The story of the Magnolia Collective is one of friendship, an asset that even high seas and long distance sometimes can't destroy. Daniel Snyder grew up in the Chatham County town of Siler City but moved to New Orleans after college; in 2005, he ostensibly lost everything he had in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But when he returned to North Carolina, he fell back in with friends and discovered in their camaraderie what he'd been looking for as a musician all along.
In Siler City, Snyder attended Jordan-Matthews High School with Jason Butler. They played in bands together until they headed off to college—Snyder to UNC Greensboro, Butler to Berklee College of Music in Boston. They stayed in touch but didn't make music together—that is, until Katrina chased Snyder back north.
"I evacuated and told the folks I worked with, 'See you next week,"' he remembers. "Things didn't work out that way."
Rather, Snyder's possessions were swallowed by four feet of water. He decided to make a new start back home in North Carolina. He found a job in Chapel Hill and reconnected with Butler, and they started making music together again in the alt-country act Gambling the Muse. As with a forest fire, the fresh landscape offered Snyder a chance to spread new roots.
Gambling the Muse began playing live and recording, even capturing several songs with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon in late 2006. Those tracks finally made it onto a release in 2009, the six-song EP Lo-Fi Lullaby. Continual lineup issues caused some of the lag.
"We did have a couple pretty steady folks with us, but the whole lineup changed every few nights," Butler explains, chuckling ruefully. When the wife of their long-time dobro player, Patrick Hicks, was diagnosed with a brain tumor, Hicks had to quit the band. Gambling the Muse went on hiatus, unsure how to continue without a member so central to their sound.
But sitting on a barstool in the Carrboro haunt Southern Rail, Snyder found his next move. He had heard about The Whiskey Smugglers, the band of his drinking buddy, Zach Terry. Snyder eventually checked them out and cottoned to their odd amalgamation of bluegrass and mountain-stomp rock. They struck up a friendship, helping each other out as sounding boards for musical ideas and tab holders for beer.
"So we were getting pretty hammered on whiskey at the Southern Rail, and Scott Fuller—who books the music for the place—was like, 'You guys need to get together and do something,'" Snyder remembers. Fuller even offered them a residency slot, twice a month. They had nothing to lose, so they accepted. "Zach and I were thinking this would be our fun project from our other bands; we'll pick good musicians but also people we know don't have egos."
The project didn't take long to bloom, in large part because the pressures and expectations of a "serious band" were absent. They simply wanted to play music together. Snyder and Terry recruited married couple Rich and Mimi McLaughlin, the core of the rock trio The Pneurotics. Red Collar drummer Jonathan Truesdale had played with Snyder and the McLaughlins in a Pogues cover band on St. Patrick's Day a few years before; he enlisted. So did mandolin player Andrew Mayo. Butler had been working Thursdays when the band began its biweekly residency, but he changed his schedule so he could join.
"I think we've come from different points in our lives. We all have similar backgrounds but at different moments. I played in a punk band with Daniel for a while, Andrew was into metal, but we've all kind of ended up at this place doing what all makes sense to all of us," explains Butler. "We're playing the music we want to hear. We're doing what comes naturally."
They started with covers, moving from The Jesus and Mary Chain to Gomez and Johnny Cash. Soon they slipped in a few of the standout originals from their own bands.
"The crowd kept growing and then people were asking for our original songs as much as the songs they knew that we had covered. That was when we were like, 'Maybe we're onto something here,'" Snyder says.
Butler recalls a different turning point—when the band wrote the loping, lonesome country rocker "Heartbreak, Texas." It came in a flash from a riff he'd been fiddling with in the practice room. Snyder joined in with some lyrics, and it was practically done.
"It felt like that was kind of a moment for us," he explains. "We'd written a song with everyone in the room together. It was like, 'We can do this. We can release an album. We'll have enough material that we can pursue this.'"
This summer, they recorded their seven-song debut at Snyder's apartment, turning off its single wall-mounted air conditioner each time they'd record because it made too much noise. With all the recording and musical equipment, the temperature sometimes pushed 100 degrees.
"The heat was the only trying thing about the recording," Snyder remembers. "We were troopers. Nobody ever lost their temper. There were some tears, though it was mostly just sweat."
The resulting EP, Ghost Stories, is the first fruit of a very promising collaboration. Exploring a blend of folk and country, Ghost Stories ranges from bustling bluegrass-aided rockers like star-crossed love ode "Stolen Car" to the dreamy and reflective closer, "Owls." The title, says Snyder, has less to do with the paranormal than the haunting.
"All these songs have the ghost of something like a past running through them. That's where the name came from," says Synder, who, even after losing most of his posessions in Katrina, found a fresh start with old friends and new bands.
"It's funny losing everything like that. I'd always heard stories about it, like, 'Oh my God, it's terrible, I can't imagine that.' But it's very liberating. You come to realize the things you actually need and how much baggage you end up with that you never really needed," he explains. "Hell, I could be fooling myself—perhaps you have to look at it that way to keep your shit together. But I feel I've been really lucky."
Snyder estimates that between himself and Rich McLaughlin, they have two albums of material. They're looking to spend the next couple months performing and tightening up the songs before heading into the studio this winter; apparently, the heater's a lot quieter than the air conditioner. Snyder mostly marvels at how well the band's come together with a common spirit and an interest in simply working together.
"I know a lot of bands that can't stand to practice. It's such a chore," he says. "But with this band, I think the majority of us really enjoy playing music together, and that's huge right there. If you can enjoy the time even when you have to work for something, that's really the key."