Acoustic sensations

Like most artists, Steve McMurry is more eager to discuss his current project than his last one. Acoustic Syndicate’s second CD, soon to be released, will be decidedly peppier than their self-titled debut (Little King Records, 1996), McMurry revealed in a recent interview.

“The [first album] moved slowly,” notes the band’s guitarist, vocalist and mandolin player. “That was [because of how] we were feeling at the time; it was a gloomy period. We tried to perk it up, this time. The new one will be really uplifting.”

But Acoustic Syndicate’s fans never seemed to have a problem with the brooding beauty of the first release (which featured Sam Bush on a couple of tracks). At a recent Be Here Now show, I saw two middle-aged men respond to a favorite song like soldiers receiving an order, standing stock-still amid a pack of swaying kids and lip-synching every word, as if their lives depended on it.

McMurry describes some similarly schooled devotees in Boone: “We had 400 people in Rafters singing the words to ‘No Time,'” he recalls, adding, “That’s the reason I do this. Playing live music is hard: It requires a lot of concentration and nerve. But as long as [crowds keep responding enthusiastically], I’ll keep playing. I get my energy from the crowd.”

Asheville fan Gene Nimocks, better known as “Uncle Gene,” offers this nugget of praise: “What I like about Acoustic Syndicate is that they reflect [the] times. A lot of bands don’t reflect what’s happening in the world.” To illustrate his point, Nimocks recites some current-event-related lyrics from the band’s song “The Grind,” then adds for good measure, “They’re the most easygoing people I ever met … but when it’s time to just kick it, they do.”

Acoustic Syndicate was formed in 1992 by brothers Fitz and Bryon McMurry and their cousin Steve; the current lineup also features veteran local guitar player Roger Padgett and up-and-coming bass player Jay Sanders. Regularly classified as bluegrass (“maybe because there’s a banjo,” McMurry concedes a bit wearily), the band’s sound wanders a good deal further, smoothly incorporating jazz, funk and folk-rock, relying on tight vocal harmonies to weave it all together.

“Acoustic Americana” is the label the band finally settled on, at least for PR purposes. “That was as close as we came to finding a tag,” he explains. “Our stuff is a pretty wild mixture, and that [name] is as good as we can do.”

What doesn’t fluctuate, however, is the familial bond that anchors the group.

“A lot of what we have going for us [as a band] is we know what each other is going to do before we even do it,” McMurry explains.

Some of that stems from growing up together in North Carolina’s Cleveland County (where they still reside); Steve McMurry says he felt more like a brother than a cousin to Bryon and Fitz.

“During my school years, I lived with them and worked for their dad on the farm,” he remembers, adding, “We’re a pretty tight bunch. I’ve been in other bands, [and] when you put [strangers] together, you’re gonna clash. We typically get along real good.”

The three McMurrys regularly swap instruments, as well as lead-vocal duty; and though their first album’s liner notes attribute every original song to Steve, he won’t take total credit for the writing on the upcoming release.

“That was kind of a mistake,” he concedes with a laugh. “It just happened to come out that way, and it looks like I’m trying to toot my horn. But the [songwriting] credit doesn’t really belong to any one person: Everyone has a hand in the construction.”

McMurry, now 33, has been immersed in live music since he was a teenager. He recalls his sister’s regularly shuttling him to the Green Acres Music Hall in Bostic, N.C. (a place the band now plays frequently).

“I’ve been going there since before I could even drive a car,” he remembers. “I’ve always been a huge fan of live music; it’s always been a big part of my life. It’s been my hobby, what I spent my money on, for years. I’ve never been into anything else.”

That dedication reaped McMurry and his bandmates the ultimate reward this year, when they were invited to play at Doc Watson’s prestigious Merlefest in Wilkesboro.

“You have to be asked,” he points out proudly. “We played four times, and closed the midnight jam. It was a great honor for us.” This springtime festival, which maintains its bluegrass roots (pioneers like Ralph Stanley are still regulars), gave Acoustic Syndicate the chance to play for thousands.

Since then, the gigs have cropped up quicker than clover.

“I can’t tell you how many e-mails we had to answer,” McMurry says, sounding ecstatic. “We got a big response, and we were very, very happy.”

The essential intimacy of acoustic music will always resonate with audiences, McMurry believes. “Even in the biggest rock ‘n’ roll bands, there’s always some guy banging on an acoustic guitar,” he allows. “[Bluegrass and other acoustic music] spread like oil and creep out everywhere.”

That point was pounded home for him recently when he watched a TV movie: “There was a scene in a bar where this song was playing. … They’d dubbed an old fiddle tune, “Cotton Eyed Joe,” to a techno-pop beat. That was one of the first tunes I learned when I started picking bluegrass. I couldn’t believe my damn ears.”

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