In March 2005, Acoustic Syndicate played what its members thought would be its last show. The Shelby-based quintet jammed into the wee hours of the morning, playing nearly every song it knew from shortly after midnight until almost 5 a.m. as the final closing night act of Smilefest in the town of Pinnacle.
“Nobody left, and it was a Sunday night,” says banjo player/vocalist Bryon McMurry, sitting in his first cousin/guitarist/vocalist Steve McMurry’s home in Fallston. “There was even a circuit court judge from our hometown that stayed until the end.”
But the final nail in the coffin didn’t quite stick.
By 2006, the group was back playing a handful of shows and eventually returned to the festival circuit. At first, it was a diversion for Steve McMurry, who’d lost his wife in a car accident. Instead of touring full-time again, they played exclusive dates, like revisiting the annual Christmas shows at Visulite Theatre. In the early 2000s, those holiday Visulite gigs were packed with college kids hanging on every note.
Acoustic Syndicate – which also includes Jay Sanders, Billy Cardine and Bryon’s brother Fitz – returns for the annual show Friday.
All three McMurrys reside within a mile of each other on land their family has farmed for generations, having settled in Cleveland County in 1789.
And all three now have day jobs. Bryon McMurry is executive director for farm services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, covering counties in Western North Carolina. Fitz McMurry maintains trails for South Mountain State Park. Steve McMurry is a construction engineer and technician for the Department of Transportation.
But in 2013 – after six years of sporadic gigging and busy festival seasons – the group released its first album in nearly a decade. “Rooftop Garden” illustrates the band’s musical progression as well as how living rural, working-class lives on the farm has informed its songwriting.
Bryon McMurry describes Acoustic Syndicate’s early sound as picking up where New Grass Revival (the progressive bluegrass band featuring Sam Bush, Bela Fleck and John Cowan) left off, with a little of the Grateful Dead.
But “Rooftop Garden” is also a mature slice of acoustic music that sometimes finds Bryon McMurry’s vocals channeling Peter Gabriel and Sting, which brings yet another element to the group.
They recorded at Asheville’s prestigious Echo Mountain Studios.
“I knew this could be the last time,” Steve McMurry says of taking the old-school, high-tech studio approach. While Steve McMurry taps into the pain and transition his life went through during the hiatus, Bryon’s lyrics are often tied to the land and the people he works with in the farm industry.
Topics like environmentalism, sustainability and agriculture don’t often find their way onto albums, and subjects that draw on social concerns rarely come off as personal as they do here. The songs never sound preachy, but the group’s connection to the land is apparent.
“The sense of community, family and farm life finds its way into the songs,” says Bryon McMurry.
Acoustic Syndicate traces its beginnings back to a Christmas long ago when their fathers decided to buy instruments for the three boys – now in their 40s.
“I was 12, Bryon was 9, and Fitz was 11,” recalls Steve McMurry. “I got a fiddle, Bryon got a banjo, and Fitz got a guitar. We knew two songs in an hour.”
Each summer – with Steve McMurry visiting from Statesville, where his father was a Methodist minister – the band would regroup and perform a handful of songs. As adults, the spark was reignited.
“Bryon’s the only guy that stuck with his instrument,” Steve McMurry says.
When Acoustic Syndicate re-emerged in 2006, it found the genre it helped popularize had gained mainstream momentum with the success of the Avett Brothers and Grammy winners Mumford & Sons. Interestingly, Acoustic Syndicate was one of the bands Avett bassist Bob Crawford name-checks when noting his N.C. inspirations.
Crawford has suggested the college kids that saw Acoustic Syndicate and bands like it back then passed on an appreciation for acoustic-based music to younger siblings that later benefited bands like the Avetts. Acoustic Syndicate still sees some of those once-fresh faces in the audience, but it also has tapped into some younger fans who dig roots music.
“I see some of the same faces, but the faces are changing,” Byron McMurry says. “I don’t have a good metric where (audiences) are coming from.”
It’s still a chore – between raising wheat, making molasses and rearing children – to maintain the band. But when the members hear of a song being played at a fan’s wedding or a soldier pumping their song “Wake” in Iraq, it makes it seem worth all the juggling.
“I ponder the value of what we’ve done every so often,” says Steve McMurry.
After its annual Thanksgiving show at Asheville’s Orange Peel this year, a 14-year military veteran thanked McMurry for music that “kept him going” during two tours in the Middle East.
“You think you’re spinning your wheels, but that’s what keeps me interested – how you reach people.”
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