Steve “Big Daddy” McMurry has plenty to be thankful for this year. High on the list for the Acoustic Syndicate singer/guitarist are his wife, Jerrianne, his family and his Cleveland County farm, in which he and his cousin/bandmate Bryon McMurry (banjo, electric guitar) are partners. And then there are Acoustic Syndicate’s loyal fans, without whom the bluegrass rock band’s annual Thanksgiving show — held this year on Saturday, Nov. 29, at The Grey Eagle — wouldn’t be possible.
The concert tradition began a decade ago. The band had been on the road for six months and decided to have what Steve calls “kind of a homecoming show” at The Orange Peel. Acoustic Syndicate — about to stop touring after 12 years of playing together — went in thinking the gig would be a one-time event, possibly even a bust. Their fans, however, had other ideas. “It absolutely slammed,” Steve says. “It was kind of a message to us that we may be ready to call it quits, but our people were not ready for that.”
Humbled and honored by that support, Acoustic Syndicate returned to The Orange Peel in 2005, this time dubbing the occasion “Big Daddy’s Thanksgiving Reunion.” It became an annual event. Though the band still loves that venue, this year the show moves to The Grey Eagle, which Steve says is a more intimate and suitable space for the reunion.
The sense of closeness elevates what’s already a rare chance to catch the band, which — even after the 2013 release of Rooftop Garden, their first album since 2004 — plays only 15-20 shows a year. “We still pick our battles pretty carefully. We’ll run out and do a little string of sets and make it sensible,” Steve says. “We love it so much more this way. We don’t get worn out or burned out.”
With children to raise and parents to take care of, being a full-time touring band isn’t realistic. Other than Billy Cardine, who stays busy playing the Dobro for a variety of ensembles, all of the bandmates have day jobs. Along with sustaining the corn, soybeans and sorghum cane crops on his farm, Steve is a construction engineer and technician — “That’s a fancy way of saying ‘inspector,’” he says — for the Department of Transportation. Bryon is the Cleveland County Farm Service Agency executive director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture; his brother Fitz (drums) spends his days in the woods, maintaining trails for South Mountains State Park; and bassist Jay Sanders runs the marketing firm Allies Labs in Asheville.
Yet considering how special these limited opportunities to see the band live have become, the Thanksgiving shows remain a distinct experience from Acoustic Syndicate’s other performances. “It’s just that family atmosphere and the feeling of home,” Steve says. “It’s a real good feeling. Everybody’s kind of relaxed and happy.”
Past iterations have featured such special guests as The BlueBrass Project, in which Trombone Shorty was one of an estimated 30 musicians onstage at one time. But recently, Acoustic Syndicate has perpetuated the show by sticking closer to the more traditional material it has played over the years. It’s these songs that people come back to see. “As far as a rigid set order goes, it’s probably our most relaxed. We don’t stick to our guns too hard,” Steve says. “I wouldn’t call it an all-request night, but we’re certainly open to suggestions.”
In addition to the roar of the crowd, the band will hit the stage fueled by Thursday’s big meal. For decades, the McMurry family celebrated the holiday at their grandmother’s house, but in the six years since she passed away, Steve and Jerrianne have hosted 50-60 cousins and friends in what he calls a “misfit Thanksgiving.” Putting serious thought and planning into the day, Steve cooks two of the biggest turkeys he can find, his brother chops up a Boston butt and other guests bring potluck dishes.
“We gather, have a couple of drinks, have some fellowship, and that’s fine for us,” Steve says. “We welcome it.”
WHO: Acoustic Syndicate
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 29, at 9 p.m. $15 advance/$18 day of show