Folks Festival Flight of Fancy: The Stray Birds Reach for the Sky

It's not their first trip to Lyons, Colorado, but Oliver Craven, Maya de Vitry and Charles Muench are preparing a feel-good story for first-class delivery to the three-day Rocky Mountain Folks Festival this week.

While camping together during the three-day event in 2012, they were there, like other fellow folkies with adventurous spirits, to soak in the rays and vibes of some of Americana's most recognizable names -- including Amos Lee and Lyle Lovett -- who performed that year.

Now the three of them are back -- but for the first time together on a festival stage in Colorado -- as the Stray Birds. And they have something special planned for the Lyons community during their set that begins at 12:15 p.m. Saturday (Aug. 16).

If festivarians aren't already familiar with the Stray Birds, they soon will be. But many in town for the Aug. 15-17 event probably already know de Vitry, who performed an in-the-round session at the Wildflower Pavilion two years ago as one of the 10 finalists in the Songwriting Showcase that was won by Robby Hecht.

That same summer, the group, still a bunch of baby birds, released their self-titled full-length debut, which included six songs written by de Vitry, five by Craven.

Officially adopting their name earlier in 2012, it didn't take long for the Stray Birds to take off. "We were almost the May Birds," de Vitry revealed over the phone in July from Portland, Oregon, where she was attending a wedding with her family.

As kindred spirits, de Vitry and Craven shared the same birth month, along with a passion for singing, playing fiddle and guitar, songwriting (mostly on their own) and bluegrass music. But when Craven saw the word "stray" written on a shoebox in a friend's home in Richmond, Virginia, the name stuck for three like-minded individuals from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who have been on an endless search to find themselves since graduating from high school.

Even before she was a musician, de Vitry found the open road enticing, going on family trips as a teenager to life-changing music events such as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in southwest Colorado (where she witnessed the wonders of the Duhks and Gillian Welch) and the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in upstate New York. Closer to home, her compulsion to start writing songs was cranked up in 2008, the year of her high school graduation.

Meeting Kevin Wimmer of the Red Stick Ramblers and Nicky Sanders of the Steep Canyon Rangers while taking fiddle classes in North Carolina suddenly convinced her that making music might be an enjoyable way to make a living.

"They were so approachable," said de Vitry, who now lives in Asheville, North Carolina. "They just seemed so joyful about what they were doing. And I'll never forget that."

Though Muench and de Vitry went to Landisville Middle School and Hempfield High School together and played in the orchestra, it was the two guys who first started a bluegrass boy band of brothers called River Wheel.

Craven, who was a couple of years older than Muench and de Vitry and went to a different high school (Ephrata), already knew about life on the road as Adrienne Young's fiddle player, which included a 2008 visit to RockyGrass in Lyons.

"I was just beginning to travel a great deal as a professional musician and those trips really cemented Lyons as a special place for me," Craven wrote in an email.

It was there the previous year that Craven said he befriended Lyons musician KC Groves, and he joined her band the Dangerfields for a brief tour in 2008.

During that time, de Vitry said she was "backpacking and biking around Europe and just playing fiddle in the street, barely making a living busking," while most nights her accommodations involved "pitching tents alongside of the road." But when she returned home and visited a high school friend in December 2009, "something really clicked" as de Vitry watched River Wheel work on a recording project.

"I just remember that we connected so well because we were both fiddle players," de Vitry said of Craven. "That was kind of our first identity, I think, as to what we could contribute to any musical setting."

Members of River Wheel cordially went their separate ways shortly after participating in a band contest at DelFest -- "Maybe if they would have won ... they'd still be playing," de Vitry joked -- but the early birds were hatching another idea.

By then, de Vitry and Craven felt like their voices -- her smooth Gillian Welch warble, his rugged Steve Earle growl -- complemented each other. With their mutual admiration for formidable folksy storytellers such as Townes Van Zandt ("Loretta" is a Craven favorite that's a set list fixture), the writing was on the wall.

A 2010 EP called Borderland included only seven sparse tracks, and Muench's upright bass barely makes an appearance, but the seed was sown.

And the presence of something hopeful was found in "Birds of the Borderland," a song with the telling line "I know what it means to fly free." De Vitry wrote it "as a gift to my grandmother," whose husband died in the Montana crash of a small plane he was bringing home from Washington state.

"I think that songwriting was a way that I began to finally find a way to process some things," de Vitry said. "I couldn't believe I had found this way to communicate with people. It wasn't quite like sitting down and looking them in the eye and speaking, but you could write something for someone specifically and it could mean something for a lot of people. And that's what writing that song taught me. ... She loves it, but it's really spoken to a lot of people."

Still, the Stray Birds didn't stay together initially. De Vitry enrolled at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, then said she soon lost her motivation and focus for learning to play "in that context."

Meanwhile, Muench was trying to earn a music degree at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Craven, who had earlier dropped out of Temple University as a liberal arts major, performed for a while with Virginia's Steel Wheels.

The Stray Birds, from left: Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven
and Charles Muench. (Photo by Jake Jacobsen)

It was January 2012 when de Vitry believes the Stray Birds finally emerged, which led to turning a spare room in the house of Muench's parents into a rehearsal space.

"We were like, 'OK, we all just left some significant commitments behind. Should we try to make a record together? And see where we're at because we haven't really played together in a little while,' " she recalled. "And we worked up the songs in the same way that we had ... in the same spirit that Oliver and I had (while) hanging out two years before that, just trading songs back and forth."

While searching for "stray birds" on the Internet to make sure the name wasn't already taken by another roots act, the group came across a collection of poems written by India's Rabindranath Tagore, who composed the independent national anthem of his homeland and was the Nobel laureate for literature in 1913.

De Vitry, still touched by what she found, recited during this interview the first poem she read in the Stray Birds collection:

Stray birds of summer come to my window to sing and fly away. And yellow leaves of autumn, which have no songs, flutter and fall there with a sigh.

"It really seemed to fit with what we were doing," she said.

Three birds of a feather consumed by wanderlust were certainly ready to flock together.

"We love music enough to get in the Subaru Outback and travel for weeks on end and get out and sing and have little connection to a hometown for long periods of time and kind of give up a lot of the stability that people have when they're working out of the same town every day," de Vitry said.

That strong urge to roam from home will be represented in a whole new batch of upcoming songs "written in the context of traveling in the band," some of which the Stray Birds plan to play at the Folks Festival this week.

At the time of this interview, de Vitry was hesitant to share details about their next album, to be released Oct. 21, and their impending deal with a record label. On July 31, it was officially announced that the group will make its Yep Roc Records debut with Best Medicine.

"We had to be really patient with the process because I think that this band really cares about the people we choose to work with and just their passion," she said before the announcement. "We knocked on a couple doors. It was pretty evident to us who we wanted to work with in the end."

Their second full-length album was recorded at Stonebridge Studios in Leesburg, Virginia, at the home of Stuart Martin, their engineer and co-producer.

Muench, who previously provided his brawny vocals on only one Stray Birds track (Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel #7" on their 2013 Echo Sessions EP of covers), will turn the traditional song "Make Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor" on its head.

"The Gillian (Welch) and David (Rawlings) version, it's kind of a lullaby," said de Vitry, who first bonded with Craven when they sang that song in January 2010. "Our's is more of like a swing tune or something." (laughs)

If de Vitry is involved in a personal relationship with either of her bandmates, the woman caught in the middle isn't saying. "The only way that we answer that question is that we'd like you to know that we're all very romantic people," she calmly offered. "We're a very romantic band."

De Vitry and Craven did finally write a song together, though, called "Feathers & Bone."

Their shared friendship with Ana Egge, who recently turned down a chance to be a member of the Duhks, provided Craven with the original spirit and inspiration behind the song, de Vitry said, adding, "And since we both know her and know her songs and love her as a friend, I think we were really able to access the same river of inspiration or something (laughs) to write the song and finish it together."

Yet it's the title track, which de Vitry wrote while thinking about a struggling record shop owner in Schenectady, New York, that will have special meaning as one voice in 2012 grows to three for this week's return to Lyons, a community devastated by last September's floods.

Delivered in stunning three-part harmony, the chorus for what de Vitry said is "gonna be our song that we sing for Lyons, Colorado" concludes with:

If the body is a temple / The soul is a bell / And that's why / Music is the best medicine I sell

With sentiments like those, expect a migrating group of Stray Bird watchers to get on board.

The co-founder of the Stray Birds was unable to participate in the interview, but did answer a few folk-related questions via email. Some excerpts:

Who are a couple of your folk heroes and what attracted you to them?

"Townes Van Zandt is one for the whole band. For me it was the song 'To Live's to Fly.' I'd heard 'Pancho and Lefty' before, and a few other songs too, but it wasn't until I learned that song that I realized how great a writer he was. No other four verses describe life to me any better. They make me laugh and they make me cry. ... I also came from a family band and my parents are a big window into folk history for me. Whether it was singing one of his own great songs, or covering Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Hank Williams and plenty of others, my dad Tim introduced me to many of my folk heroes, so he's gotta be one. too."

What musicians performing at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival are you looking forward to seeing and why?

"Randy Newman first of all. I love the apparent fearlessness he posseses to write and communicate whatever it is he's thinking, and the apparent ease with which he does it. He is a legend. Newer acts that have me excited are some that I've met and heard like Josh Ritter, Lake Street Dive and John Fullbright. Others that I've only begun to discover include Hurray For The Riff Raff and Brandi Carlile. It might not be as much a part of pop culture anymore, but people who think great music is a thing of the past are far from the mark."

Do you consider yourself to be a folk musician? If so, what qualities are essential to become a successful folk singer/musician?

"Being a folk musician is a part of who I am, yes. But musically I hope I'm more than just that. My inspirations come from a lot of different places. Sometimes it's as simple as the sound of the music itself that brings me to do what I do. Tone is identity and I want to contribute value to the population. ... As far as qualities essential to becoming a successful folk musician, I don't know 'em. I don't know if there actually is such a thing. I do know, however, that if all of the bands on this bill are 'folk' bands, that we're happy to be included in the genre.

Publicity photo by Doug Seymour. This series previewing the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival concludes Friday.