All in the family: The McMurry clan will play two shows in North Carolina this month.
For the members of Acoustic Syndicate, family has always come before the prospect of fame. This sincere family dedication was the impetus for calling it quits back in 2005 at the height of the band’s success. One of North Carolina’s favorite experimental string bands, Acoustic Syndicate had just released arguably their best record to date, Long Way Round, on the venerable Sugar Hill Records, and they were making strides nationally, playing close to 200 shows a year for a growing fan base.
In a crowded landscape of bluegrass-twisting road warriors, Syndicate stood out for their ability to intertwine homespun front porch melodies with an energetic, improvisational edge. The band’s acoustic amalgamation blended the picking prowess of the high lonesome sound with aggressive roots rock, jazzy undertones, and a tinge of light airy reggae.
It was all anchored by the tight knit harmonies of brothers Bryon (banjo) and Fitz McMurry (drums), along with their cousin Steve McMurry (guitar and mandolin), whose voices soared with chemistry that only comes from familial bonds and many years singing together while growing up on a small family farm in Cleveland County, N.C. With help from bassist Jay Sanders and saxophonist Jeremy Saunders, the band developed an original sound that was swelling jam band crowds at high-profile festivals like Bonnaroo and turning heads in the Americana world.
But a decade on the road had proved to be enough. With expanding families back at home, the band decided to permanently put the brakes on touring, saying goodbye to fans with a marathon headlining set at Smilefest, one of their home state’s most popular music gatherings.
In the years since, there have been sporadic reunions, and lately the band is doing an increasing number of shows around the South.
“Now we just do things that are fun,” says Sanders. “It’s such a relief after being a touring band for so many years to just do the festivals and clubs that we really enjoy. It’s brought such passion back into the music, because we’re only playing for the love of it.”
The group is gradually adding more gigs to their calendar, but there are still plenty of commitments at home, including established day jobs. Steve McMurry is a heavy equipment operator with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, Fitz is a park ranger, and Bryon works for the soil and water conservation department of Cleveland County. Sanders is a computer programmer for an Asheville-based company called Creative Allies.
Without the pressure of making a living on the road, the band has found a new creative spark. Recently, set lists have included a handful of new tunes, including “King for a Day” highlighted by Steve McMurry’s usual heavily drawled heartfelt musings, as well as the layered compositions and conscious lyrics of Bryon’s “Rooftop Garden” and “Bicycle Song.”
“The new material is a little more advanced and complex musically, but it still also has that same classic sound that we’ve done all along,” Sanders says. “We’ve been seeing what kind of reception these songs get in the live setting and making adjustments from there. It’s a very organic process that involves getting feedback from our listeners.”
With more new songs in the can, the band is planning to head into the studio next month and likely release their first album in eight years next spring.
The album will also showcase their newest member. With Saunders lending his sax talents elsewhere, the Syndicate members decided to seek out an additional fifth player to expand their range. They found what they were looking for in dobro and slide guitar ace Billy Cardine, a longtime member of the disbanded newgrass outfit the Biscuit Burners. Cardine’s virtuosic playing has added another fitting layer of texture to the band’s dynamic string interplay.
With a refocused line-up and an increasing amount of new material, the band is poised to find a way to permanently stay together and reach their full potential, even if it’s on a part-time basis.
This month Syndicate will play two of their favorite North Carolina venues, the Lincoln Theater in Raleigh on November 12, and a big post-Thanksgiving show at the Orange Peel in Asheville on November 25.
“There’s still a lot of passion and originality in the music,” says Sanders. “We’re doing something that’s a little bit different than everything else that’s out there. A sense of family also runs really deep in this band and that brings a very serious integrity to the music. To me, that’s what sets it apart.”