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Finding balance with Acoustic Syndicate

WANT TO GO?

Acoustic Syndicate

With Comparsa

WHERE: Haddad Riverfront Park

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Friday

COST: Free INFO: www.liveontheleveecharleston.com

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Acoustic Syndicate hung it up in 2004. After about a dozen years of performing, touring and recording together, Bryon McMurry and everyone else in the bluegrass and roots rock band thought it was time to call it quits.

"We were burned out, I guess," he said in an easy Carolina drawl. "And we thought that was it."

It turned out Acoustic Syndicate, which helps close out this year's Live on the Levee Friday night at Haddad Riverfront Park, wasn't finished, not by a long shot. They just needed to reconnect with their roots.

McMurry went back to farming.

"We're fifth generation farmers here," he said. "I was raised on farming."

So, for a couple of years, he helped run the family farm, which isn't huge by industrial farming standards -- just a few hundred acres of land with some greenhouses. Among other things, McMurry grew squash and green beans and raised flowers.

"But then the economy crashed, and at 40 years of age, I took a job with soil and conservation in Cleveland County, [North Carolina]," he said.

He worked at the conservation agency for three years, and then a few months ago, the USDA hired him. McMurry now serves as the county director for the Farm Services Agency.

His brother, Fitz, who plays drums for the band, took a job as a trail maintenance mechanic for a state park. Cousin and mandolin player Steve McMurry was hired on as a construction technician for the Department of Transportation.

"We all got government jobs," McMurry laughed.

The jobs were all in some way tied to the land, which fits in with what the group has always written about: the human side of conservation, farming and ecological sustainability.

"It's all about the values we were instilled with when we were children," McMurry said. "We write about the fragility of who we all are."

It's not all that serious, and the casual listener just looking for a foot-stomping good time might not catch on to what is being said.

"We like to have a real danceable, happy beat, but we'll be singing about the most heart-wrenching struggle for survival," McMurry said.  

They're entertainers with a message, though it's less politics and more about sharing the practical logic of an experienced farmer: if it's raining one place, it's probably not raining somewhere else. We're all connected, whether we like it or not, and the land is a finite resource.

"In 40 years, there will another two billion people on the Earth," he said. "Can you imagine that? It's incredible."

McMurry can't figure out how we're going to feed everybody. He's not sure we can.

The band came back together in 2009, five years after it had quietly dissolved. The guys were more or less happily moving on with their individual lives when McMurry said they'd get the occasional call from their former booking agent.

"We'd remained friends with him, and so people were calling, asking if we'd want to come play a gig here or there."

They did, and very slowly, those gigs started stacking up.

McMurry said it was very humbling to have people still interested in hearing them play their songs. Before long, they were adding new material as well.

They're glad to be playing again, though there aren't any plans to give up the day jobs and leave their families in exchange for month-long tours on the road. The days of playing 170 shows a year are probably behind them.

Now, they play about 40 shows a year, which allows them to have personal lives and keep up with their farms and families.

It's a balance he thinks they can sustain.

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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