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Strike not our brother down: Steve McMurry of Acoustic Syndicate

Acoustic Syndicate performing at Pisgah Brewing in Black Mountain. Steve McMurry is to the far left. (photo: David Simchock) Acoustic Syndicate performing at Pisgah Brewing in Black Mountain. Steve McMurry is to the far left. (photo: David Simchock)

In the pantheon of legendary jam-grass acts, a handful of pioneering bands broke new ground in the 1980s and 1990s by creating a sonic landscape that was a harmonious blend of bluegrass, folk, jazz and acoustic rock sensibilities — this emerging scene focused on rollicking live shows and keen improvisational aspects. 

With as much influence coming from The Grateful Dead as Bill Monroe, groups like Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band and Strangefolk became pillars of the current jam-grass genre, now being guided into the 21st century by the likes of melodic juggernauts Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters and Billy Strings. 

And when it came to those initial pioneering ensembles, Western North Carolina’s own Acoustic Syndicate was (and remains) a powerful force of strings and sound. Formed in 1994, the band crisscrossed the country with its own brand of jam-grass, this intersection of fiery Appalachian mountain music and modern roots. 

Though they only perform select dates around the region these days, the quartet recently signed with Organic Records (a subsidiary of the Crossroads Label Group in Arden), breathing new life into the next, bountiful chapter of one of the finest contemporary string acts to ever take the stage — something not lost on Acoustic Syndicate singer/guitarist Steve “Big Daddy” McMurry. 

Smoky Mountain News: This year is arguably the weirdest year of any of our lives. And you turned 55, too. What’s been your mindset when you reflect on the journey to the here and now? 

Steve McMurry: As far as the band goes, we’ve not made an album since 2013. And we’ve got a new crop of really good songs. We’ve already got five of them down with this new deal with Organic Records. 

I’m really excited to be making music again. I’m thrilled. I think about it all the time. It’s kind of the primary motivation to keep me moving day-after-day with everything that I’ve got going on right now. I love the process of recording music, it’s probably one of my favorite things to do. 

SMN: How did all of that come about with Organic? 

SM: Jay Sanders, our bass player. He is solely responsible for making this happen. He has a good friendship with Ty Gilpin [of Organic Records]. They had been talking about getting Syndicate into a recording mode for years, something like the last five years. Jay kept at it, saying we needed to talk to them about an album. 

But, at that time, I had to look after my dad until he passed away. Then, immediately after that, my mom fell and broke her hip and shoulder. She became immobile and required around the clock care. It just wasn’t a good time, where a lot of the creative juices were just sucked out of wanting to make music.

SMN: And the irony is that you’d probably feel guilty if you were to create and play music with all of that going on, and yet it’s the music that keeps your sanity in check. 

SM: You’ve absolutely nailed it right on the head. And, because of that emotion, my tendency was to just avoid it, avoid making music. Just try to focus on the task at hand. 

And now? We’ve been going back into the studio. The time is right and it feels great. We’re doing it at our speed and our own pace. Instead of burning up and down the road being on tour, we’re able to take a breath and take our time, not wearing ourselves out. 

SMN: There was a big, enthusiastic reception about the Organic deal and a new Acoustic Syndicate album. Did that surprise you, not only that people remember the band, but they still hold you guys in such a high regard? 

SM: I’m in awe of that. Ask anyone in this band, I’m the biggest pessimist that we have. It just blows my mind that people are still as excited as they ever were for this band. I still hear it and I still see it. I’m continually amazed, and very grateful. 

And I think a large part of that [reception] goes back to the message we’ve always had, which is about positivity and being kind to one another. People appreciate that message and they latch onto, especially with the world we’re currently living in right now. 

SMN: Acoustic Syndicate crossed over the 25-year mark in 2019. What has the culmination of those experiences and people, onstage and off, taught you about what it means to be a human being?

SM: One of the finest moments I ever had was being onstage with Little Feat. I’m a humongous Little Feat fan. When we were kind of hitting the top of our stride, we got to do a show with them at the Charleston Music Hall [in South Carolina]. 

They invited us up onstage to play “Rag Mama Rag” with them. I didn’t know what to expect. I’d met [Little Feat singer/guitarist] Paul [Barrere] before, but only in passing. So, [during the song], he threw me a [guitar] break, a solo where I decided I’m going to pull out every trick I know in the book. 

I just shut my eyes and let it rip. And I was about halfway into [the guitar solo] when I felt something on my right shoulder. It was Paul Barrere, rubbing shoulders, completely hunkered down with me, jamming on [his] Telecaster. I thought, “This is what it’s all about.” 

My point is that everybody can be humble. That’s the one thing I learned about all this, is that attitude is completely useless and [it’s about] being humble, connecting one person to another person through the music — that’s the reason I do it.

 

Want to go?

Lead singer/guitarist of Acoustic Syndicate, Steve “Big Daddy” McMurry will join the Songs From The Road Band for a special intimate live performance at 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 9, in the backyard of One World Brewing in West Asheville. 

Dubbed “Asheville Winter Grass,” all Covid-19 precautions will be followed. All reserved tables are physically distanced and heaters will be out. The show will be postponed if there is inclement weather and/or to be in compliance with Covid-19 restrictions.

Tickets are $20 per person. For more information and/or to purchase tickets, go to www.songsfromtheroadband.com and click on the “Tour” tab. 

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