The Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers celebrate momentous year

Jacobs Ferry2016 promises to be a banner year for the members of the Appalachian Bluegrass band, The Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers. One highlight among many includes the band’s music appearing on some episodes of WGN America’s original series, Outsiders.

The Pittsburgh area band fresh off of a national tour, featured in Relics Magazine Summer Issue and currently performing several local gigs is simply on a roll. Recently, frontman and guitarist, Gary Antol, sat down with me to discuss Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers’ roots, life on the road and the music business in general.

What is Appalachian Bluegrass? It’s sort of old-timey, bluegrass, country, jazz and rockabilly styles all mashed into one performed with all strings. At the heart of the quartet is Gary Antol.

Gary started the first incarnation of the Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers as the Weedrags in 2010. His father taught him to play guitar at age five and he later went on to study with underground guitar legend, Rick Mals.

“Rick always brought a tablet to practice. He would always write everything down by hand. It was just the way he did things. When he went off to Berkley, he left the tablet for me and wrote a final inscription on the back page. It read, “Humility revolves around us.” That has been my core to this day,” Antol recalls.

Following his training, Gary set off to travel the world. He played Disney and Carnival Cruise ships and eventually landed a job in the stage band at Cedar Point, without an audition.

Shortly thereafter, he formed the Weedrags, where the origins of Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers would begin.

Gary first met fiddle player and vocalist, Libby Eddy, at a pool table after a gig. He was looking for a fiddle player and was a mutual friend. He had heard her play and after talking with her for two hours, Gary said, “I thought after two hours this is the girl I’m going to marry one day.”

Libby plays an amazing fiddle, with rosin dust piling up on her instrument as she has a superstition about cleaning her bow. When striking higher notes on her bow strings, she either rises to her tip toes or strike a crane pose. Her voice is perfectly suited to this quartet’s music and when she sings, time stops. Yes, she’s that talented and even won first place at the Maryland State Championship Fiddle Contest at age fifteen, among a ton of other honors in her lifetime.

Next came the banjo and Mitch Hall. Gary and Libby had known Mitch for about a year and accidentally ran into him at the Ice Jam in Butler, Pennsylvania. After hours, Mitch and a couple of other banjo pickers were playing in a hallway.

Gary recalled that session, “There were three of them. The other two were pretty good, but Mitch was on a different level, a different planet. I asked what his plans where?”

Hall replied, “Travel the country, meet chicks.”

Gary said, “How’d you like to get paid to do that?”

Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers is the first and only band Mitch has been in. He also plays clawhammer banjo, which is a finger picking style without using the picks. It’s incredibly cool to watch.

Platooning for a Bass Player, Ed Croft was the final piece. Ed had toured with national acts and bumped into Gary on a Pittsburgh street corner while in town subbing for a show. They got to talking. Antol had always been interested in working with Croft, but band poaching was not his style. Following their conversation, the two came to an agreement that if Ed could find his own replacement for his present band and give them one month’s notice, the deal would be done.

Ed plays an upright bass and I mean he plays it! Head, shoulders, arms and neck. His entire body gets into tugging at the strings. I don’t work out that hard at the gym.

With all the pieces in place and a new name, the Jacob’s Ferry Stragglers were born on October 31, 2014.

“The thing you have to go in with to understand the music industry is at every level you are expected to buy in,” Antol began our discussion about being on the road.

Jakob’s Ferry stragglers has just completed a long and successful spring West Coast swing of sixteen shows in 21 days and recently launched an East Coast swing of 27 shows through December of 2015. Some of the shows require traveling one hundred or more miles in a day, with the band leaving a show as soon it’s finished to drive through the night to make the next show.

“The money you make on the road goes back into the business. You have expenses, equipment, gas, food and a hundred other things. The cost of travel is by far the biggest expense,” Antol said.

To most of us, the thought of being on the road, seeing different cities, seems like a glamourous life… but not so fast. There is the work and the close quarters with the same people, not to mention playing to crowds that you’ve never met before in cities you’ve never been before.

Gary reaffirmed that notion, “It’s tough. There isn’t a safety net and you’re definitely out of your comfort zone. Then, there’s all that time together pent up in a car together. It’s human nature to get on each other’s nerves.”

Antol added, “The crowds, you get used to by taking all the weirdness that happens on the road and just let it explode as energy on the audience… Nothing can make the music more honest than being on the road, bringing those experiences to the work.”

With a full year under their belt, what’s next for Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers? Gary disclosed that he is working on a sort of Appalachian wedding package that will augment the touring and an upcoming project with Sony.
Story by Fred Terling for Pennsylvania Bridges