Too Close To The Ground
Between a years long break from the studio and a year of performance lost to the pandemic, Acoustic Syndicate’s reemergence as recording artists has proceeded in ways that inevitably mirror the world in which they live.
When a legacy group like Acoustic Syndicate returns to the studio for the first time in years, it’s almost guaranteed that the result will be a diverse collection of songs that have been waiting for their chance to be recorded and devoured by long time fans. Sure enough, the Western North Carolina group's first three singles of the year ranged across a good portion of their musical spectrum, from the signature sound with thoughtful original writing of “Sunny”, to the joyously danceable Grateful Dead cover, “Bertha", to the irresistible blend of social critique and smooth groove embodied in the most recent, “Simple Dream.”
Yet though the group’s live performances are famed for their ability to inspire throngs of dancing fans, here the music serves a higher purpose, supporting a narrative that unfolds as a study of humanity in crisis yet revels in the glimpse of a way forward, too. “Are you helpless? There’s no digging out from where you dug in,” Bryon grimly observes; “Gone are the selfless, as big egos shovel their big feelings in.” Still, each time the song turns to its more melodic chorus, a more hopeful note emerges. “To live a dream of love in the world, We’ve lived here before, oh but it’s been a while,” the lyric wistfully offers. “To dream of love in the world, a beautiful thing — a simple dream of love.” “I’ve had this idea for some time,” Bryon says. “It’s somewhat of a plea for humanity, broken down to be as straightforward of a message as can be, Love. Love is better than hate.”
Now the group, known for its uninhibited jamming and instrumental pyrotechnics, reveals yet another facet of its musical personality with a subtle, almost subdued yet deeply soulful version of the anthemic Willie Nelson ballad, “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground.” Blending the country accents of acoustic guitar with hushed organ tones that nod to rhythm and blues, the group's lead singer and guitarist Steve “Big Daddy” McMurry, brothers Bryon (guitar) and Fitz (drums) McMurry, bassist Jay Sanders and guest vocalist Aaron “Woody” Wood offer an interpretation that honors and acknowledges Nelson’s original (check out the Willie-esque start and end to the guitar solo at the track’s center) yet places an unmistakable Acoustic Syndicate stamp on the effort.
“I have always been, and will always be a devoted and loyal follower and fan of Willie Nelson,” confesses Steve McMurry. “We got to meet Willie and hang out with him some when we played Farm Aid way back in 2001. He was so humble, gracious and just a true gentleman in every regard and made us feel so welcome and a full on part of the event.
“I first heard ‘Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground’ in the 1981 movie, Honeysuckle Rose,” McMurry recalls. “I was at home by myself while my parents were away for the weekend. We had HBO, which my parents were NOT so much in love with, for reasons of uncensored and unbridled exposure to the real world. But anyway... I do remember, clearly... chills and goosebumps when the second verse came around. I loved it immediately, and have ever since. I was just sixteen years old, and only beginning to explore my own musicianship and learning to play guitar. As a full-on wanna-be member of the new Outlaw Movement, I was already a fan of Willie, but something about ‘Angel’ hit me hard.
“I began performing the song in my solo shows about ten or twelve years ago. I always take a moment to share with my audience the absolute genius of just how expansive and grand a story Willie tells, with really no more than two verses. There's not even a chorus. Just two verses. To me this is just amazing. So this is my tribute to Willie.
“We had intended from the beginning to cover some of our heroes on this project,” he adds. “When we were discussing options for material, Jay suggested I do ‘Angel,’ and it took me maybe two seconds to decide. I have always wanted to do this song as a duet with someone, so when the opportunity came, It was clear to me, ‘We gotta get Woody on this.’ It was the obvious choice, and I’m grateful to Woody for helping me out.
“So,” the singer concludes, “I do this song out of respect, with humility and with a heart full of gratitude to one of my all time greatest influences and greatest heroes, Mister Willie Nelson.”