The Stray Birds, photo by Jake Jacobsen
In a lot of ways, The Stray Birds and Wild Ponies are alike. Both are hard-touring folk music trios that revolve around the music partnership between one man and one woman. They boast classic folk harmonies, acoustic basses and feral fauna monikers. And they use similar instruments to play a similar sort of music — to the point where you might be forgiven for confusing the two.
However, this surface comparison really speaks more to the problem of the wide umbrella of sounds and styles that get tagged as Americana than to the two bands’ resemblance to one another. The Stray Birds (who play Isis Restaurant & Music Hall on Saturday, March 22) work in a contemporary bluegrass paradigm. They ably employ a large arsenal of acoustic instruments — including fiddle, banjo, upright bass and a variety of acoustic guitars — to tackle heartfelt originals steeped in tradition as well as choice covers by the likes of Bob Wills and Townes Van Zandt. The Wild Ponies (who perform at 185 King Street in Brevard, also on March 22) are a country-rock project underpinned by many years on the folk circuit. They perform in a more conventional style, focused on original songs with a rustic twang.
Their stories are also a bit different. The Stray Birds, formed in Lancaster, Penn., but recently relocated to Asheville, originated with a few friends. Co-leaders Maya de Vitry and Oliver Craven, as well as bassist/singer Charles Muench, grew up within miles of each other but had already traveled the world playing music before their partnership took form. The band’s self-titled and self-released effort in 2012 won rave plaudits, landing a place on NPR’s top 10 folk albums list and sending the trio around the country in support of it.
Craven, fresh off a winter tour in the United Kingdom, describes a “collective idea of what The Stray Birds should sound like” that gives the group a sense of purpose. “Everything we end up playing, we spend a lot of time working on,” he says. “We’ve had songs take different life forms several times before we figure how it is supposed to be done.”
Wild Ponies, photo by Warren Swann
This is true even of their new all-covers EP, which Craven says was recorded “right around the last time we were at Isis. We went into Echo Mountain Recording Studio and just did five songs we loved.” The EP not only pays tribute to some of the band’s favorite songs in the roots music canon, it also captures the effortless and impassioned feel of their live show. Plus, it includes Muench’s first lead vocal turn on record, on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #7.”
In contrast, Wild Ponies are more of a calculated effort to electrify the tested husband-and-wife duo of Doug and Telisha Williams. The two had previously performed as a stripped-down folk act, with Telisha on bass and Doug on guitar. They scraped by in a broken-down RV on the strength of no-fuss recordings and dogged work ethic. Wild Ponies, with drummer Jake Winebrenner, is a reboot of that earlier identity.
Renamed and working with an established producer in Ray Kennedy (Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams) for the first time, the Williamses’ new album teems with electric guitars, pedal steel and ferocious fiddle work from a host of studio aces. The songs have an alt-country grit and heft that feel startlingly fresh.
The songwriters brought in some of the darkest and most emotionally charged material they had ever written. “I think a lot of it had to do with moving to East Nashville [from Virginia] in 2011,” says Telisha. “Our writing has gotten a lot better. We’ve been pushed to write more honest and truthful material.”
That lyrical bent is partly what inspired the new sound, according to the bassist/singer. “There’s a lot of emotional content in these songs, so it felt right to get as much energy in [the arrangements] as we could,” she says.
Many of these tunes, like “Trigger” or “The Truth Is,” are related to Telisha’s experience of child abuse, something she has only recently become comfortable talking about. “After the Penn State [incident], I realized that the handling of [cases] of child abuse can exacerbate the trouble of the victim,” she says. “It can almost be worse than the actual trauma.”
It’s on these songs where the power of the new instrumentation is most fully utilized, drawing on Kennedy’s past work with Lucinda Williams and the feisty new breed of female country stars like Miranda Lambert and Brandy Clark. Meanwhile, Doug’s efforts here demonstrate a keen adeptness at the Texas roots-rock of folks like Joe Ely or Robert Earl Keen.
Telisha says the band feels lucky to be playing listening rooms like 185 King Street: “I don’t think we had much of a different vision for [our career] than this when we started out.”
WHO: The Stray Birds
WHERE: Isis Restaurant & Music Hall
WHEN: Saturday, March 22, at 9 p.m. $8 advance/$10 at the door
WHO: Wild Ponies
WHERE: 185 King Street in Brevard
WHEN: Saturday, March 22, at 8 p.m. $10 members/$15 nonmembers