INTRO – It’s not quite a comeback for the Cleveland County-based band the Acoustic Syndicate. They hadn’t been in a studio since 2004, they haven’t regularly toured in that time either… but they never quite got all the way out with occasional shows here and there over the last several years. Now they’re back in a big way… new tour, new CD… and again willing to consider the bright lights with the knowledge they can always contentedly return to the farm. George Olsen has this.
The roots of the band the Acoustic Syndicate are certainly deep. The three McMurry’s who front the band… two brothers, one cousin… are fifth generation Cleveland Countiers.
”Cleveland County is the home of Earl Scruggs. He actually worked in the same cotton mill as my grandmother. They worked in the same mill when they were children.”
Those five generations have farmed the same piece of land since the 1700s. In more modern times immigrant labor came in to help work the farm.
“I guess the biggest eye opening experience for me was we were vegetable farmers and we had a lot of immigrant work from Haiti and Jamaica on our farm. They brought Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley and some ska, and I’d never heard this before in my life.”
So somewhere between Scruggs and ska, that’s where you find the music of the Acoustic Syndicate.
The Acoustic Syndicate is enjoying a revival these days. They’ve been together for 20 years, but in 2004 they were ready to call it quits. They’d shared the stage with such notables as Little Feat and Leftover Salmon, had performed for thousands of fans, and were recording for the well-respected “mid-major” record label Sugar Hill. But they still were working the family farm plus starting families, and those responsibilities were pulling them back home, so in 2004, as Bryon McMurry says, they did what he thought was their final gig.
“We did one last run out to Colorado and the western states and came back home and ended it with a local show at a festival called SmileFest. We played every song we knew that night and stopped at 5:00 am. Walked off the stage into my car, drove an hour home as the sun was coming up. I had a greenhouse full of tomatoes I was growing, 1200 tomato plants and I literally went right back to farming and I thought Acoustic Syndicate was over.”
But they never quite got out. They kept their booking agent, and every so often a call would come in for a good money gig so off the band would go. But if the live performances never quite came to an end, the recording seemed to. They did their last Sugar Hill project in 2004… and then nothing, until the band picked up one of their occasional gigs, this time in Montana, and with travel time came time to talk with cousin Steve.
“Well, I’d had some songs kind of dancing around, it’s kind of a blessing and a curse. You’re thinking about other things and this comes to you, so we’ve got these songs dancing around. Steve, who had historically been the primary songwriter in the band, but I would add too but more so him. I had these songs that were there so over the course of us sitting in Missoula, MT, between Steve and myself we said let’s make another record and see what happens.”
What happened was the new CD “Rooftop Garden.” Lyrically it sounds a lot like Acoustic Syndicate used to… Bryon says they’ve always sung about the environment, sustainable farming, hypocrisy, the things they found wrong with the world… but texturally it’s a bit different, with the horns that had marked their sound over their first five CDs giving way to a new instrument brought to them courtesy of the band’s bassist Jay Sanders that seemed tailor-made for Acoustic Syndicate’s Ska-to-Scruggs sound.
“Jay introduced us to Billy Cardine that plays resophonic guitar and dobro. He’s a musical virtuoso. He studied the Indian slide and his whole approach is not from the traditional bluegrass. The songs we were writing… I want to say acoustic rock-and-roll, kind of… and he brings an edgier sound with his instrument, so it is a departure, to some degree, from what we had left off, but some of the songwriting and some of the lyrical content remains consistent with what we were writing all along.”
That consistency coming right-off-the-bat with “Rooftop Garden’s” title track. It’s not an anti-government screed. It’s not a pro-government anthem. It lies somewhere in between.
“It’s just kind of my take on a disconnect that folks have, the misconception of how government is in our daily lives. Yes, there is corrupt government. Yes, there is bad government. I guess it’s my take of let’s see what happens if you take all government out and give free range to half-a-percent of the population of this country, I think you would see corruption on a whole lot more massive scale. The Rooftop Garden being the government and we the people that are the roots connecting it to the ground.”
But the music of Acoustic Syndicate hasn’t yet gotten preserved in amber. Twenty years passing brings change whether wanted or not.
“As you start getting older you start realizing all kinds of things, the finiteness of it all. That’s just the way it happens.”
Bryon says he sometimes feels they’re becoming “sappy old men.” You’re not getting sappy, Bryon. You’re attaining wisdom… at least that’s what us old men say. Evidence of that wisdom… Bryon’s song “Heroes” … for his parents.
“My mother, just out of left field, had a couple bouts with cancer, and one really big bout with cancer. She’s doing very, very well. She’s so far a success story. It just came out of left field and that was just a song of thanks to her and my Dad. What I admire about him, he’s truly done something he absolutely loves. Through the lean years he’s farmed. He started when he graduated high school. He bought this land that we live on at 19 from my uncle. He’s… very few people can say they’ve done one career and loved everyday, even through the hard times.”
I might be pushing the wisdom comes with age thing out of self-interest. Seems like Bryon’s doing o-k for himself in that regard… and has been for a while. The band is big on sharing its music… yes, they’re still trying to sell tickets and CDs, but go to their website and download a free concert recording… or show up at a show and record one yourself. As Bryon told me, there’s much more to be said about good karma than bad karma.
“ Now we don’t have grand expectations of thousands of people coming to see us anymore, but we still have people who come and who record the show, they set up live and they’re still getting the word out. Perhaps after we’re dead and gone these songs will find their way to somebody and make them smile a little or bring some joy to them in their days, hopefully. That’s the best way to sum that up.”
Bryon McMurry of Cleveland County’s the Acoustic Syndicate. Their new CD is “Rooftop Garden.” I’m George Olsen.