Standing on solid ground

“There was a time that we were about to throw in the towel,” Acoustic Syndicate drummer Fitz McMurry revealed during a recent phone interview.

He’s almost nonchalant about it, as if he were talking about some half-remembered anecdote from another person’s life.

And yet it’s true: For a brief period, the members of Acoustic Syndicate — arguably the biggest act to come out of Western North Carolina in recent years — considered calling it quits.

“I guess a couple of years ago, right before we got to the level where we are now, when we were struggling financially and spending a lot of time away from home … and well … you’re dealing with so many people. The business of music and music itself are so different … ”

There’s a pause on McMurry’s end, followed by a slight chuckle.

“We were like, ‘Oh my God! [We] can’t do this anymore,'” he reveals.

The weight of history

Acoustic Syndicate was created on the McMurry family farm in Cleveland County 11 years ago, with brothers Bryon (banjo) and Fitz McMurry, plus cousin and front man Steve “Big Daddy” McMurry (mandolin) and Jay Sanders (bass). By the time the group was considering disbanding, they’d paid considerable dues in their quest for recognition. And all that hard work weighed heavy on them.

“We realized that everybody had sacrificed so much,” McMurry relates. “We re-evaluated the sacrifices and the support of everybody that had been behind us and helped us. We decided that we couldn’t let them down.”

This seems an obvious defining moment in the band’s growing legend. So when you hear McMurry tell the story, you interpret the occasion as having been sweepingly dramatic.

It wasn’t.

“I’d say that there isn’t a band out there that hasn’t been through something similar,” McMurry continues casually. “There’s been several times when each of us has had questions and doubts. You start evaluating your life, and where you are, and what you want to do. But we just can’t get away from [the music]; we come right back. It’s just like anything else, because if you have a mature approach to what you’re doing, you have to make sacrifices.”

In Acoustic Syndicate’s case, the sacrifices have been worth it.

Syndicate-d institution

Since the band formed in 1992, they’ve gone from playing moody bluegrass tunes in small clubs to living most musicians’ dream: getting signed — in this case, to important roots label Sugar Hill — touring and being invited to some very big shows to headline alongside some very intimidating names.

In September 2001, Acoustic Syndicate were added to the list of featured performers for the 16th annual Farm Aid benefit concert in Noblesville, Ind., sharing the bill with Willie Nelson and Neil Young.

It made perfect sense — back in North Carolina, the McMurry family has grown sorghum cane for molasses for 100 years. McMurry’s dad, Fitzhugh, still runs a produce store in Fallston, while his brother kept greenhouses before Acoustic Syndicate took off.

But even a year-and-a-half after Farm Aid, McMurry sounds like he still has trouble believing it happened, calling it all “bizarre.”

“I’m sure Dave Matthews and John Mellencamp and Neil Young and Willie Nelson, and all the guys from the seven acts on the bill, were like, ‘Who in the hell is The Acoustic Syndicate?'” he continues.

“We were treated well, though,” McMurry remembers. “We gave Willie Nelson a quart of our molasses that our dad made, and he’s [now] got a McMurry Farms hat.”

The band’s current sound plays particularly well to large festival crowds. And Acoustic Syndicate has played some of the biggest — Merlefest, High Sierra and Bonnaroo, among many others (including Asheville’s own Bele Chere).

And though Acoustic Syndicate’s relationship with its new label is still in its infancy (the group joined the Sugar Hill roster eight months ago), McMurry is optimistic about their future together.

“I can already feel a bit of a change, “he reveals. “The morale in general is good. This is a hard business, as everybody knows, and there’s been just a good, positive attitude since we signed.”

Since their self-titled debut on Little King Records in 1997, the group has strayed away from standard traditional fare and into emotive, yet still crowd-friendly, Southern-flavored Americana.

“When you’ve got a banjo and an upright bass, people are going to say you’re a bluegrass band,” McMurry concedes. “My brother Bryon plays banjo, [but] he’s never really been a bluegrass player. He’s sort of a guitar player trapped inside a banjo player’s body.”

Acoustic Syndicate’s first Sugar Hill release, Terra Firma, “will be in the rock section, under ‘A,’ because there’s really no bluegrass at all on this,” the drummer continues.

“The tunes that Steve [McMurry] has put together for this album are ones that he’s had together for a while. They are what they are. We’re not trying to reach a certain market, or a certain mass of people. We hope not to ever do that. Hopefully, we can stick to our guns, and just play what feels right.”

A socially conscious shift?

If Terra Firma has a theme, it’s of hope in hard times.

“The Ballad of Marie St. Lauriette,” possibly the record’s most striking track, depicts the absolute destitution of a young Haitian woman and her faith that, somewhere in the world, a better life awaits.

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