When the Stray Birds take the stage, the spotlight falls on three voices raised in harmony above the raw resonance of wood and strings. It is a sound drawn from the richness of American folk music traditions, spun with a stirring subtlety and grace. From bustling street corners to silent halls, their performances speak to an uncompromising reverence for songs.
Raised within a few miles of farmland from each other in Lancaster County, Pa., the Birds’ flight began with friendship. With miles of music already behind them, Maya de Vitry and Oliver Craven first shared a song in January 2010. A snowy Pennsylvania winter welcomed collaboration between the two creative flames — and inspired the collection of seven songs found on their “Borderland” EP. Grounded in the unshakeable groove of bassist Charles Muench, the trio landed their signature sound.
An ambitious touring schedule reflects their embrace of the experience of live music.
“Music exists in a time and place, not just in a digital format,” says Muench.
Reveling in the energy of each room, a connection to the audience is the essence of their show.
The Stray Birds will fly into land in Johnson City on Jan. 24 for an 8 p.m. show at the Down Home. Tickets are $14 in advance.
Their tangible passion for acoustic music is certainly a testament to three musically rich childhoods. Shortly after beginning classical violin lessons, Craven began performing on the fiddle alongside his parents in the Craven Family Band. Their repertoire of folk, bluegrass and country tunes included many of his father’s original songs. De Vitry first performed during “show & tell” in kindergarten. She strummed three chords on a tiny guitar and sang Iris DeMent’s “Our Town” — a song in frequent rotation in the family car. She took piano lessons with her grandmother, who was a gifted composer. And alongside public school violin lessons, she learned fiddle tunes from her father, who performed in several local bands. The highlight of each year was the family’s annual trip to West Virginia’s Appalachian String Band Music Festival.
Inspired by his bass-playing father, Muench started bass lessons in a public elementary school string program. As he gained fluency on this large and versatile instrument, his passion and interest in music education heightened, culminating in a music education degree from West Chester University. In the midst of this classical music education, Muench found another musical outlet — a weekly bluegrass pick in the woodshed of a nearby horse farm.
“When the bridge wasn’t out, it was only four or five miles to Joe’s house,” Muench remembers.
While his college music courses focused on the technical and theoretical aspects of music, “playing music with Joe was more about the spirit — and the social nature of music,” he said. Joe also called upon Muench to work up another skill that he would carry with him — bluegrass harmony singing.
Drawn to a region saturated by traditional music, de Vitry began her post-secondary education at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, but left after one restless semester. During her travels through Europe as a fiddling street performer, she was startled by the poetry she discovered in the songs of Townes Van Zandt and began listening to songs with fresh intent. For someone who had loved songs for as long as she could remember, “suddenly, writing songs seemed inevitable,” she says.
She spent a year and a half at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she studied under Mark Simos, Darol Anger and John McGann. She has since received national recognition for her songwriting, including a fourth-place finish in the 2011 Telluride Troubadour Competition and third place in the BMI/John Lennon Scholarship Awards.
Craven also struck a balance in his musical education. Upon graduating high school he turned down several football scholarships, picked up the mandolin and guitar, and headed to Philadelphia to attend Temple University. While studying African-American literature and history, he wrote songs, played a few open mics and began to record his original music. After three years, he realized that what he wanted to learn wasn’t within the hallways of a university, but rather along the roadways of North America.
“I can do my learning in the front seat of a Subaru while crossing state lines,” Craven says. “I listen to people I like, and then find the people they like, and then pay attention to that.”
Experience has served him well — he has logged thousands of miles, played in 40 states and four countries, and performed for honky-tonks, folk festivals and listening rooms. Along the way, he spent two years as a harmony vocalist, fiddler and guitarist for the Grammy-nominated Americana artist Adrienne Young, and one year as a member of the Virginia-based quartet The Steel Wheels.
“I think music is the best thing about our country,” Craven insists. “It is undeniable that if nothing else, we sure figured out how to make good music.”
The Stray Birds released their wholly original debut full-length album on July 21, 2012.