Meet Jeni & Billy
"There are two kinds of music – the blues and Zip A Dee Doo Dah. That's what Townes Van Zandt said. But there is a third kind, which finds the best parts of both of those kinds of music and turns it into something seamlessly American and wonderful. That third kind is Jeni & Billy music."
That's the assessment of Grammy-nominated songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Dillon O'Brian, who co-produced "Picnic in the Sky," the latest studio recording from the Appalachian folk duo.
For the first time in their eight-year partnership, Jeni & Billy recorded with a full band — a crack group of Los Angles-based musicians assembled by O'Brian and Grammy-winning co-producer, Dave Way.
The result is a sparkly new sheen on the impeccable storytelling and musicianship that fans expect from Jeni & Billy. But the deep Appalachian roots of the music shine through.
Novelist Lee Smith says, "Jeni and Billy's stunningly original music is as old as the hills, yet brand new at the same time. Jeni is a true poet and a born storyteller, through and through -- many of her songs contain whole novels."
"Like their other records, it's organic and raw," Maverick Magazine writer Hazel Davis says. "Jeni's voice still falters beguilingly and the duo's synergy is still very much audible. This new disc is a special treat for Jeni & Billy fans, but will be a classy introduction for the uninitiated."
Jeni Hankins spent every summer of her childhood in the Southwest Virginia homes of her grandmothers — and every summer Sunday in the pews of the Friendly Chapel Church.
“My grandmother’s church was Pentecostal," Jeni says. "People spoke in languages I didn’t understand, they believed in a fire that did not burn, they fell down in the floor, and they sang. They sang loudly and passionately. Their singing got under my skin because it wasn’t for prettiness or show -- they were hollering their story up to God with every ounce of their being. To me this is singing and this is songwriting -- to shout the story of life as an urgent message to the beyond.”
“Hankins’ approach is often compared to that of Hazel Dickens (1925-2011) and aptly so,” Rob Weir of “SingOut!” magazine writes. “Though Hankins has a smoother, less nasal voice than Dickens, it has the same born-in-the-bone twang – the kind you don’t get by dressing up country and scouring songbooks. Hankins also grew up in the same contiguous coal mine region that spawned Dickens, and with the same sensibilities: an appreciation for the grace of ordinary people, mountain gospel music, support for miners’ unions, and a gift for finding beauty where less attuned people fail to see it.”
Billy Kemp's schooling in the traditions of mountain music took place in the mill village of Ellicott City, Maryland, among Appalachian migrants who had come to escape the mines and work in the mills, bringing their fiddles and banjos with them. Billy listened and learned becoming a versatile instrumentalist who can soar in any style from Rockabilly to Indian ragas.
"Jeni's songs spring from the true vine,” said Mary Smith, Director of the Richmond (VA) Folk Music Society. “Billy is the perfect partner, skillfully accompanying Jeni with guitar, banjo and harmonies. These two are tradition bearers -- the next generation of traditional music.”
That Southwest Virginia catch in Jeni’s voice blends perfectly with Billy's finely tuned vocal harmonies. Jeni’s solid rhythmic playing provides a solid bed for Billy's syncopated and gorgeously melodic guitar and banjo solos and fills.
As producer Dave way puts it, Jeni & Billy are "the sweetest, most down to earth, good people making music just like that. Their roots run deep and sprout the most fragrant flowers."