Seventh-generation farmers release their eighth album
Acoustic Syndicate has been defying genre stereotypes for more than a quarter century. The beloved Western North Carolina band has been claimed by fans of bluegrass as well as the jam-band crowd, and their sound also draws from rock, old time, and jazz. Founded in 1992 by brothers Bryon and Fitz McMurry (banjo/guitar and drums, respectively) and their cousin Steve McMurry on guitar and mandolin — plus Jay Sanders on bass and Billy Cardine on Dobro — Acoustic Syndicate crafts inventive, upbeat, and lyrically positive music.
Their repertoire displays its creators’ strong connection to the land. The McMurry family comes from seven generations of farmers in upper Cleveland County. “They’re descended from Scottish immigrants who came over and settled in the foothills,” says Sanders. “And they’ve been farming the land ever since.”
In 2001, the group was asked to perform at the celebrated Farm Aid concert festival. Sanders considers that opportunity the most memorable show Acoustic Syndicate has ever done. “It was more than just playing a giant gig, being on television and meeting Neil Young and Willie Nelson,” Sanders emphasizes. For him and his bandmates, playing a benefit concert for American farmers helped deepen the connection between the band’s music and its members’ roots.
“Fitz and Bryon’s dad just turned 80 years old,” Sanders notes. “He still gets up every day and goes out in the field and weeds, plows, and plants.” The McMurrys are real farmers, growing tomatoes, sorghum, soybeans, and wheat. Bryon works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It’s authentically who they are and where they come from,” Sanders says.
Acoustic Syndicate’s sound remains rooted in the bluegrass tradition, but over the years, they have added textures from outside that idiom. Sanders admits that in 2000, when the band added drums, “we got some blowback.” And in addition to bass, Sanders plays the futuristic NS/Stick, an eight-string instrument more readily associated with jazz fusion and progressive rock.
Neither of those instruments has a place in the storied bluegrass tradition. But the McMurrys and Sanders believed in the path they had chosen, and they forged ahead. The band has released five albums in the new century; each has continued to explore a wide sonic palette while remaining true to fundamental musical values.
Sanders says the constant thread is respect: “Respect for songs, respect for great songwriting, respect for great musicianship and bringing in all of our influences.” He notes that some of the songs on Rooftop Garden, the group’s most recent release, are “thick and loud. But the musicianship and the respect for composition, those are constant throughout.”
Beyond peerless chops and seemingly subliminal communication, Acoustic Syndicate distinguished itself with determinedly positive lyrics. “We’re all aware, conscious people,” Sanders says. “We pay a lot of attention to the world around us.” But the group writes in a way that doesn’t hit listeners over the head. “We definitely have opinions, but we try to cover things in metaphor,” he says with a warm laugh.
“The world is getting more abrasive,” Sanders continues. “Things are faster, media is louder, voices are stronger than they ever have been before. And it just feels like it’s an important role to play to be positive in this environment.” But he and his bandmates endeavor to do so in a way that’s constructive and encouraging of dialogue.
“What makes the world work is when we can talk and get along and compromise,” Sanders believes. “And what doesn’t work is when we retreat to our corners.” Positivity, then, is “our little attempt to try to combat that, with the audience we have who will listen.”
The 14th Annual Mountain Song Festival happens Friday, Sept. 6 through Sunday, Sept. 8 at Brevard Music Center (Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium), with Acoustic Syndicate opening the weekend on Friday, 5:30-6:30pm. Friday’s headliner is the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (8:30-10pm), Saturday’s is the Steep Canyon Rangers (8-9:30pm), and Sunday’s is Del & Dawg (Del McCoury and David Grisman, 5-6:30pm). Other acts include Che Appalache, Larry Sparks & The Lonesome Ramblers, Chatham County Line, and more. Day and weekend ticket passes are available, with admission ranging from $37 to $137. For more information, see mountainsongfestival.com.