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Published: 2003/02/24
by Mark Pantsari

Reaching Terra Firma with Acoustic Syndicate

They just don't make 'em like this any more.

Hailing from the foothills of North Carolina, Cleveland County's Acoustic
Syndicate is truly a family band. Brother's Bryon (banjo, vocals) and Fitz
McMurry (drums, vocals) and their cousin Steve McMurry (guitar, mandolin,
vocals) represent all that is right in raising children on a stern diet of
hard work and traditional bluegrass music.

The core trio of Acoustic Syndicate has taken the fundamentals of their
musical upbringing-inspired playing and amazingly tight vocal harmonies-to
the limits of its boundaries and has crossed the music with structures,
grooves, and melodies of other genres like rock, jazz, and bluegrass.

Since the addition of Jay Sanders (upright and electric bass) in the late
1990's, Acoustic Syndicate has been building up steam. After high profile
gigs at Farm Aid and Bonnaroo, the recent release of a compelling and
energetic double-live album (Live from the Neighborhood), and the impending
April 8th release of the Sugar Hill Records debut (Terra Firma), Acoustic
Syndicate are primed to enjoy the fruits of their years of hard labor.

Call them a jam band, a newgrass band, Americana, or just plain rock and
roll; Acoustic Syndicate seem to have found a niche in seemingly every
cliched bluegrass-related label there is. To better fill you in on the
band, talked to Fitz McMurry to follow the band's evolution.
From children finding their own musical voice, to a young touring band
finding their direction, to a seasoned group finding themselves on the brink
of what could likely be a breakthrough year; Acoustic Syndicate's story is
surely an interesting one. They don't make 'em like this anymore.

*Mark Pantsari: Can you take me through a little bit of the evolution of
the band? And how you, Bryon, and Steve discovered music?*

Fitz McMurry: We started playing bluegrass when we were just little kids at
family functions-Christmas, and holidays, parties and things like that. We
used to pick old-timey type songs, songs that we had heard when we were
kids. I played guitar, Steve played the fiddle, and Bryon's always played
the banjo. It wasn't until later on that we started getting more into rock
and experiencing music for ourselves.

*MP: I understand you were all first exposed to reggae music by working
alongside migrant workers on the family farm?*

FM: On our farm we had seasonal workers that would come in and work with us
during the summers. Us being young, middle school age kids, we were in the
fields with them working alongside them loading baskets and driving tractors
and all that stuff. There were some Haitian workers one time that had some
reggae tapes playing on their radios out in the field and that's when,
coincidentally, we had been learning about reggae on our own. It was a
trip. We were probably about twelve or thirteen.

When we were in middle school we were into like fusion jazz, Weather Report,
Little Feat, really obscure punk stuff-not really the norm for right around
rural Cleveland County. In fact not the norm at all, we were pretty much
the only people listening to that kind of stuff. It was a weird thing how
it all evolved; mainstream music wasn't that big to us. Other than The
Police, we all were big fans of The Police. Dire Straits was one of our
biggest early bands in high school.

*MP: When did the first incarnations of Acoustic Syndicate begin to take

FM: There was a long gap in the early incarnations of the band. Bryon was
in college and I was pretty much out of the music scene for a while. When I
got out of high school I was working and had sort of the businessman kind of
job and got married early. During that time Bryon and Steve were playing
together in Boone which would have been about the late '80's. There were
playing around Boone and seeing the Grateful Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band
a whole bunch.

The band's evolved from Steve and Bryon just jamming in Boone and playing at parties and around town. People started to come check them out. In the
early '90's, Steve got back into bluegrass pretty heavy, for the first time
in years, and was playing weekly with a bunch of bluegrass pickers. I
joined up with them and sort of got the bug again. I played guitar and we
were playing locally on the weekends, and we started getting calls. And
that evolved into the first paying gig and we got to open for Norman Blake
at Green Acres Music Hall and that was a big deal for us-he was one of our
early heroes.

The first line-up of Acoustic Syndicate was Steve, Bryon, and myself and an
upright bass player. We were doing old bluegrass traditionals and gospel
tunes together at this place called The Bomb Shelter, which was an actual
bomb-shelter from the 60's they converted into a pickin' parlor. Every
Wednesday night-all these pickers like Jack Lawrence who played with Doc
Watson, Horace Scruggs, Earl Scruggs' brother-the serious pickers would come
in there every week. And kind of got hooked into that scene.

We realized we were wanting to play more often that not. Occasionally we'd
throw in a Grateful Dead cover or a Who tune, one of our versions of
something like that. When we decided to be a band and actually start to
play, we just changed the instruments we had. We didn't really set out to
be a bluegrass band or a newgrass band, we were just a band and happened to
have a banjo and a mandolin. At that point we didn't really fit in with a
weekly bluegrass gig and just started playing on our own.

MP: When did you make the transition from guitar to drums?

FM: I'd played drums in the high school band-all through marching band and
jazz and pop ensembles. Drums were always my favorite instrument. I'd
played since I was a kid, just not with Bryon and Steve. I played in a
Scottish pipe and drum corps right out of high school-doing Scottish
field-drumming technique and all that stuff. That was a trip and a really
disciplined sort of thing.

MP: And there was also a flute player in the band at one time?

FM: We've had several different members. We had a guitar player and a flute
player, and when I was still playing guitar we bought in a percussion
player. We went to Nashville to record our very first CD (the self-titled
Acoustic Syndicate) and then we started touring and traveling and getting
out of the state. We were all self-employed, so we could go out on week
jaunts here and there. But the touring didn't work out for the
percussionist and I wanted to get back to drums so I moved over to play
percussion and hand drums. During that phase of the band we recorded
another album the next year or so (Tributaries) and we had a flute player
and another guitar player. After Tributaries we really started to build up
steam in the region and we started taking it a lot more seriously.

And that was about the time Jay Sanders joined up with us. (Sanders did record Tributaries with the band). Jay was playing with Snake Oil Medicine show and at the time they were on a break, and he's been with us ever since. That was kind of the turning point for the band. He's pushed us and enabled us to move into the direction we want to go. The direction we wanted to go was to write and record our own music, in our own style, and let the public decide what to call it. After Tributaries started building we were playing more in the region, we decided drop the line-up down to just the core quartet-Steve, Bryon, Jay and I. And at that point I moved over to a drum kit. And we've been a four-piece ever since. That was right before we went to record Crazy Little Life, it was the year before.

MP: What was the motivation for solidifying as a quartet?

FM: There were a few reasons for switching to the quartet. The main one
was we became full-time musicians and were making enough just to barely
support ourselves. With the added musicians in the band, it was really just
extra at that point, and it wasn't fair for everyone at the time to try to
make that work. The fewer people involved, the easier it is to hash out
problems and make plans. And with three of us being family it was easy
because we get along really well.

*MP: Can you expand on what each of you guys bring into the band as far
as influences go?*

FM: Jay is extremely musical in all styles and really intelligent
musically. Jay's from Nashville and was brought up on a lot of jazz. He
arranges music really well and can chart music, and is just a good player
all around, he'd be good for anybody. He has a good sense and is just
really tasteful in his licks and the way he approaches a song. He brought
in a heavy jazz influence.

Bryon and myself are fairly similar. Bryon was a big Grateful Dead fan as a
well as stuff like King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, and a lot of reggae. And of
course Little Feat. There were a lot of people in our age group who didn't
know who Little Feat was, and those guys just rocked our world. They've
influenced so many bands-Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, and Emmylou Harris
have all sang with them.

I came from the school of thought of groove drummers. I've just always
listened to percussion. My musical tastes were just always of bands with
really good drummers-like Omar Hakim, John Bonham, some of the funk drummers
I really liked a lot like Zigaboo Modeliste. Musically I like Neil Young
and Dire Straits.

I'd say Steve is more from the Americana and folkie stuff, but he was also a
big fan of the Yellow Jackets and Bob Jessup. Steve likes really good
songwriters, he's a huge Guy Clark fan, and Darrell Clark, and Mark
Knopfler. He's an amazing flat-picker.

*MP: Live from the Neighborhood is really the first time I've heard
Jeremy Saunders performing with the band. What's his status in the band's
line up?*

FM: He is the official unofficial fifth member of the band and he plays
with us quite a bit. He's still up in Washington DC and is a member of the
President's Own Marine Band. He's an amazing player. Now that he's been
playing with us more, he's worked the sax into the fabric of the song and is
not just a soloist.

(Note: Fitz McMurry played drums on the recent release of Jeremy Saunders'
debut album Schoolboy. It's just one of the many recent Acoustic Syndicate
side-projects of late. Steve McMurry often tours with Larry Keel, Curtis
Burch, and Billy Constable as the Big Daddy Bluegrass Band. The group also
has a self-titled album out. Bryon McMurry recently played a series of gigs
with the throw-together band Bluebrass. Bluebrass also features Jason
Krekel (Snake Oil Medicine Show) Woody Wood, and members of the Dirty Dozen
Brass Band. Jay Sanders is part of the Acoustic Vibration Appreciation
Society, which also features Jason Krekel, Andy Pond, Woody Wood, Cailen
Campbell, Gaines Post, Michael McCanless, and Jeremy Saunders. The group
released a self-titled album in 1999)

*MP: Can you put into perspective how you've all progressed as a

FM: It's really hard to stop and think sometimes. We still have a lot of
work to do and don't have any goals of being the big band or be rock stars.
We just want to see it through and let it go where it goes. The number of
people involved has nearly quadrupled. Sometimes I'll think 'Wow! It's
hard to believe we started playing gigs on the weekend and would split up
the money and drink beers.' But now there are people outside of the four of
us that are on the road and at home and working hard, it's a serious

*MP: With appearances at Bonnaroo and other jam band festivals, how do
you feel being included in that scene?*

FM: We're caught in the middle when it comes to being a jam band. I like
it all. I don't want to say we're the oddballs, but our music's sort of
borderline-it goes either way. Certainly we have long, extensive jams and I
like the majority of all the bands in the jam community, there's a lot of
great stuff. But we're-I don't know what we are.

MP: Have you noticed an impact from playing Bonnaroo?

FM: I can say that by playing Bonnaroo-we did a run into some new cities
that we've never played before-and there was a good turnout in all of those
cities and I know it was because of Bonnaroo. There's no doubt about it.

*MP: I'm sure the live album will definitely help attract some new fans
as well.*

FM: The live album we did all ourselves and I was a little reluctant to
release to be honest. I'm sort of a perfectionist, but it's really been
getting good reviews. I felt honored, I was listening to WNCW radio which
has a huge following and the DJ said 'This is the year for incredible
double-live releases. In the same year we had Paul McCartney, Allison
Krauss, and Acoustic Syndicate.' He put is in there with the likes of Paul
McCartney-I was riding down the road in my truck at the time and was like
'Damn, that's pretty wild.'

*MP: How did the deal with Sugar Hill come about? And can you comment on
the new album? (Note: Famed Sugar Hill records has been home to bluegrass
icons like Doc Watson and Del McCoury. The label has expanded to cover
Americana acts like James McMurphy and Sonny Landreth as well as
newgrass/jam oriented acts like Sam Bush, Nickel Creek and Railroad

FM: The deal with Sugar Hill has been brewing for the past year and we
started talking to them a few years ago. I'm really excited about this
record. I'm really optimistic about it. It was our biggest production to
date as far as getting to go in and really work hard on stuff. It's got
some full on rock, sort of heavier stuff on acoustic instruments. There's
some a little more Americana. When it comes out in stores it will be in the
A section of the rock section-so you might see AC/DC and then Acoustic
Syndicate. It's so broad that they can't put in bluegrass, they can't put
it in country, and can't put in Americana-so they just put it in rock and
that's where it's going to be. I feel good about saying that too, because
rock's a pretty broad term.

MP: How’s the summer shaping up Acoustic Syndicate, any big plans?

FM: We're doing a lot festivals this summer. We're doing High Sierra and a
whole bunch of city festivals. It's going to be really busy this summer.
The whole festival scene is really growing. I have a hard time keeping up
from week to week. As far as the long-term tours, I find out maybe a month
before it starts filling in.

It's work and it's hard-the time away from home is hard. We've got wives
and families and that sort of thing. When we're home, we reverse rolls and
have a lot of catching up to do. But we have to sacrifice in the next
couple of years. As long as everybody's supportive of us and we have the
green light-we're gonna go. We couldn't do it without that.

_Mark Pantsari is a freelance writer living in Charleston, South

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