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Vinyl Cave: Back Home with Drifting Woods by Michael Hurley

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Michael Hurley may not be a household name, but he's certainly one of the most distinctive folk musicians of the last several decades. For those who haven't yet met up with a Hurley song, it's hard to make an easy "sounds like" comparison. The most apt musical fellow travelers I can think of are the Holy Modal Rounders -- and anyone who's heard them has likely already heard Hurley, due to their collaborative album Have Moicy!

Hurley's earliest work in the '60s mixed plaintive vocals, stark, rhythmic guitar work, occasional harmonica and rambling, kaleidoscopic narratives pulled from daily life. In the '70s and up to the present day, the musical settings may become more ornate at times, but a Michael Hurley record will always sound like, well, Michael Hurley. His albums are also easy to identify in the racks thanks to their colorful, idiosyncratic cover art, often featuring a pair of wolves.

That may not be a particularly enlightening description, so I'll just say that any folk or Americana listeners who don't know Hurley should pick up an album and give it a try. And there's probably never been a better time to do so than now, as many of Hurley's vintage discs have reappeared on vinyl during the past couple years.

Some, like the Mississippi Records reissue of Hurley's first major label release, Armchair Boogie are already officially out of print, but may still be available in stores or online for the diligent searcher -- and hopefully will get a re-pressing sometime along with the other out of print Mississippi titles. Light in the Attic's reissues from Hurley's Rounder era, Snockgrass and Long Journey, will be a bit easier to find currently. Perhaps most improbably, Smithsonian Folkways even reissued First Songs on LP. (It's also worth noting that CD listeners can purchase much of his music directly from Hurley.)

One Mississippi release that does still seem to be available is not a reissue but the first release of material originally recorded in the mid-'60s. Back Home With Drifting Woods was recorded by Fred Ramsey Jr., , in the same setting that produced Hurley's debut LP. The new album will be essential listening for fans of First Songs, as it includes previously unheard tunes from sessions for a proposed second album. There are also alternate versions of favorites "I Like My Wine" and "The Tea Song" ... as well as the homey near-field recording sound quality.

Although First Songs or Armchair Boogie are both better jumping off points for anyone unfamiliar with the Hurley universe, Back Home With Drifting Woods does deposit listeners right back at the start of his musical explorations. And really, it's okay to jump in anywhere in the winding stream of Hurley's unique muse. (Mississippi Records MRP-022, co-release with Nero's Neptune, 2012)

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