BRISTOL, Tenn. — Late afternoon sunlight reflected off Bryon McMurry’s mirrored sunglasses Friday as he and the four other members of Acoustic Syndicate entertained a large, enthusiastic crowd assembled around the State Street stage.
Beyond their audience and the glare, the band members could see more and more people filling in State Street for opening night of the 19th annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. Thousands descended on downtown as the festival kicked off its three-day run. With streets blocked to traffic, humanity moved up and down the thoroughfare, pausing to visit with friends or check out the vendors.
Early arrivals had the chance to enjoy Acoustic Syndicate, veterans of 25 years in the music business who made their bones as a jam band. Their rock and folk sounds belie the bluegrass instruments in their hands. Their signature three-part family harmony vocals provide a bedrock intertwined with precise musicianship and loads of solo breaks to show off their considerable, individual skills.
BRISTOL — All’s right in the world when Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives plug in a…
McMurry said the joy of performing is hard to describe.
“We all have career jobs, but after you get there and get to stand on stage, there is no better feeling like it in the world,” McMurry said. “It’s amazing. It’s a soulful feeling. I can’t imagine life not playing on stage.”
The Shelby, North Carolina-based band is thankful to be back in Bristol and playing Rhythm & Roots, he said. Once road warriors who performed 160 to 170 dates each year, they’ve cut back dramatically in recent years.
“We took some time off when kids started getting old enough to need full-time parents, but it’s awesome to be able to come back,” McMurry said. “It’s been a balancing act. Now we probably do 25 or 30 shows a year.”
The band hasn’t released a new album in 15 years but are “talking about” going back into the studio.
“I wouldn’t rule it out. There is a lot of material there; we’ve just got to find time to get back into the studio,” he said. “We’re taking a hard look at where we are now and where we’ll be in 2020.”
Acoustic Syndicate is primarily a family affair with Bryon’s cousin Steve McMurry on guitar and vocals, his brother Fitz on drums, Billy Cardine on dobro and Jay Sanders on bass. Sanders joined the band 21 years ago.
“It is so great as a bass player to get to slide in and support this family band,” Sanders said. “They have a deep, soulful connection, and it’s one of the greatest privileges of my life that I get to slide in and be part of it making this amazing music. It’s transcendental.”
The McMurry family has a unique connection to one of the most significant musicians in the history of country and bluegrass music. Bryon McMurry explained that his grandparents worked in a textile mill alongside a teenage Earl Scruggs before he left to tour with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys and set the world on fire with his remarkable banjo stylings.
“They would cook lunch on Sunday because they lived right across from the mill,” he said. “My grandmother, when the ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ came on, would say ‘Oh, I remember Earl. I cooked for him.’”
Acoustic Syndicate returns to the stage tonight, closing out the 6th Street stage with an 11 p.m. show. They will be preceded there by The Lil’ Smokies and Town Mountain.
Stuart and photography
Hours before Marty Stuart blazed across the Piedmont stage, the Grammy Award winner spent some time discussing his lifelong interest in photography with more than 100 people inside the Birthplace of Country Music Museum theater.
An exhibit of some of Stuart’s evocative black-and-white photographs is on display in the museum’s special exhibit area.
Stuart said he was 13 in a New York City bookstore while traveling for the first time with Flatt & Scruggs.
“There was a jazz photographer named Milt Hinton. He carried a bass in this hand and a camera in this hand,” Stuart said gesturing to his right and left. “There were these neat photographs like Ella Fitzgerald playing dice with the band, guys in the recording studio, Louis Armstrong at home with a rag around his head. He has unparalleled access to the family of jazz and, I thought, I have same access for country music.”
He began with a simple Kodak Instamatic and progressed to a Nikon, which he carried with him regularly. It remains his hobby.
“I’m a dinosaur; I still shoot film,” Stuart said. “I love it. If I see something and don’t have my camera, I’m like ‘hmm.’”
Stuart said the greatest compliment is when anyone, famous or otherwise, “lets you in” to take their photograph.
Stuart, known for a diverse musical style that blends classic country with rockabilly, gospel, bluegrass and Americana, is also a recognized historian of country music. He’s been featured extensively in the current Ken Burns “Country Music” documentary and doesn’t hide his reverence for Bristol as the birthplace of country music for the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings and the business model for paying artists that Sessions producer Ralph Peer initiated with those recordings.
“Every time I come here, it’s like coming to church,” Stuart said. “It’s a refresher course; it inspires me. I love seeing what is going on at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, and I love seeing how this town has evolved over the past 15 or 20 years with Rhythm & Roots. It’s exemplary. Any town in America could take a cue from what is happening in Bristol, and I love being a part of it.”
Saturday at BRRR
The festival kicks into high gear today with more than 100 performances. Gates open at 9 a.m., with most of the 19 outdoor and indoor stages going live around noon or 12:30 p.m. and with many stages roaring until midnight or beyond.
Saturday’s headliners include Wynonna and the Big Noise, who play at 9:30 p.m. on the Piedmont stage, following Jason Easy and Jim Lauderdale. Steep Canyon Rangers will close out the country mural stage, following Joe Mullins & his Radio Ramblers and the Darrell Scott Bluegrass Band.
Patty Griffin will close out the State Street stage with a 10:30 p.m. show. Mike Farris and Ruston Kelly are also on the evening lineup. CAAMP will headline the Cumberland Square Park stage, along with Lucy Dacus and Daniel Morgren. Longtime festival favorites Scythian closes the 7th Street stage at 11 p.m., preceded by Matt Maeson and Birdtalker.
Radio Bristol will broadcast its “Farm and Fun Time” show live from the Paramount stage, with a 7:30 p.m. show featuring Hogslop String Band, Dustbowl Revival, Green Grass Cloggers and house band Bill and the Belles.
Saturday-only tickets are $75 at the gate, with children 12 and under admitted free. Children’s day is a free activity, scheduled from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m., at Anderson Park in Bristol Tennessee. It includes games, crafts and live performances.