Music News & Reviews

Among the best in Americana bands, these musicians also remain socially aware

Maya de Vitry, of the Stray Birds, started finding success in music at an early age.
Maya de Vitry, of the Stray Birds, started finding success in music at an early age.

Maya de Vitry’s first kindergarten show-and-tell was an early indicator that she was not like everyone else.

“The other kids would bring in their collections of butterflies, or a hermit crab from the beach in Delaware, or whatever,” recalled the 25-year-old Stray Birds frontwoman, whose parents had already given her a junior-sized guitar and taught her a few chords.

Inspired by her hero Pippi Longstocking – “she sang songs and did math, and so I wanted to do that, too” – de Vitry took her guitar to school and stood up in front of the class. She then began playing Iris DeMent’s “Our Town,” a bleak ode to small-town mortality that her parents would sing at bluegrass “pickin’ parties” while Maya ran around catching fireflies in a jar.

“I thought it was no big deal to sing about burying your parents and wrecking your car and going to the bar,” the Lancaster, Pa., native said. “And the song has lightning bugs in it, which I could really relate to.”

School administrators weren’t so sure.

“I had to meet with the school psychologist afterward, but it was really just to figure out if maybe I should be in the first grade instead of kindergarten,” she said.

She began learning violin in third grade and met future bandmate Charlie Muench in middle-school orchestra. After returning home from college, de Vitry reconnected with Muench, who was playing around Lancaster in a bluegrass band with fellow singer and multi-instrumentalist Oliver Craven.

The three musicians were soon performing together as the Stray Birds, Muench bass, de Vitry and Craven trading off on fiddle, guitar and banjo. Their self-titled, self-released album was later named one of NPR’s 10 Best Folk/Americana Albums of 2012.

The online bible of all things Americana, “No Depression,” pegged the band as “destined for global success.”

In 2014, the three musicians again gathered around a single microphone to record the album “Best Medicine,” a collection that showcases the trio’s talent for writing songs that are thoughtful, poignant and often inspiring. The album’s title track is about a struggling record-shop owner whom the group met in Schenectady, N.Y., where General Electric was once headquartered.

“Nothing, my friend, is harder to leave,” sings de Vitry, “than the sound of a town with ambition up its sleeve.” The song ends on a positive note: “If the body is a temple, the soul is a bell / And that’s why music is the best medicine I sell.”

“The Bells,” meanwhile, was inspired by a trip to Memphis.

“We were coming around the corner from a barbecue place, and I just stopped and stared at this building I somehow knew I’d seen before,” de Vitry said. “And then we went up and saw the sign, and it was the Lorraine Motel,” where the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated.

“It was like finding yourself in a textbook,” said de Vitry, who subsequently wrote the song’s final verse: “The kingdom stands, the walls are leaning/At the edge of the water, a king is dreaming.”

The band’s socially aware side also emerges on the band’s new “Magic Fire” album, which marks the first time that Stray Birds have worked with an outside producer, three-time Grammy winner Larry Campbell. In the band members’ view, “Magic Fire” is their most collaborative recording to date, and for more than one reason.

“This is the first time our bassist has contributed his own song,” says de Vitry, “and we’ve also added a fourth member (Shane Leonard), who plays percussion, clawhammer banjo and writes songs.”

But if the Stray Birds are moving in a somewhat more eclectic direction, it’s a natural outgrowth of their diversified musical tastes.

“We all come from these string band backgrounds and these string band festivals,” said the singer-songwriter. “So what we’ve played is bluegrass and old-time music. But what we listen to is so much more than that. You know, like we listen to The Band and The Beatles and Aretha Franklin and Amy Winehouse. What we listen to … has never been limited to acoustic string band music.”

The Stray Birds Open Window Tour

When and where: 8 p.m. Thursday, May 25, at the Palms Playhouse, 13 Main St., Winters; and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 26 at Feist Wines, 15 Eureka St., Sutter Creek

Cost: $15 at the Palms; $24 at Feist Wines