Picnic in the Sky - Jeni & Billy's Third Full-Length Studio Album

Picnic in the SkyFollowing in the footsteps of Hazel Dickens, Sarah Ogan Gunning, and Jeanne Ritchie, Jeni Hankins is a true heiress to the Mountain Music Crown

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.

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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

SWEET SONG COMING 'ROUND - Jeni & Billy's First Live Album

Sweet Song Coming 'Round CoverWhen they headed out west in the Spring of 2012, Jeni & Billy made all the usual tour preparations: changed the oil in the Jeep, packed up the Airstream with food and clothes, and filled the Jeep with instruments and CDs. Then they did something new. They packed up the equipment from their home recording studio and took it on the road.

It was an experiment: to see whether they could capture not just the songs, but the stories that make a Jeni & Billy live performance so unique.

Thousands of miles and a dozen gigs later, back home in East Nashville, they sat down on the sofa, fired up the studio speakers, and started listening. And listening. And listening. For days, and weeks, and months . . . selecting the very best live performances they had managed to capture.

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The result is Sweet Song Coming 'Round, a two CD album of stories and song (and even a little flatfoot dancing). If you've ever left a Jeni & Billy concert wishing you could here those stories one more time -- or, if you love Jeni & Billy's music but have never seen them perform live -- this CD is for you.

Old favorites from Jewell Ridge Coal and Longing for Heaven, along with a raft of never-before released numbers, all wrapped in the warm quilt of Jeni & Billy storytelling -- it's the next best thing to attending a live show.

LONGING FOR HEAVEN

Recorded in the dead of winter at a borrowed cabin in the Carolina mountains, Longing for Heaven has that Jeni & Billy sound through and through — sparse, emotional, and sincere Appalachian Folk. Like the small cabin where they recorded it, the record has an intimate feel, and their songs ask intimate questions about that most intimate of places — home. Home on Earth and home in Heaven.

Shad Cobb guests on fiddle while the duo handle the other instruments including guitar, banjo, mandolin, harmonica, and acoustic bass guitar. Like their Jewell Ridge Coal, Longing for Heaven features live vocals and instruments recorded in complete takes with minimal overdubs to capture that “sitting in the living room at home” feel. Nicole Levitz (Feminist Review) writes, “They sound so natural together, it feels calming and clear. It’s as if you were there sitting on a back porch in old-timey South and they were right there with you and just stumbled upon some instruments.”

Buy Now This ten-track CD includes four traditional songs: one from the Sacred Harp tradition and the others learned at fiddler’s conventions and from Dr. Ralph Stanley and Dry Branch Fire Squad records. The traditional song “Fond Affection” is recreated with additional lyrics and a new melody with a sad and delicate banjo lead. The other five songs are originals.

Southern writer Lee Smith, says she needs a mountain to rest her eyes against. An homage to Smith’s novels, “The Ballad of Sally Kincaid” asks the age-old question of whether you can go home again and what a woman will bear to be near “the mountain she loved best.”

“Father Will You Meet Me in Heaven” tells the true life story of Jack Cash, Johnny’s brother, who brought his father to Jesus while he lay dying of a saw-blade wound.

Written in the style of the old Carter Family songs, “While I Stay at Home and Weep” takes the age-old story of a woman waiting for her ramblin’ lover and stands it on its head.

In “If I Ever Get Ten Dollars” the railroad hobo lays out all his plans to “quit this railway car” and settle down — if he can just find the dough to buy a suit, a ring, and some land.

Jeni & Billy met UMWA President, Cecil Roberts, at the unveiling of a miner’s memorial in Cumberland, KY, after which he invited them to play at his 2010 inauguration. Struck by Roberts’ fiery speeches and his devotion to Martin Luther King, Jr and Jesus, Jeni & Billy wrote “Cecil Roberts’ Hand” in his honor.

PRETTY FAIR MISS

Pretty Fair Miss was created for The Great Fabric Exchange. This year Jeni & Billy are remembering old-time barter days on their tour by trading a three song EP, Pretty Fair Miss, for a piece of fabric. At the end of their tour in November, Jeni will be using the fabric to make a Trip Around the World Quilt at the John C. Campbell Folk School. To learn more about the fabric exchange and how to get a physical copy of this CD, visit www.thelittleyellowsewingbox.com

Pretty Fair Miss includes three songs: 

Henry Lee, The Scotland Man, a traditional song. Our version is adapted from several sources including the Dick Justice from the Anthology of American Folk Music and George Landers from High Atmosphere. We’ve added a few of our own lyrical touches too. We recorded Henry Lee, The Scotland Man, in a borrowed cabin in Western NC in December of 2008. We wanted to have that old sound of the Carter Family that was captured when Ralph Peer had them sing into a horn at the Bristol Sessions in 1927. So, I taped together a couple of large cans and we sang through them into two stereo microphones. You can see a video of our process as a special feature on our new CD Longing for Heaven (due out at Easter 2010).

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The Tazewell Beauty Queen, an original song. I wrote this song for my uncle Roy Lee Smith. We released it as part of our Jewell Ridge Coal record and it was number five on the Folk DJ Chart in October of 2008. Uncle Roy Lee was one of the few Smith men that did not become a coal miner. But he did work one summer in the mines in order to get himself a new car, so that he could get dates with all the girls from Jewell Ridge. I thought as long as he had a new car, he should have a beauty queen to go in it.


Pretty Fair Miss, a traditional song. Billy and I often close our live shows with this a capella ballad. I learned this song from ballad singer and banjoist Sheila Kay Adams at the Blue Ridge Old Time Music Week at Mars Hill College in Asheville, NC. Sheila Kay teaches by singing. You listen and learn. She won’t write the song out for you nor will she allow you to write out the song. You just have to put in the time. I taught Pretty Fair Miss to Billy in the car on our way to a duet singing contest at the Laurel Bloomery Fiddler’s Convention. We wrote the final verse to sum things up and give us a nice opportunity to close the song together.

JEWELL RIDGE COAL

Jewell Ridge Coal chronicles the changing fortunes of the Southwest Virginia coal mining community of Jewell Ridge. Though the subject is regional, the songs are meant to present universal themes -- earth & heaven, rich & poor, love & loss, work & rest. Local 6167, named after the UMWA Local in Jewell Ridge follows a laid-off miner as he rambles and reminisces among the places that boomed in big coal’s heyday. In Oxycodone, a song based on a January 2008 Washington Post feature story by Nick Miroff, a miner contemplates the advice of his estranged father after a prescription drug addiction has left his home in shambles. Middle Creek is sung from the perspective of grandchildren trying to braid together the strands of their moonshining grandfather’s life and to understand his hardness and his outsider status in their community.

Buy Now Though many of the tracks on Jewell Ridge Coal feature Jeni & Billy only, they couldn’t resist inviting a few friends to take part. Grammy award winning artist Jim Lauderdale and his Grammy award winning producer Randy Kohrs sing harmony. Virtuoso fiddler Shad Cobb of the John Cowan Band lends his soulful strokes to a couple of tunes. And singer-songwriter Kim Peery Sherman lends a gorgeous alto harmony and twinkling guitar to the ballad Tazewell Beauty Queen.

SWEET & TOXIC - EXTRA SWEET EDITION

Billy and I met in the spring of 2005 while I was recording Jewell Ridge Girl. One of the songs cut for Jewell Ridge Girl, “Back Then,” caught Billy’s attention and he suggested that we consider a songwriting collaboration.

We found that writing together came easy for us. We also started playing out together. We were getting a good response from audiences and loved performing as a duo.

We wanted a CD for shows, but we felt like our sound was still developing, so we decided to release a few songs in our repertoire, but to wait a while for a full release. This is how Sweet & Toxic came to be. What you have here are the very early days of Jeni & Billy when we had been playing and writing together for only a few months.

Buy Now  Our love of both classic country duets and Appalachian ballads rings out in these songs — but our sound is still forming, raw and searching.

Like actors who don’t watch their own films, we don’t often listen back to our own records. But, when we do slide Sweet & Toxic back into our player, we are transported to a time when our duo was a new experiment and things were settling and the feeling was sweet. Still is!.