The challenge for any band pursuing a Folk/Bluegrass direction these days is finding the balance between serving tradition by upholding the genres’ established blueprint and updating that well-worn plan by way of a contemporary perspective infused with fresh and perhaps unexpected influences.
Nickel Creek certainly blazed new trails for modern Bluegrass proponents, and The Stray Birds have invested their faithful sound with a similarly fresh outlook. Look no further than the title track of the Birds’ just released sophomore album, Best Medicine, a song about a small-town record store that sports this achingly wonderful sentiment: “If the body is a temple, the soul is a bell, and that’s why music is the best medicine I sell.”
The Lancaster, Pa., trio — vocalists/multi-instrumentalists Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven and Charlie Muench — began years ago with a Bluegrass band called the River Wheel, featuring Craven and Muench. Craven met de Vitry independently, unaware that she and Muench had been in middle school orchestra together, and the two began playing open mics and busking before recording an EP in 2010 with Muench guesting on bass.
A year later, the trio reconvened after following separate paths, formed The Stray Birds and recorded and self-released their eponymous debut album in 2012. The album was a critical sensation, scoring a slot on National Public Radio’s Top 10 Folk/Americana releases of the year and earning the band invitations to the Kerrville and Falcon Ridge Festivals.
After last year’s Echo Sessions EP, a set of covers by the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith and The Louvin Brothers, Craven and de Vitry wrote an album’s worth of original material inspired by their two-plus years of road experiences. The resulting Best Medicine is a showcase of the trio’s potent harmonic gifts as well as their love of Bill Monroe, The Carter Family, The Beatles and The Band, among others.
If you shiver at the idea of Heartless Bastards’ Erika Wennerstrom and Steve Earle playing Folk/Bluegrass with a melodic Pop undercurrent, The Stray Birds have a spoonful of the best medicine for you.
THE STRAY BIRDS play at Southgate House Revival Tuesday, Dec. 2. Find tickets/more info here.