Michael Jerling: Telling stories

Michael Jerling

by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., February 6, 2004) – Michael Jerling has been writing songs for at least 30 years, and over time his approach has gradually evolved away from the confessional focus that characterized the “Me Decade” in which he launched his career.

“I’ve probably become less interested in myself in my writing,” said Jerling, who performs on Saturday night at 8 at the Common Grounds Coffeehouse, at the First United Methodist Church, in a phone interview from his home in Saratoga, N.Y.

“When you’re in high school and college, you think the world needs to know about every twinge and every heartache,” said Jerling, who has been touring the club, college and folk festival circuits since 1975. “I started out listening to Joni Mitchell in the golden era of singer-songwriters, the confessional, personal stuff.

“Nowadays I hope my writing is less personal in the heartbreak sense, but still personal and universal in a broader sense. You draw on your own experience, and there are bits of autobiography in everything. But now I’m more inclined to write about a character. I step into different characters as I’ve grown older, and I’m probably a better songwriter for it.”

Jerling performs with his wife, Teresina Huxtable, accompanying him on reed organ, accordion and percussion. He has been widely recognized as one of the top tier of the new-folk singer-songwriters for several decades. A winner of the prestigious “New Folk” competition at the Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festival, his involvement with the Fast Folk Musical Magazine, alongside the likes of eventual stars including Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, and Lyle Lovett, led to his song “Long Black Wall” being included in a CD on Smithsonian Folkways celebrating 20 years of Fast Folk.

Jerling has also had albums released on top folk labels including Shanachie (“My Evil Twin” in 1992 and “New Suit of Clothes” in 1994) and Waterbug (“In Another Life” in 1997). In 1998, Waterbug released “Early Jerling,” a digitally remastered compilation of the best cuts from his self-released LPs, “On Top of Fool’s Hill” (1981) and “Blue Heartland” (1988).

Jerling released his most recent album, “Little Movies,” in 2002 on his own Fool’s Hill Music label. The collection of 14 original songs was recorded in his home studio. It contains his trademark story-songs and character sketches, like “Dawn Patrol,” about life in a Florida retirement community, and “The Flying Lawn Chair,” based on the true story of Larry Walters, the infamous “Lawn Chair Pilot” who in 1982 flew for several hours at 16,000 feet in his lawn chair, to which he had attached 42 helium-filled weather balloons.

Jerling got his start in folk when he ran the coffeehouse at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire. Folksingers came from New York and spent a week at a time in residence, performing and just hanging out. From where he sat hosting these performers, Jerling saw a romantic and viable life style.

“These weren’t big, famous types, but they were professional musicians, and from seeing them I got the illusion you could make a living doing this,” said the Illinois native. He began playing open-mike nights and local taverns around Eau Claire, and left college early to perform on the national college coffeehouse circuit.

“I did that for many years, which was a great way to get started,” said Jerling. “The checks were made out in advance, and you could actually make an OK living, particularly for a twenty-something musician.”

Eventually life on the road got wearisome, and he had to call some place home. The Northeast beckoned, and a friend who lived in Troy, N.Y., convinced him to try the Capitol Region.

It was an apt choice, and within a few years of relocating from California to Troy, he found a supportive folk music community in Saratoga centered around Caffe Lena.

“It’s amazing how it’s still a magnet that holds that community together,” said Jerling about the legendary folk club founded by its namesake Lena Spencer in 1960. He describes a vital scene where people like Rosalie Sorrels and Kate and Anna McGarrigle either settled or stayed on for extended periods of time around their performances at the club. “There was the Wildflower Co-op, which was a musician’s co-op,” he said. “People lived here for a month or two, even if they weren’t located here full-time. Many still live here and have raised families here and continue to play the café.”

“I just played there last week and realized that it’s easy to take it for granted, but I don’t,” said Jerling. “For me, it’s one of the most important places. There aren’t too many in the country or the world that have been around this long.”

Call 499-0866 for reservations.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 7, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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