Acoustic Syndicate has been defying genre stereotypes for more than a quarter century. The beloved Western North Carolina group has been claimed by fans of bluegrass as well as the jam band crowd, and the band’s sound draws from rock and jazz as well. Founded in 1992 by brothers Bryon and Fitz McMurray (banjo/guitar and drums, respectively) and their cousin Steve McMurry on guitar and mandolin, Acoustic Syndicate crafts inventive, upbeat and lyrically positive music.
The group’s music also 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 the group’s bassist, Jay 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 band mates, 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 says. “He still gets up everyday and goes out in the field and weeds, plows and plants.” The McMurrys are real farmers; Byron 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 the group has added textures from outside that idiom. Sanders admits that in 2000 when the group added drums, “we got some blowback.” And in addition to bass, Sanders plays the futuristic NS/Stick, and 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 musicians of Acoustic Syndicate 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 that the constant thread running through all of Acoustic Syndicate’s music is respect. “Respect for songs, respect for great songwriting, respect for great musicianship and bringing in all of our influences from the acoustic musical world and elsewhere.” 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 the group’s peerless chops and seemingly subliminal musical communication, one of the most distinctive qualities of Acoustic Syndicate’s music is the positive nature of its song lyrics. “We’re all aware, conscious people,” Sanders admits. “We pay a lot of attention to the world around us.” But he makes the point that 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 says. “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 band mates 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 says. “And what doesn’t work is when we retreat to our corners.” He modestly characterizes Acoustic Syndicate’s positive music as “our little attempt to try to combat that with the audience we have who will listen.”