When Western Carolina-based roots rock band Acoustic Syndicate disbanded in 2004, the group brothers Fitz and Bryon McMurry, cousin Steve McMurry, and friend Jay Sanders was at the height of its popularity, playing 180 shows a year and touring with a crew of seven.
At home, the group packed annual holiday shows at the Visulite Theatre, where theyll return for another this Saturday. But family responsibilities took priority over musical stardom.
We played Telluride (a festival in Colorado) when my son was 4 months old and (my family) flew out to see us. But we still had to go out on the road for two months. The hardest thing I ever had to do was leave my wife and 4-month-old in that hotel room, explains singer/banjo player Bryon McMurry. It just didnt seem fair to my wife, who was at home working and raising a child.
The band members hung up their guitar straps and took day jobs, including the fifth-generation farming familys agriculture business.
When farming took a hit with the economy, Bryon went to work for the department of soil and water conservation. He now works with the USDA. Steve Big Daddy McMurry went to work for the department of transportation, while Fitz McMurry signed on with the park service. Sanders remained connected to the music industry, working for a music marketing venture in Asheville.
We thought we were done, says McMurry.
In the meantime, the genre-bending sound Acoustic Syndicate helped pioneer during the 90s was taking hold on a wider scale. It became increasingly less unusual to hear reggae, rock and bluegrass twisted together in one song, and banjos and mandolins were finding their way onto mainstream records.
Just two years after calling it quits, Acoustic Syndicate was lured back to the stage by the Visulite and Ashevilles Orange Peel, which clamored for a return of the old holiday shows. Those were the bands only gigs for a few years. More were eventually added to the calendar, including several festival dates this past summer.
With the official reactivation, an album seems like the likely next step. The band will release its first album in nine years in March. Its produced by Stewart Lerman whose credits include the Wainwrights, Patti Smith, and a Grammy-winning score for HBOs Boardwalk Empire and features new electric Dobro player Billy Cardine.
The project crept into McMurrys 9-to-5 life.
I find myself sitting in meetings thinking about song lyrics. I joke and say its a midlife crisis record, he continues. The older I get, the more rock n roll I want to play.
Hes still surprised how far his instrument of choice has come in the rock world thanks to groups like the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons, who are both up for Grammys this year.
The banjo although it was always there with the new grass movement and the Flecktones as far as the general mainstream was concerned, it just wasnt that accepted, he says. Its great to see a young generation find love for these instruments and have them brought out into that light.
Although weve been around probably longer than all these guys, (the new album) wont sound as foreign to young listeners because of the Avetts and Mumfords.
I didnt ever think Id see it that a banjo would be debuting on a Billboard Top 200 No. 1, he says, noting that stylistic lines are blurring in a way that hasnt been seen since early MTV played an R&B track one minute and a hair-metal clip the next. I was listening to some kind of crazy station recently, and I swear I heard Christina Aguilera and Mumford & Sons in the same hour.