Hankins’ approach is often compared to that of Hazel Dickens and aptly so. Though Hankins has a smoother, less nasal voice than Dickens, it has that 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 seeing beauty where less attuned people fail to see it.
Think I’m kidding about that last point? In “Good” a song co-written with her musical partner, Billy Kemp, the duo muse on coal mining, Sears Roebuck, Hardshell Baptists, and banjos. The banjo wins: “And he played us a tune from the old country/and the hills, they rang with our song/God said it was good/and we knew that it was good.” Even more impressive is “McHenry Street,” a song inspired when the duo spotted kids making banners from trash can castoffs in Kemp’s native Baltimore.
Picnic in the Sky is filled with small moments that seem more sublime when stripped of glitter and hype. This time the band is bigger – David Jackson (bass, accordion), Dave Way (claps, feet), Denny Weston Jr (percussion), Dillon O’Brian (keyboards, vocals), David Keenan (steel guitar), and Craig Eastman (fiddles, fretwork), an old acquaintance of mine whose work I’ve admired for decades.
We get a veritable potpurri: “The Robin & the Banjo,” Jeni’s wedding song reworking of “Froggy Went A-Courtin;” “The Old Hotel,” and illicit love song; the dust-and-tedium-meets-dreams in “The Mill Hurries On;” and gospel refracted through Jane Eyre on “Reckoning Day.” Remember Joe Hill’s “The Preacher and the Slave?” Check out this album’s title track, a gentler shade of caustic with yellow squash and biscuits substituting for Hill’s pie, but the same hard questions about a future “heavenly reward.”
Call it “Good.” Call it authentic. Call me anytime Jeni is singing and Billy is picking and singing by her side. – Rob Weir on Picnic in the Sky, Sing Out Magazine