Richly layered vocals are a hallmark of bluegrass, from inimitable sibling harmony groups like the Stanley Brothers and Santa Cruz’s own Coffis Brothers on through to roots supergroups like I’m With Her. Rafter-raising harmonies are also heard throughout gospel music, and folk music is designed to be harmonized to, providing space for everyone to jump in and sing along.
The Stray Birds fit nicely in the long, rich tradition of American roots harmony. A three-piece originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the band members lay their voices on top of one another to create a sound that’s tight, pure and timeless. All three take song crafting duties very seriously, making sure they get even the smallest details right.
“We’re a band that has a three-headed monster approach,” says bassist and banjo player Charlie Muench, explaining that the vocal arrangements play a big role in setting the trio apart from the sea of singer-songwriter groups. “We take a lot of time to craft the music and have it be something that can resonate with people—the actual music and also the message in the music and the craft of it.”
The band, comprising Muench and singer-songwriters Maya de Vitry and Oliver Craven, was formed in 2012, but Muench and de Vitry’s friendship goes back to middle school, where the two were in the school band together. Though all three have moved out of Lancaster and now live in Brooklyn and Nashville, their hometown roots come through in their music, as they explore small-town life in post-industrial America.
In 2016, the Stray Birds won Song of the Year at the Folk Music Alliance’s International Folk Music Awards for “Best Medicine,” a song about a record store in Saskatchewan, New York, that, with the area’s fading industry and economic struggles, was holding on for dear life. The song, which was written by de Vitry and appears on the Stray Birds’ album of the same name, is a snapshot of the town that speaks to the importance of art and music, even when times are hard. It’s a tribute to a man named Kurt Hellijas, who had unfulfilled ambitions to be a music teacher, and now owns the record store.
“Kurt was carrying on his passion in this place where there’s no economics for this sort of thing, and he’s doing it anyway,” says Muench. “The whole Best Medicine record is sort of dedicated to him. He gave it a vision.”
For years, the Stray Birds has been a folk and roots trio. On the band’s new release, titled Magic Fire, however, the members stretched their musical bounds. They brought in electric instruments and drums, layered tracks in the studio and pushed the Stray Birds sound into a new arena. They also brought in producer Larry Campbell, who has worked with Bob Dylan and Levon Helm, to help them go beyond simply reflecting what the band does on stage. The experience, says Muench, was “way beyond what we were expecting or thought was possible.”
“The studio is an instrument, just like the bass or guitar or voice is an instrument,” he says. “The possibilities are so great. We were trying to open up to that and try something that was a little bit more experimental in nature. Larry just kept saying, ‘Don’t limit the scope of what anything can be in the studio.’”
Of working with Campbell, Muench says he “bent things in a way that we wouldn’t necessarily have done,” and that “he’s the dude you want in there trying to create with you.”
While the album marks a stylistic change for the Stray Birds, what shines through is a commitment to crafting the melodies, instrumentation and harmonies down to the smallest detail.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘precious,’” says Muench, “but it’s so important to us to get the music right. That ambition and care and urgency is very easy to feel and see.”
The Stray Birds will perform at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 24 at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $10/adv, $15/door. 479-1854.