A FEW MINUTES WITH: Michael Jerling

By Don Wilcock

“I’m surprised you’re asking to talk to me because you could say, ‘What can I ask that I haven’t asked already?’”

Michael Jerling and I have been traveling parallel paths for more than 40 years in the local music scene, he as a folksinger and myself as a music journalist. I got to thinking when I saw him on Caffe Lena’s schedule for Saturday (February 4), that we both are in similar circumstances.

We’ve both been ubiquitous for more than 40 years. He first played the Caffe Lena in 1976, and I first started writing about the Caffe in 1970 for a number of publications. But ubiquity can make you invisible to some people who take you for granted as much as they do a muddy pair of boots in the corner of the back porch. When your mother or your wife throws out that old pair of boots, you don’t notice they’re gone until the rainy day when you need them, or, in the case of an artist, when he or she dies.

Jerling does his annual Caffe Lena show without any new product since Halfway Home released on his own label, Fool’s Hill, in 2013. His originally scheduled December show at Lena’s got delayed because of the construction to create the new Caffe Lena. But unlike the discarded old pair of muddy boots, the Caffe Lena is back and spit-shined. So is Jerling.

“This will be fun, and, of course, Caffe Lena is my annual big, big gig that I love,” he explains. “So, that’s very important to me. I came here in ’76. It still gets me excited because it’s my home field. For me, it’s the place that’s most important as a venue. Also, it’s a benchmark to do it every year, and I want to succeed. I want to say, ‘I can still do this. People are still interested.’ So, it’s important to me on that level, and I just love playing there. I can’t express what I think of Caffé Lena. It’s so complicated, but it’s just so much part of my community and my life.”

OK, maybe it’s a bit of hyperbole to suggest that Jerling, like the Caffe, is new and improved like a spit-shined pair of boots. Rather, he’s an artist with a strong heritage who gets a little better with age. I hadn’t listened to his music in at least a decade, and I was frankly a little taken aback by how good it is. Jerling ran a coffeehouse in college in Wisconsin and was part of the fast-folk movement in Greenwich Village in the ’80s and ’90s with artists like Jack Hardy, Dave Van Ronk and Nanci Griffith. He records other artists on his label run as a collective of like-minded creative musicians.

“Halfway Home,” the title cut of his latest release, is the kind of slow tempo song he would usually avoid as an opener, but he put it first because it was a stretch for him, and he wanted to show his fans he’s still growing.

“My usual bent is to be a storyteller. In a song you have to leave a great deal out. You can’t put all the background in. ‘Halfway Home’ is different for me. That was a real risk song for me. That one has a great deal of space in it. I don’t usually write songs that are mostly imagery, and that’s mostly imagery without story. There’s not a narrative line in it.

“It was inspired by – my wife Terry (works) at the Hyde Collection up in Glens Falls, the museum. I wasn’t brought up with a lot of exposure to visual art. So, I really enjoy when she tells me about a show. I’ll go up and see it, and she’ll give me the tour.

“I’m not knowledgeable, but I’ve learned to enjoy it. I’ve learned to actually not be intimidated by an art museum and be comfortable liking what I like and not liking what I don’t like. A lot of the imagery from this song came from an Andrew Wyeth exhibit that they had at the Hyde. I know how he is often viewed because I took an art appreciation course in college, and one of the first things that my professor put up was a slide of ‘Christina’s World,’ and he just trashed it, just hated it as representational and awful.

“It’s not my favorite painting, but it’s the one with a woman in the field, and she’s looking up at an old Gothic house. It would be a Life magazine cover, but a lot of the imagery from that song comes from his paintings. Being interested in it, I read a couple of biographies about his interaction with the family. Actually, Christina is from Maine. So, I took images from that world, that world of art and his life, and that’s what those images are. It’s also about heading halfway home in several senses. I don’t know if that makes it more interesting or less interesting because I’ve never said that before I played the song. I want people to listen to it and come up with (their own take).

“I guess I was proud of reaching, and I thought I succeeded in my own mind. And also it tied in with the cover on the CD. My father-in-law was a painter. We have his work all over the house, and that is a photograph of a painting he did which is in our living room. It’s a picture of a neighborhood at dusk. So, that kinda tied in graphically. I had always wanted to use that as a cover photo and so the home and all that sort of thing, dusk and the graphic. It was probably too slow a song to start an album, but I did it anyway.”

Jerling has a rich baritone voice, an exquisite command of the acoustic guitar, and an easy-chair comfort with his material that swings back and forth between self-deprecatingly humorous to downright depressing. In other words, he can play on your emotions like a fiddle on the Titanic. Like the best of today’s Americana artists, he cuts a piece of mama’s homemade pie to create vignettes like “These Old Photographs” or “Wide Awake in Parsippany,” about a night in a Bates Motel with its color TV featuring both pink and green. Those are two of his songs on Music Here Tonight: Live at the Caffe Lena (2009).

On “Personal Appearance” on Halfway Home he describes his physique as beef jerky and cottage cheese. “My hair is getting thin/Where there used to be curls there’s just pink skin.”

“It’s always kind of confessional game to a certain extent, and the difference for me between blues and rock and roll and pop music for sure is that you don’t put on a pose – I don’t know if pose is the right word. There’s a lot of macho or uncool things when you’re a performer, which is kind of inevitable.

“In a coffeehouse, which is the quintessential folk music place, it’s hard to put on those kind of things, and people are more encouraged and more open to the idea whether it’s making fun, self-deprecating humor, which you don’t see in rock and roll. People don’t make fun of themselves at all. I can think of a couple of people who make fun of being a musician like Joe Walsh, but it’s rare. I’m not pretending I’m going to be a star or something. So, on that level, I’m not worried about what basically some reviewer in Rolling Stone would say about me.”

The AllMusic Guide lists Jerling’s influences as Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, and Chuck Berry. Really? “That’s an old biography. That’s from the ’80s ’cause I was working with a band more. I don’t think I even wrote that. I admire all those people, but I don’t think they show up much in my work.”

Muddy old boots, jeans worn with holes and veteran folksingers all have character to them. Jerling remembers Lena Spencer’s character and how it inspired him. “Early on she had me come to the Caffe in the afternoon and play a couple of songs, which was kind of scary actually, and that’s how she would decide to hire you. She didn’t have to see a press kit. She didn’t care about that if she liked what you did.”

Michael Jerling may wear muddy old boots to the new spit-shined Caffe Lena, but he brings with him a character that we should cherish at a time when our treasured artists seem to be playing musical chairs with the Grim Reaper.

WHO: Michael Jerling
ACCOMPANIED BY: Tony Markellis (bass) and Teresina Huxtable (reed organ)
WHERE: Caffe Lena, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: 8pm Saturday (February 4)
HOW MUCH: $18 in advance; $20 at the door

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