In 2006, Bryon McMurry had 75,000 tomato plants in the ground and was moving produce on a large scale. But then the economy took a dive, along with a hefty chunk of McMurry’s confidence. It sounds like the basis for a blues or country song that some Nashville-based troubador might pen about someone else’s hard luck. In this case, however, both the farming and the writing share space in McMurry’s personal history. And he holds that story in common with his Acoustic Syndicate band mates, brother Fitz McMurry and cousin Steve McMurry.
“We’d put so much of ourselves into the band, and we thought it was over,” says Bryon. After Acoustic Syndicate called it quits in ’04, Bryon, who plays guitar and banjo, had returned to farming. He wasn’t sad about it: “My passion for agriculture was always a struggle with the Syndicate,” he says. When Bryon was on the farm, he longed to be out on the road with the band; when on tour, he found himself wanting to be back with his crops.
The McMurry brothers grew up in Cleveland County, N.C., and Steve visited often. One Christmas when the boys were around 10 or 12, the legend goes, their parents gave them each an instrument: a fiddle for Steve, a guitar for Fitz and a banjo for Bryon. They shifted instruments a bit over the years, but making music together stuck. Today, they all live within a mile-and-a-half of one another. “We can get mad at one another and we can get over it,” says Bryon. “Whenever we sing together, it feels right.”
What didn’t stick was the band breakup. They started playing a smattering of shows, and Bryon found that a three-year stint with the local Soil and Water Conservation District freed him up for creative thought. “These melodies and ideas had been dancing around in my head for some time, and they had to find their way to paper,” he explains.
The songs went one better, finding their way onto Rooftop Garden, the band’s first album in nearly a decade. Eschewing Americana and bluegrass producers, Acoustic Syndicate reached out to Grammy-winner Stewart Lerman, who’d just come off a Patti Smith project. It was that rocker cred that the band wanted to tap because, while there’s a loose, organic sensibility to much of the album, it’s also steeped in a lifetime of varied influences. “We were children of the ’80s, so we grew up on rock ’n’ roll. We’d ride around town at night listening to King Crimson, Little Feat, Yes, Genesis, Judas Priest and Sex Pistols,” he recalls.
Meanwhile, the Jamaican and Haitian migrant workers who helped out on the McMurry family farm brought reggae to the mix, along with a certain herbal import. “It lit a fire in me. It made me realize there was a much bigger world out there,” says Bryon. All of that can be felt on Rooftop Garden, along with Billy Cardine’s rock edge and Jay Sanders’ jazz prowess.
Most of the songs on the record, released in September, are very personal, says Bryon. “I’ve never taken myself seriously as a lyric writer,” he says. But while Steve has historically been the group’s primary writer, Bryon stepped up on Rooftop Garden with tracks like the aptly named “Heroes,” an uplifting ode to the working-class champion, and the world-beat-fueled “Bicycle Song.” There, jazz influences and syncopation (not to mention some jaw-dropping fingerpicking) burble below the surface while Bryon's vocal, though not expressly lithe, rises above.
“These lyrics found me,” says Bryon. “Steve had songs and I had songs, and in the winter of 2011 we said, ‘Let’s make a record.’” They began the project in 2012, and despite the years and the hardships that had played out since Acoustic Syndicate’s last record, Rooftop Garden plays like the work of a band in its prime.
It probably won’t be their last effort, either. “We don’t have grand expectations of trying to break out at our age,” notes Bryon, who says he finds his current work with his home county’s Farm Service Agency rewarding. But even as he’s traveling those country roads, there’s music in the back of his mind.
“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he says with a laugh. “Even if there wasn’t an audience there, I’d still need to write it down.”
— Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.
who: Acoustic Syndicate
where: The Orange Peel
when: Friday, Nov. 29, at 9 p.m.
$15 in advance/$17 day of show