparate origins, the album is a joy to listen to and it flows wonderfully. Hurley has selected the songs and sequenced them such that there are no joins to be heard between sessions recorded back in the 1990’s to the present day. The 10 songs here are but a dip into Hurley’s immersive world but they will be more than familiar to fans and all are delivered with what appears to be a great sense of affection and connection with the man. There’s reverence and ribaldry here, quite fitting.

Cat Power’s version of Werewolf is probably the song which most folk will gravitate to immediately. Plucked from her 2003 album You Are Free, it is suitably spooky while Power deftly switches the werewolf’s gender so that it is a she who “loves the young man as I tear off his clothes.” If this sends folk back to Hurley’s stunningly crepuscular original version then the album has done its job. There are other familiar names on board. A 2004 Calexico offer a finely laid back Rue Of Ruby Whores which slides down the neck as easily as a glass of Knockando while Yo La Tengo transform Polynesia into a shimmering languid dream state and Cass McCombs, with guitarist Steve Gunn in tow, follows the original template of Sweet Lucy quite faithfully.

As befits Hurley’s underground reputation however, several of the acts involved here are hardly household names. Little Sue, a Portland singer, captures Hurley’s old time essence in her version of  Somebody To Say Goodbye To and another Portland outfit, The Hackles, hack excellently into Hurley’s sense of wonder on Oh My Stars. The Chicken Chokers give Watertrain a fine string band delivery and Chicago’s Vernon Tonges packs some punch vocally into his bracing and slightly lop sided version of I Still Could Not Forget You Then. Perhaps the most imaginative cover comes from Manchester’s Daniel Bridgwood-Hill, recording as dbh. He takes Hurley’s saw fiddled Hog Of The Forsaken (as heard on TV’s Deadwood) and transforms it into a guitar, fiddle and whistled Antebellum lament which reminds one of Jay Ungar’s Ashokan Farewell. It’s just lovely.

So there we have it, finally. Snockument comes in vinyl, dressed in a sleeve featuring a Hurley painting and with an illustrated gatefold booklet. There may be a CD release in the near future which might include an expanded set list but in the meantime, this handsome and very desirable limited edition is available from Dublin’s Blue Navigator Records

Michael Hurley

Martha Fields. Headed South

It’s been a while since we heard from Martha Fields, Texas Martha to her friends, a fine songwriter who, strangely enough, manages to conjure her Appalachian and southern soul influenced songs while ensconced in France where she is ably aided and abetted by her very own continental version of Emmylou’s Hot Band.

Headed South is the latest in a series of albums Fields has recorded in France which have no hint of their provenance, it’s as if she had transported Nashville to Bordeaux. Her band are well versed (actually, expert) in picking and swinging on all sorts of stringed instruments which would normally be found lying around on the Opry stage and, if you’ve had the opportunity to see them live, they do indeed, kick ass. Fields herself is a fiery performer and her gutsy qualities transfer well to disc as when she and the band rock into the rollicking honky tonk  come country swing of Laveda’s Lounge, the third song here and one which you could imagine Phil Alvin’s Blasters having a go at.

The album opens on a much mellower note with the sweeping title song which finds Fields once again examining her southern roots as the band lay down a soulful country glide. Next, there’s a deep dive into that southern territory as she heads for the swamplands on the spooky Let The Phoenix Rise. A later number, Hillbilly Babylon, is akin to her earlier songs regarding her family heritage such as Do As You are Told and is delivered with a tremendous sense of verve as it progresses from its mountain fiddle and martial drums opening to a limber guitar solo and a bustling country rock ending. Meanwhile, there’s a fine ribald edge to the sinewy In My Garden which recalls the late Dan Hicks with its gypsy fiddle and sinuous Dobro and slide guitars.

There’s a fine sense of light and shade to the album. Aside from Laveda’s Lounge, there’s the menacing strut of Death Rattle Of Love with its fiery guitars while High Shelf Mama is an old-fashioned blues boogie with Fields channelling the likes of Big Mama Thornton. Set against these is the yearning ballad Yellow Roses and the soul searching reminiscing of Souvenir, a tremendous song on which the band excel as organ and guitar gradually swell towards the end. Do More Right is a high flying string band skirl which finds Fields railing against our current overlords and there are more contemporary comments on the mannered side step into vaudeville which is Bad Boy.

There’s a wonderful surprise at the end of the album as Fields offers her version of J’entends Siffler Le Train, a hit by the sixties French pop star, Richard Anthony. He in turn, borrowed his version from the great American folk canon where the song is generally known as 100 Miles. Fields sings the song in French and English and she and the band lay it down in a manner not too dissimilar from that of the late Gene Clark. It’s a cool end to a great album.


Jenny Don’t And The Spurs. Fire On The Ridge. Fluff and Gravy Records

OK, this album has been percolating in the inbox for several weeks having been released back in June, so apologies to the delightfully named Ms. Don’t for being somewhat tardy with this review. What to say? It’s a belter. Chockfull of twang, country and swing with spoonfuls of rockabilly and spaghetti western sounds to help it go down, Fire On The Ridge is an album which will surely delight any fans of Commander Cody or Asleep At The Wheel. Moreover, at its heart, there’s a cowpunk drive to the album which should attract those attuned to the likes of Jason & The Scorchers or The Blasters.

Hailing from Portland, Oregon, The Spurs were founded back in 2012 by Jenny Don’t and bassist, Kelly Halliburton with Sam Henry joining in on drums shortly after. Their background was in garage punk and thrash but the addition of guitarist Christopher March in early 2017, added his experience of years playing on the Northwest Country, Rockabilly, and Honky-Tonk circuit. Their chops certainly shine throughout the album with Henry’s drums pummelling and driving the band forward while the guitars smoke and burn. Astride this wild ride sits Ms. Don’t who sings with a prairie purity, at times coming across like Patsy Cline, sometimes like Neko Case, elsewhere yodelling gleefully.

The album kicks off forcefully with Fire On The Ridge, an almighty racket and rumble of a song which evokes the open vistas of the wild west with tribal drumming and acres of twanged and reverbed guitars amping up the tension. California Cowboy, a sweet country laced lost love song is a brief respite before the turbo charged Blasters’ like Be The Only One rushes in. One of the disc’s many delights is in the band’s ability to rock and then relax somewhat. We get the light footed western swing of Restless Heart and Foolish Lies with the band in a delicate and playful mood, followed by the short rockabilly skiffle of Train Ticket (reminiscent of The Knitters) and then, on the one occasion where they apply the brakes, the swoonful tear stained ballad, Friday Night.

They pull out all the stops towards the end of the album. Johnny Vagabond glistens with mystery and romance as Don’t sings of her absent lover and the band beam in as if they were playing in a Martian wild west saloon. There’s echoes of John Leyton’s Johnny Remember Me and Peggy Lee’s Johnny Guitar somewhere in this song’s DNA. Queen Of The Desert goes the whole hog western spaghetti route with its clip clop beat and dramatic guitars allowing Ms. Don’t to ride victoriously into the sunset. Quite wonderful.