This Thanksgiving holiday weekend was about family reunion and discovery for me, never having been to the Asheville area. With planned and unplanned activities with extended family, it didn’t look like I’d get a chance to check out Asheville’s acclaimed vibrant music scene. Fortunately, that changed on Saturday evening when my daughter and I decided to venture into town. Yes, I was familiar with the Grey Eagle, at least by name, but was not well informed about Acoustic Syndicate. I did hear from a friend, though, that this would be a show well worth seeing. What a pleasant surprise to witness their picking, gorgeous harmonies, and the loving audience response to these local favorites!
Understand that I am not especially well versed in the bluegrass/jam band genre. But Acoustic Syndicate is legendary in this area—they’ve played together for over twenty years, cut seven albums, including their latest independent release in 2013, and played Farm Aid and Bonnaroo. Where have I been?
Family plays heavily into their story too. Singer/guitarist Steve McMurry and his cousins, Bryon McMurry (banjo) and Fitz Jr. (drums) are all vocalists too, and equally strong in lead or harmony roles. The McMurry family has been in family farming in Cleveland County, NC since the 1700s, and this is still the “day job” for the core of the band. They are rounded out by in demand bassist Jay Sanders, who played a 8-String N/S Stick (an instrument which functions as both a bass and guitar), as well as dobro master Billy Cardine. Both Sanders and Cardine hail from Asheville, and are involved in multiple music projects around the city.
Their rather unique instrumentation, augmented by pedals and some electric effects, was often breathtaking, as they delivered rather lengthy pieces that provided ample room for soloing. Bluegrass elements were prominent, but rock and that Dead jam band sound were equally present. Steve handled most of the lead vocals while Bryon wasn’t far behind. Their loyal fans often sang along to the choruses of entirely original material. A group next to us said that they grew up across the street from the band, and would often hear them rehearsing, pointing out that their story songs were as real as it gets. Steve puts it this way, “Through our music, we have tried to maintain a consistent message, a reminder, that this Earth is the only one we will ever have. And though we speak of some lofty ideals in our music, my most fervent hope is that when people listen to us or come to our show, they leave with a laugh and a smile and the satisfaction of having been a part of something positive.” We certainly felt that way. Check out Acoustic Syndicate. My guess is that you’ll really appreciate their sound just as we did.