Acoustic Syndicate is one electric outfit |

Acoustic Syndicate is one electric outfit

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

When Fitz McMurry, his brother Bryon and their cousin Steve were growing up in rural Cleveland County, N.C., bluegrass was everywhere ? and nowhere.

Bluegrass was part of the cultural fabric of Cleveland County. The McMurrys knew all the traditional bluegrass songs. They knew pickers like Horace Scruggs, brother of bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs, who lived a few miles away in Shelby. And they knew of plenty of picking parlors in the area around their family’s farm.

But bluegrass was not the happening thing for the young folks of Cleveland County. So as kids, the McMurrys listened to Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits and Queen, before moving on to their punk phase, and then on to more sophisticated sounds like fusion group Weather Report. They got interested in reggae and Caribbean music by listening to the tunes sung by the migrant pickers who worked side by side with them in the fields. But while they knew bluegrass, it was regarded as the music of the older generation. It certainly wasn’t the sound they explored on the instruments they got as kids.

“Bluegrass was always around,” said Fitz McMurry. “But we didn’t think much of it, didn’t even consider it. We knew all the old tunes, because they were all over.”

Almost every other kind of music, however, fascinated the McMurrys. “My brother and I got guitars and drums when we were little. And Steve, our first cousin, came to spend the summers with us,” said Fitz who, at 36, is two years older than his brother, and a year younger than his cousin. “There wasn’t much to do, aside from running around outside. So we played music.”

That interest quickly set the McMurrys apart from the Cleveland County crowd. While their schoolmates listened to whatever was on the commercial radio, the McMurrys explored all corners of music from reggae to fusion.

“It wasn’t a musical area at all, apart from bluegrass and whatever was going on in the mainstream,” said Fitz. “What we were into, that was not indicative of our surroundings. We just happened to hook up with the right people to introduce us to all this music. We weren’t part of the norm at school. Everyone thought we were a little different.”

When brother Bryon went off to Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., his tastes changed. Bryon discovered the Grateful Dead, and attended more than his share of Dead concerts. He also, finally, warmed to bluegrass. He and cousin Steve started singing together around college, playing mostly traditional-style, acoustic music.

Meanwhile, Fitz was moving in the opposite direction, trying his hand at being a suit-and-tie-wearing salesman. He was soon looking for another career path. “I was a wannabe businessman,” said Fitz. “It was short-lived. That was a total contrast to everything I’d ever known.”

So when Bryon came home from college, and started singing around the area with Steve, Fitz was ready to add his voice. Even if it meant singing bluegrass. The threesome began playing frequently at a place called the Bomb Shelter which was, in fact, a Cold War-era bomb shelter converted into a picking parlor that drew the hottest bluegrass players from the area. It was a roughly traditional, all-acoustic group, with Fitz giving up his usual place behind the drums to strum a guitar and sing. By the time the three got a real paying gig at a nearby college ? where they appeared as the Mint Jubilee Bluesgrass Band ? they had worked up a set of Grateful Dead tunes and original songs. But the sound was coming from the bluegrass tradition they had once ignored. “We thought, hey, we’ve got some great music right here in our back yard,” said Fitz.

In the early ?90s, the three added a bassist and a conga player, and took the name Acoustic Syndicate. They played mostly on weekends, as the bills were paid with day jobs: Bryon had a greenhouse business, and Fitz a landscaping company. As Acoustic Syndicate played more gigs, the McMurrys found their audience growing in size, and becoming more vocal in their appreciation. They played bigger venues, and of necessity, they started playing louder. When the conga player left, Fitz moved to a full drum kit.

“As we played for more people, wherever it was, we were hearing more percussion,” said Fitz. “We needed to drive it harder. And I wanted to get back to drums. I never claimed to be a guitar player.”

Around the same time Acoustic Syndicate was transforming itself from an acoustic group to a high-energy rock band, albeit on bluegrass instruments, Colorado was becoming a breeding ground for similar experiments. Leftover Salmon was gaining national attention for its blend of zydeco, bluegrass and rock; String Cheese Incident was just beginning as an acoustic act, getting ready to blend jazz and funk into its mix. All of which was very much news to Acoustic Syndicate.

“That’s purely coincidental,” said Fitz, noting that Leftover Salmon front-man Vince Herman was a guest at five recent Acoustic Syndicate dates. “The first time we heard Leftover Salmon, we were flabbergasted that someone else was doing what we were doing. We had no idea. We just had bluegrass instruments when we started. Then we heard String Cheese, and met the guys from Leftover, and that blew our minds.”

Of late, Acoustic Syndicate ? with Steve playing mandolin and guitar, and Bryon on acoustic and electric banjo ? has been getting mentioned in the same breaths as their better-known Colorado counterparts. The band was featured at last summer’s Bonnaroo Festival, the immense jam-band gathering in Tennessee. They have played the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, MerleFest, the High Sierra Music Festival and the Memphis In May festival. The band had a career highlight at last summer’s Farm Aid, where they joined in on a jam with Neil Young, Willie Nelson and Dave Matthews.

Acoustic Syndicate plays tonight, Jan. 17, at the Double Diamond.

A key ingredient in Acoustic Syndicate’s rise, said Fitz, has been the addition of bassist Jay Sanders. Sanders, a Nashville native who plays upright bass, joined the band in 1998, and brought a musical sophistication into the quartet.

“He was the missing piece,” said Fitz. “He could play everything. He was the musically educated one of the bunch.”

More recently, Acoustic Syndicate has filled in another missing piece. The band had released three independent CDs: a self-titled debut in 1996, “Tributaries” in 1999, and “Crazy Little Life” in 2000. The recordings, all made in the studio, highlighted Acoustic Syndicate’s songwriting and singing abilities, but offered little evidence of the group’s prowess on the stage. With the band having signed to acoustic-oriented Sugar Hill, and a studio album, “Terra Firma,” due out on the label this spring, Acoustic Syndicate figured it was a good time to release a live album.

The two-disc set “Live From the Neighborhood,” recorded at several gigs in the Southeast and at the Crested Butte Center for the Arts, completes the picture. From the opening notes of a cover of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger,” “Live From the Neighborhood” is a blistering document, augmented by guest musician, saxophonist Jeremy Saunders. The band jams its way through a frenetically paced “Mystery Train,” shows off its vocal harmonies on “Turn Your Radio On,” and plays some memorable originals like “Neighbors” and “Carnival.” The latest release reveals a band that makes getting a crowd dancing as its top priority.

“That’s precisely why we recorded that live record, because the past studio CDs were not indicative of what we do live,” said Fitz. “Everybody always told us to make a live album. So when we signed with Sugar Hill, we saw this as our last chance to do a live album for a while.”

Fitz acknowledges that the “acoustic” part of the band’s name no longer properly applies. But, he shrugs, it’s too late to change the name and, after all, a name is just a name. And changing the band’s musical direction is out of the question.

“The new Sugar Hill release, there’s no bluegrass, no jamgrass,” he said. “It’ll be in the rock section.”

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