The Stray Birds are a young trio of musicians from Lancaster County, Pa., who have rather quickly been making a name for themselves in the roots music world. They released their first, self-titled full-length album in July 2012, and by year’s end it had made its way onto several critics’ and radio outlets’ best-of lists, including NPR Radio’s top 10 folk and Americana albums.
Listening to the record — an accomplished amalgam of bluegrass, folk, old-time and fiddle music, and acoustic country — it’s not hard to see why. It evidences the talents of a band boasting two distinct, and distinctive, songwriting voices and multi-instrumentalists in Maya de Vitry and Oliver Craven, who are joined by upright bassist Charles Muench in producing the group’s prominent three-part harmonies.
A mere handful of months prior to the album’s release, though, the band had not really even been a going concern.
“We went to the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance, a big conference in upstate New York, in November 2011,” says de Vitry, speaking by phone on a late Sunday morning. “We just had a blast, and we were so well-received by the audience and this community that we thought, wow, maybe we should do this full time!”
Before that tipping point, the Stray Birds, who come to Club Passim on Wednesday, existed in a decidedly more casual state. De Vitry knew Muench from middle- and high-school band days, but she only met Craven in early 2010, shortly after returning from the travels she had pursued in Europe after high school. “A friend of mine, and Oliver and Charlie, and one other guy were making a bluegrass album,” she recounts. “So I walked into my friend’s house, and started hanging around their recording sessions.” She and Craven discovered “an immediate connection as people that were obsessed with traveling and as fiddle players that had found their way to songwriting and were looking for an avenue or outlet for their original music in a band.”
It was, she says, “really a song-driven ‘getting to know you’ ” and it led to the first iteration of the Stray Birds. The pair played their songs for each other, started to arrange some of them, and played at open mikes in Lancaster. They recorded an EP that de Vitry describes as a very early realization of the trio (Muench added some bass work to the tracks but didn’t sing), with two songwriters that used to be just fiddle players meeting up and figuring out how to play together.
Both de Vitry and Muench left for college, and Craven went on tour full time with another band. Then their reception at Folk Alliance led them to put those commitments aside and take up the Stray Birds as a full-time endeavor. But the song-driven character of the collaboration that was there at the beginning has continued to be the watchword of the group.
“It’s really about the song for us,” de Vitry avers. “There’s no priority given to flashy solos, or quirky harmonies. We try to just serve the song in the best way that we can, whether it’s the most sparse arrangement in the world, or there’s no fiddle on this one, or there is fiddle here and this one has banjo but no guitar. We’re trying to come up with textures to support these lyrics and this music, and fit the voice into it and tell stories with each song.”
That song-centered approach is facilitated by something that the band’s coproducer Stuart Martin points to; the band recorded its first album at his studio, and is currently working on its follow-up there. Martin says that it was a real pleasure to find that the three musicians “had backbone and clarity of vision for what they wanted and then to also understand that they welcomed my input as a contributing force and not something that was ostensibly going to take over.” That’s something he also sees when the band is working together. “There’s not a lot of holding back or feeling threatened by the other person’s additions or subtractions or suggestions.”
The result is a sound that de Vitry thinks “fits with the term that’s being tossed around, ‘Americana,’ ” and she goes on to specify what that term means to her; it’s “the fusion between original music and pulling really strongly from American roots music in some way — a combination of the blues, and old-time, and bluegrass and swing, and the folk tradition.”
In turn, she thinks that that fused character of the trio’s music is what accounts for its rising success (in part — she reckons that the 60,000 or so miles logged in touring has something to do with it, too, as well as the support the group has received from noncommercial radio and elsewhere).
She notes that “people that like songs like our music. People that like bluegrass like our music because we have three-part harmonies and we use familiar instruments. People that like old-time music like our music because our melodies are not that wild; they’re simple, and kind of archaic in places, and that’s a familiar sound to those music fans. And people who like Americana music like our music because of all that stuff.”
And people who don’t like any of those types of music? De Vitry finds those sorts coming out to shows, too, because they like the sound of the Stray Birds. “That’s the part that’s really surprising, when you reach those people. That’s a thrill.”
Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.