- Tunnel visionaries: The Stray Birds are destined for success.
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," recalls 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," says the Lancaster, Pennsylvania native. "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."
Upon realizing she would get to skip kindergarten, Maya's course was set. 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 handled standup bass duties while de Vitry and Craven traded off on fiddle, guitar and banjo. They recorded a self-titled, self-released album which was later named one of NPR's 10 Best Folk/Americana Albums of 2012.
The band followed up with a five-song EP, The Echo Sessions, on which they covered songs by favorite artists like Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith and the Louvin Brothers.
By the time the Stray Birds played their stand-out set at last year's MeadowGrass festival, they had already performed on public radio's Mountain Stage program and been pegged by No Depression, the online bible of all things Americana, as "a band destined for global success."
Listening to the Stray Birds' gorgeous three-part harmonies and exceptional songwriting, it's easy to hear why. Maya's lead vocals conjure up images of a less Dust Bowl-obsessed Gillian Welch, or a more Dust Bowl-obsessed Natalie Merchant.
In 2014, the three musicians again gathered around a single microphone to record 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, a depressed upstate New York town where General Electric was once headquartered.
"Nothing, my friend, is harder to leave," sings Maya, "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. And then we went up and saw the sign, and it was the Lorraine Motel."
Now the site of a civil rights museum, the Lorraine was the unassuming motel seen in photos of Martin Luther King's assassination. "It was like finding yourself in a textbook," says 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."
While the Stray Birds' music is anything but depressing, there's a depth to it that suggests the kind of people who sometimes get referred to as "old souls." Which may explain the out-of-the-blue headline that appeared above the band's first NPR review: "The Stray Birds: Young, Weary and Resolute."
"I was like, 'Man, I love NPR doing this piece, but do we really sound that tired?" asks a musician who was singing about death and drinking by the age of five.
"I think we're a little less young now," de Vitry adds with a laugh, "and maybe a little more weary."