A young band came to the Carrboro ArtsCenter on May 4, and the 80 or so avid listeners in the audience got a big delicious taste of the famousness sure to come. The Stray Birds are a remarkable trio playing Americana music on guitars, fiddles, banjos, stand-up bass and mandolin. They write much of their own material, but also arrange classic songs by others–from really old tunes like “The Waggoner’s Lad,” to Susanna Clark’s “San Antone Rose.” That last should give you an idea of their boldness. Not that many singers want to take on a song Emmy Lou has put her indelible imprint on. Even fewer would be worthy.
The Stray Birds have quite a bit of classical music training among them, but their real influences are Appalachian mountain music, bluegrass, country, gospel and Texas swing. Maya de Vitry, who writes many of the group’s songs, cites Townes van Zandt, Iris DeMent, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Lyle Lovett, and J.S. Bach (the unaccompanied cello suites), along with poets Mary Oliver and Sharon Olds, at the top of her list. Hearing The Stray Birds two days after hearing Iris DeMent in the same venue was pretty great: The younger band’s cheerful energy, even on the sadder songs, threw a bright light on DeMent’s chronic melancholy. Iris gave a strong concert (accompanied by excellent bass man Kyle Kegerreis and hot guitar/mandolin player Jon Graboff), but The Stray Birds were far more enjoyable.
“Performing,” de Vitry told me, “is usually the happiest, most joyful part of the day.” That sentiment communicates itself. It is also easy to understand–these three have put nearly 50,000 miles on a Subaru Outback since April a year ago, when they began touring. Imagine it: three grown people, slim but tall; the bass, fatter than any of them; assorted other instruments, notebooks, laptops, and a change or two of clothes, all crammed in together, riding up and down the highways and backroads. Rarely spending two nights in the same place. Playing bars and clubs and small venues like the ArtsCenter. Writing and arranging between shows. Just getting out of the car must be a mood elevator.
The group also produces its own recordings. “There used to be a hierarchy of power,” de Vitry told me, regarding the music business, and of course, a division of labor. But The Stray Birds, following the current DIY model, do it all, with the help of Durham-based Americana Agency. Even if the music were not wonderful, their story would be inspiring. Both their EP, Borderlands, and their full-length CD, The Stray Birds, are very good, and the band played many songs from both in their show, as well as some old songs and some new material they will record later this month.
They opened their ArtsCenter show with a graceful song reminiscent of the late great George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” For The Stray Birds, love stops not at death, but when dreaming stops. They followed this up with a nice backhand: “White Words/Black Hills,” about “the calculated insult” of Mount Rushmore, then changed up to “Lay Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor,” Texas swing style, with a great guitar break by Oliver Craven and some fabulous bass slapping by Charles Muench.
The two men were in a band called River Wheel before they formed The Stray Birds with de Vitry, and it came out that they’d played at The Cave. Apparently not a happy experience. Craven noted that nobody was listening at The Cave, and couldn’t seem to get over the focused attention they were receiving at the ArtsCenter. The band made it easy to listen. They mike their instruments well, and sing together at a single microphone, stepping up and back as needed for their skin-tingling close harmonies.
The second set, like the first, was a mix of fine original songs and classics like “I Was a Stranger” (Muench noted he’d learned it from a Doc Watson record). They finished up with a really nice arrangement of the traditional “Waggoner’s Lad,” calling it “My Horses Ain’t Hungry.” It’s on the EP. Coming back, a little surprised, for an encore, they did a roof-raising version of Craven’s song, “My Brother’s Hill.” One of Craven’s big influences is Ralph Stanley, and he wrote the song thinking about what Stanley had told him about his tie to his land, and the place where his brother is buried. It is a beautiful song, with the refrain, “my body ruined, my soul will rise.” We do not have to wait for the inevitable ruin to have our spirits rise. Just put on the CD. And next time these folks come around, get your tickets early.