There seems to be an influx of new young bands that blur the lines between bluegrass and old-time music. The Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers, a southwestern Pennsylvania quartet that emerged from the remnants of a self-described “Appalachian power trio” called The Weedrags, manages to carve out their own turf along this stylistic borderland on their debut recording The Lane Change.
Part of what makes their sound distinctive is the contrast between Mitch Hall’s clawhammer banjo, featured and mixed as high as a bluegrass banjo, and the fluid flatpicking guitar and mandolin breaks of the presumed lead singer Gary Antol. Fiddler Libby Eddy steps out occasionally on lead vocals, most notably on the two most familiar cover songs on this CD, “No Ash Will Burn” and “Blue Diamond Mines,” while her fiddling sounds much more at home in the context of old-time tunes like “Whiteface” and “Sandy Boys.” Bassist Ed Croft gives a crisp and bouncy foundation throughout the album, including when the group veers off into the territory of raggy swing, as on “Jangly Jack” and “Beaumont Butler’s Blues,” the latter complete with an extensive and uncredited segue into “Beaumont Rag.”
When a band is staking out a musical claim, it helps to have good original material, and it appears that half of the dozen tracks on this CD are band compositions, apparently by Antol. (Have I mentioned that the liner note credits are lacking a few helpful details?) The songs have a nice way of telling offbeat stories while hewing to the format of a traditional structure, whether on the dysfunctional family saga of “Old Red Hill” or the inevitable life-on-the-road references of “Checkmate.” Given that most of the originals featured here are up-tempo and rollicking, the album’s closing song, “Scattered Pieces,” leaves the deepest and most lingering impression, as Antol paints a thoughtful picture without using as many primary colors as on his other songs.
The Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers are a daring and talented young bunch, and I can only hope that they manage to reach out and unite the bluegrass and old-time communities as easily as their music does. (Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers, P.O. Box 115, Stockdale, PA 15483, www.jakobsferry.com.)HK