There’s nothing like the joy you feel once an artist you admire finally opens the door to new music after years of silence (Frank Ocean, Lorde, Rihanna… we’re still waiting on you). The anticipation. The build. It all seeps deep into an anxious excitement, ready to explode in delight at the sound of the first chord.
After seven years, that feeling has finally come to a head for the fans of diverse bluegrass and folk-rock ensemble Acoustic Syndicate through the release of the band’s long-awaited new single, “Sunny”, which dropped early last month. And today, May 14th, the band released their gleaming version of The Grateful Dead classic, “Bertha.”
The rural farmland of 1994 Shelby, North Carolina, was where it all started, with the foundational trio of guitarist and vocalist Steve “Big Daddy” McMurry and his cousins Bryon and Fitz McMurry (banjo, vocals, and drums) playing several local gigs. Seven albums, thousands of shows – including Bonnaroo and Farm Aid – one long hiatus, and one signed deal with Organic Records later, the group, along with proficient bassist Jay Sanders, returned to the studio to reestablish themselves as the trailblazing, multifaceted jam band that has exhilarated a multitude of fans for decades.
And now, they continue on with their influential mix of southern roots styles in a song that is emotionally riveting and musically advanced.
“Sunny” is perfectly representative of its name, drawing an instant calm that unwinds throughout the intricate one-minute instrumental intro until out comes Steve “Big Daddy” McMurry’s tender drawl accompanied by a lively piano (Brian Felix), gentle acoustic guitar riffs, rippling percussive elements, a swelling banjo, and expressive fiddle work from Lyndsay Pruett (Jon Stickley Trio). Warm and inviting, the track is a six-minute long deep breath, relaxed but powerful in its delivery. A song to clear the senses.
I got to chat with Acoustic Syndicate about what they’d been up to during their hiatus, their re-emergence into the music scene, and what they hope to achieve for the band’s future.
Y’all have had an extensive journey together over the years… What is it about this band that makes you keep going?
Steve McMurry: I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we don’t carry a lot of the baggage that other bands have in the way of big egos and competition. It really is a family affair for us, and the bond between us all. We haven’t gotten sick of one another yet….yet.
Bryon McMurry: The fact that there are folks that are still into what we are doing. It’s the love we ultimately have for each other, the feeling of finding creativity from within and passing It along.
Fitz McMurry: For the love of each other, the love of music and what it means to us, and for the fans that have supported us all the years. This includes our families obviously!
How would you say your music has evolved from then to now?
Steve: It has been a very natural evolution for us. It seems that we have just simply kept moving ever closer to the kind of music that influenced us, as individuals and as a band. It was never a conscious attempt at change…just growth and development. And a little more Rock & Roll can never be a bad thing.
Bryon: We were a much more stripped down somewhat traditional band. There still is a hint of our beginnings now and then in our music, but our influences started creeping in somewhat early on, helping to shape our sound into what it is today.
Is there a pinnacle moment or two that sticks out from Acoustic Syndicate’s career?
Bryon: There have been many wonderful experiences — being on stage with the 2001 Farm Aid lineup was pretty special.
Fitz: We have been fortunate to have played a lot of big festivals around the country with too many artists and bands to count, but the one that sticks out for me was playing on a ramshackled stage on a beach in Jamaica one beautiful night with Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett from the band Little Feat, our heroes in the music world. I guess it’s all perspective.
Steve: Fitz mentioned the Negril show with Paul and Fred from Little Feat. I would have to say that, for me, the night Little Feat invited Bryon and me on stage at the Charleston Music Hall to play “Rag Mama Rag.” I don’t reckon I’ll ever quite get over that one.
Once venues fully open up and you get to play more shows, what are you most looking forward to once back on stage?
Steve: That’s easy. The interaction between crowd and band. This band literally feeds off of the energy that we get from the audience. It is an integral and critical element of why we keep going. It really is essential…and I have really missed that.
Bryon: The connection with the people!
You guys just released your newest single after seven years. Why such a long gap? What were y’all getting up to during that time?
Steve: Paying bills, taking care of family, farming, the job…you know…life.
Bryon: It really wasn’t intentional. For me, personally, I was helping to raise a family.
What made you finally decide to release new music now?
Steve: The deal with Organic Records was just such a surprise and a real shot in the arm. It was the confidence boost we needed to stir up those creative emotions and feelings that bring forward those creative instincts that inspire new music. A reason to keep thinking, feeling and expressing with words and music.
Bryon: Jay Sanders and Ty Gilpin. The way in which this project was presented, it totally fit our schedules and lifestyles. If it wasn’t for them, the recording most likely wouldn’t have happened.
Fitz: We aren’t getting any younger!
Speaking of the single, can you explain more about the creative process and meaning behind “Sunny”?
Steve: Sunny is a new “old” story. Or maybe an old story with a new beginning. I have had that melody rattling around in my head for years, along with the basic idea for the story. I had aspirations of putting it into the form of a short story. But “Sunny” really and actually wrote herself in like three hours one dark afternoon back in the winter. Once she started rolling out, I really couldn’t stop. I have used this analogy before, but it really was one of those Willie Nelson “napkin on a bar” moments. I had the words down in an hour. Actually had to shorten it down a bit.
How would you say this song is different from the rest of your discography?
Steve: For me, it’s all about the source. Renewal of life. I would imagine it’s the same for most folks… who have lost anyone close to them…be it a lover, a spouse, family. I don’t find it very easy to talk about these things. Sometimes they just want out.
How would you want a listener to feel when they hear it for the first time?
Steve: I would only hope that they feel the way that I felt when I wrote it. It is meant to reinforce the relationships around us, and to pay homage to those no longer with us…and the hope to maybe someday see them again.
Bryon: Hopefully happy with a renewed sense of optimism.
Is “Sunny” an introduction to a bigger project you guys are planning to reveal? Or is this more of a small dip in the water for now?
Steve: “Sunny” is just the first stroke of what I hope to be a much broader canvas.
What are your overall goals for the rest of this year?
Steve: To pay the light bill.
Bryon: To record more original music.
Photo by Sandlin Gaither