By Pat Moran
Maya de Vitry’s first performance as a guitarist got a decidedly mixed reception. “I learned three chords on this toy guitar so I could play Iris DeMent’s song ‘Our Town,’” she says. “I played it for show-and-tell in kindergarten.”
At this point in the conversation, fellow guitarist and fiddler Oliver Craven—who, along with de Vitry and bassist Charlie Muench, comprise the Stray Birds—interjects with a quip: “If you look at the lyrics of ‘Our Town,’ it’s all about sex and death. After Maya played that song, they kicked her out of kindergarten and put her in first grade.”
The guitar continued to play a role in de Vitry’s life, but she came to really love the instrument on a trip to Spain. “I was riding my bike and busking, playing the fiddle in small towns,” she says. The journey led to a beach campfire. “Someone passed me a guitar. I couldn’t speak Spanish and I couldn’t think of any songs except for ‘Oh! Susanna.’ I sang that song, and everyone loved it. They embraced the song.”
De Vitry’s chance encounter on a remote cliffside beach in Spain inspired her to focus on songwriting, with guitar as her main tool. It’s a path that led her to the Stray Birds and its four releases since 2010, the most recent being Best Medicine, on Yep Roc Records.
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The Stray Birds began in 2010 as a duo, after de Vitry returned from Spain to her hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There, she met Craven, and the two began writing and playing together at an open mic in nearby Marietta.
The pair had much in common. Both were introduced to guitars early on—Craven as a member of the family band his father, Tim, founded, and de Vitry as a participant in campfire gatherings at which her parents played bluegrass and folk songs. But neither played guitars at first. They played violins.
“I think my parents had me because they needed a fiddler for their band,” Craven says, laughing. He remembers his father “loading up the family into the back of a big blue Volvo station wagon and hitting the back roads of southeastern Pennsylvania,” playing parties and church socials. “I was a Suzuki kid,” he says, referring to the popular teaching method that stresses ear training. “It opened up a set of tools for me.”
When Craven turned to learning guitar, he put his Suzuki training to work, emulating the sounds he heard.
Like Craven, de Vitry studied classical violin, playing in school orchestras until graduation. She also attended folk and bluegrass festivals, where she learned fiddle tunes by ear. “Classical violin was very technical, while the fiddle was about the groove,” she says.
On Best Medicine, the Stray Birds employ a more sophisticated array of guitars than the toy that landed de Vitry in hot water back in kindergarten. She plays rhythm on a customized Huss and Dalton TD-M dreadnought with a red spruce top and mahogany back and sides. It’s the guitar that goes on tour with the band, but it’s not the only dreadnought the Stray Birds bring onstage.
“We also travel with my Martin D-1,” de Vitry says. “It’s got a hefty crack in it due to wear and tear from the road, but it refuses to die. It’s the secondary guitar we grab whenever we break a string on the Huss and Dalton. I just strap on the Martin and finish the set.”
Another sturdy road warrior is the Gibson Hound Dog round neck resonator that Craven plays. Like de Vitry’s Martin, the Hound Dog has earned its share of battle scars. During air transit from Glasgow to Hamburg, the neck was damaged.
“We got to Denmark to the Tonder Festival, [and] an hour before we had to play I noticed there was a crack in back of the headstock,” Craven says. “I thought, ‘Holy hell, it’s falling apart!’ We didn’t have time to fix it properly, so we put zip ties around it.
“Onstage or in the studio, I always play more than one guitar,” Craven adds. “We try to use anything.”
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The wooden-bodied Hound Dog, long since repaired, provides Craven’s wiry, slipknot break on “The Bells,” Best Medicine’s cantering ramble through a mythic southland on the cusp of cultural change. The gently rolling “Black Hills,” a sorrowful rumination on the Native American killing fields at Wounded Knee, also features a majestic, weeping lead from Craven on his Hound Dog. “That was a slide break in an open-G tuning with a porcelain slide worn on my ring finger,” he says.
The most distinctive tones on the album come from a guitar that neither de Vitry nor Craven own. “The first sound you hear on the title track is a Republic steel-bodied, parlor-sized resonator,” Craven says. He found it in the studio when the band was recording. “It added rich textures,” he says, pointing to the plaintive, pointillist figure that entwines with de Vitry’s delicate fingerpicking on “Never for Nothing,” a dusky paean to hope and heartbreak.
The Stray Birds will be expanding their instrumental arsenal even more for their next album. De Vitry is already writing on her Martin D-1, but she’s putting money aside to get a smaller Martin or Gibson, “something more compact and easier to caress than the dreadnought.”
Craven is composing on a Mule, a steel-bodied resophonic guitar that he had custom built for him by luthier Matt Eich. “It’s a single-cone body, but he put a tri-cone in it,” Craven says. “It has a great tone, and writing on it has been inspiring.”
De Vitry finds songwriting inspiration in the act of playing. She recalls her childhood hootenannies with her parents, and that seaside epiphany in Spain: “My relationship with the guitar is really simple,” she says. “I still get a lot of joy in just strumming the chords and singing songs for people late nights around a campfire.”