As you listen you’ll be able to imagine them on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry of a Saturday night. – Susie Glaze, Folkworks
Jeni Hankins is one of the true heiresses to the Mountain Crown of Maybelle Carter, June Carter, Hazel Dickens, and Sarah Ogan Gunning. Call it good. Call it authentic. Call me anytime Jeni is signing and Billy is singing and playing by her side. – Rob Weir, Sing Out
As fine a slice of delicate, bruised and uplifting roots music you’ll hear in a while. – Paul Kerr, Blabber & Smoke (UK)
Jeni & Billy have a deceptively simple style that will catch you completely by surprise. Some of the best southern music I have heard in a very long time. – Tom Druckenmiller, Sing Out
Jeni's songs spring from the true vine. Steeped in a sense of place and community, Jeni's lyrics reflect the hardships,trials and sorrows of people whose lives have not been easy, yet they also resonate with humor, spirit and a deep and abiding faith and dignity. She has an old fashioned, old style country voice that perfectly fits the songs she chooses. Billy is the perfect partner, skillfully accompanying Jeni with guitar, banjo and harmonies. They chat with the audience, tell stories, and leave the audience feeling like they've just had a visit with old friends. These two are tradition bearers - the next generation of traditional music. – Mary Smith, Richmond Folk Music Society
Jeni and Billy's stunningly original music is as old as the hills, yet brand new at the same time. The spare, simple arrangements not only showcase their musical talents but also highlight the brilliant writing; for Jeni is a true poet and a born storyteller, through and through---many of these songs contain whole novels. Lee Smith – Award-winning author of Fair & Tender Ladies, On Agate Hill, and more than twenty other notable Southern novels
Totally genuine and beautifully melodic sounds. – Maverick Magazine (UK)
In the early days of the recording industry much of what we today call folk, country, and old-time music was called “hillbilly” music. That’s because the hills and hollows of Appalachia were a treasure trove raided by urbanized “song catchers” (academic collectors). Many of them mistakenly thought that all American folk songs and tunes were variants of British Isles imports. They soon learned that Appalachia was far more than music preserved in amber—the region also contained great original composers. And since those days, there have always been a number of women whose stars shined slightly brighter. In the (recorded) beginning there was Sarah (1898-1979) and Maybelle Carter (1909-1978) from Virginia. Slightly later those with recording machines came calling upon Kentuckians Aunt Molly Jackson (1880-1960) and her half sister Sarah Ogan Gunning (1910-1987). Still later we got Loretta Lynn (1932-) from Butcher Hollow, KY, June Carter (1929-2003) from Maces Spring, VA, and Jean Ritchie (1922-) from Viper, KY. So who are the heiresses to the Mountain Crown?
If you find yourself in a discussion that doesn’t include Jeni Hankins of southwestern Virginia, walk away – it’s not worth your time. Hankins’ approach is often compared to that of Hazel Dickens (1925-2011) and aptly so. 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. 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), Denny Weston, Jr. (percussion), Dillon O’Brian (keyboards, vocals), Dave Way (claps, feet), 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 potpourri: “The Robin & the Banjo,” Jeni’s wedding song reworking of “Froggy Went A-Courtin’;” “The Old Hotel,” an illicit love song; the dust-and-tedium-meets-dreams “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 Ms. Hankins is singing and Kemp is picking, flailing, and singing by her side.
On Longing for Heaven: Jeni Hankins and I share the special bond of childhoods spent in the mountains of far southwest Virginia, Grundy and Jewell Ridge, not twenty miles apart----and her true sense of place shines through in every one of these authentically Appalachian songs. Jeni and Billy's stunningly original music is as old as those hills, yet brand new at the same time.The spare, simple arrangements not only showcase their musical talents but also highlight the brilliant writing; for Jeni is a true poet and a born storyteller, through and through---many of these songs contain whole novels. Of course my own favorite is "Sally Kincaid"---but then, I'm prejudiced!
Funny how things come back to haunt you. Well, not haunt exactly but Jeni & Billy got in touch with Blabber’n’Smoke a few months ago asking if we wanted a copy of their new album, Picnic In The Sky. Back in 2010, we listened to their album, Longing For Heaven describing it as the sparse folk sound of the mountains and backwoods folk, god fearing, hardworking, scraping a living but finding joy in family and friends and giving it a big thumbs up. And so it was that Picnic In The Sky winged its way here. It’s fair to say that all we said about Longing For Heaven could be said about Picnic In The Sky with one caveat. The duo’s sparse sound is supplanted by some accompanying musicians, a situation that was not planned per se but came about as a result of some serendipitous goings on including a waitress taking a food order and then disappearing for some time.
The result is an album of Jeni & Billy with Craig Eastman, David Jackson, Denny Weston Jnr. and Dillon O’Brian filling in on fiddle, slide guitar, lap steel, mandolin, bass, accordion, drums, keyboards, claps, feet, shovel, rake and baking pan (!). It’s still raw country music, still what you might expect to hear on a porch, just this time you might need a bigger porch. The expanded instrumentation does allow for a degree of sophistication with The Days Of The Blue Tattoo, a song about a white woman captured by Yavapai Native Americans, brimming with lush guitars, bar room piano, accordion and fiddle and sounding for all the world like an Emmylou Harris song from the late seventies. However it’s testament to their homespun qualities that the band songs retain an earthiness that harks back to the early recordings of The Carter Family with the two best examples being Are You Meant For Me and The Mill Hurries On, the latter being the song that features the shovel and rake percussion on a wonderfully woozy and sepia stained waltz. There are numerous delights here with the opening song, The Robin & The Banjo an excellent example of raw Appalachian music complete with flatfoot dance steps while Picnic In The Sky flies along borne on lilting slide guitar as it paints a picture of bygone days. And for anyone hankering for the simplicity of their earlier recordings there’s The Old Hotel, a plaintive and raw monochrome capture of a desperate lover, armed with a gun and a fifty dollar bill, returning to that hotel looking for the will and the way to end it all. Great stuff indeed.
Jeni Hankins assures me that she and Billy Kemp will be in Scotland next year. In the meantime this is as fine a slice of delicate, bruised and uplifting roots music you’ll hear in a while.
Faith, family, tradition and love are the key ingredients that fuel the music of Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp and all are to be found in abundance on their new album PICNIC IN THE SKY. This hastily arranged project for the Nashville based couple was an opportunity too good to turn down as they headed west to LA after a chance meeting with producer Dave Way. The result is probably their most complete album to date without losing any of the legitimacy that marks their core Appalachian sound. If anything the widening of instrumental input from the assembled session musicians, given the temporary accolade of the Big Picnic Band, has enhanced the vocal elegance of Jeni and the effectiveness of the harmony driven duets with Billy.
All eleven tracks are originals, although spanning a near decade in their composition. Perhaps Jeni and Billy had to dig deep into their song locker to ensure this golden opportunity was maximised. Billy especially had the freedom to relinquish his engineer duties to concentrate on guitar, banjo, harmonica and piano as well as sharpening up his vocal contributions. The duets are aplenty including the classic country waltz ‘Reckoning Day’ and the throwback style ‘The Old Hotel’ where for a moment Jeni and Billy almost revert back to their normal duo status.
As we have come accustomed to on Jeni and Billy recordings, the stories are told in clear prose with ‘McHenry Street’being inspired by a sighting on the streets of Billy’s home city Baltimore and ‘The Days of the Blue Tattoo’ re-telling a story of Olive Oatman who was captured and subsequently released by tribes in the Gold Rush days. One of the most redeeming features of the record is the beautifully presented and highly informative packaging. However this is only to be expected from a duo which extol fierce pride in their work and come over even more sincere if you attend one of their live shows.
Anyone who’s seen Appalachian duo Jeni & Billy live will have been holding their breath for this album. You will be delighted they have released this live collection of their “hits,” complete with Jeni Hankins’ riveting and delightful explanations behind each song. Each and every story will make you laugh or cry, whether it’s the tale of the grave of her moonshining great-grandpa or her Uncle Roy Lee’s beloved pink car. The way she describes cedar trees swaying in the breeze or a young child’s innocence in the face of adult alcoholism is almost as pleasing as listening to her bell-like vocals and Billy Kemp’s deft plucking. This is a lovely album for anyone who yearns for authenticity in their music. – Hazel Davis, Maverick Magazine, 2013
Jeni & Billy have a deceptively simple style that will catch you completely by surprise. Longing for Heaven is certainly some of the best southern music I have heard in a very long time.
Duet partners Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp have brought impressive measures of inspiration, artistry, and austerity in this minimalist collection of old-time ballads, heartsongs, and spirituals.
The focus of Jeni & Billy’s fourth CD, as heard on the lovely Sacred Harp classic title tune, is otherworldly affairs. A standout in this category, along with the title song, is their original, “Father Will You Meet Me In Heaven,” a powerful elegy for Johnny Cash’s older brother, Jack, who was killed in a gruesome childhood accident. The duo’s rendition of “On A Hill Lone And Gray,” inspired by Ralph Stanley, is also heartfelt and moving.
Hankins is the soulful wellspring of this collaboration. Born and raised in Virginia coal country, she brings a writer’s and singer’s finely nuanced ear to the cadences and imagery of her native Appalachia. You can hear this gift on “The Ballad Of Sally Kincaid” and “Cecil Roberts’ Hand.” These originals and others stand proud alongside covers of traditionals such as “Single Girl” and “I Saw A Man At The Close Of The Day.”
Kemp, a gifted multi-instrumentalist with an impressive list of studio and road credentials, also does some of the writing. But his major contribution is framing these songs with austere and subtle acoustic arrangements built on various combinations of guitar, banjo, bass, mandolin, harmonica, and occasional fiddle from Shad Cobb. (Jewell Ridge Records, 2126 Yank Rd., Mt. Gilead, NC 27306)
Jeni & Billy were not only a landmark success with the audience at the 33rd Annual Fox Valley Folk Music & Storytelling Festival, but also had nearly all of our veteran performers and volunteers raving as well. I had many of our national and regional performers tell me that Jeni & Billy's music was their most exciting discovery in quite some time.
Their open, authentic and honest approach to their music and to others made them instant members of the musical community.Their expertise and clearness of expression made their classes and workshops very effective.
Their endearing personalities and excellent musicianship would be an asset to any musical event.
We look forward to having Jeni and Billy back to Toronto and would recommend them for any camp or workshop event where excellent musicianship and wonderful people are valued!
I first saw Jeni and Billy perform at the FAR-West 2009 conference where, like everybody else I talked to, I was blown away with their presentation of Appalachian-roots style music. Nearly a year later, they made their first appearance on our stage and completely charmed our audience. The heartfelt music they write and perform so well and their sweet unassuming presence on and off stage made for a wonderful evening for the audience, presenters and volunteers. I give Jeni & Billy the highest possible recommendation.
For all folkies who are looking for traditional music, we have Jeni & Billy. They "Get It" as I've told my listeners. Jeni & Billy understand and, be it a traditional song or a song in the tradition, what they do is real gift to music. With spare instrumentals and sweet harmonies, "Longing for Heaven" is a dream CD and every song is a joy to play.
Jeni and Billy trade in the same homespun feel as the Quebes although it belongs on the back porch as opposed to bars and dance halls. Theirs is the sparse folk sound of the mountains and backwoods folk, god fearing, hardworking, scraping a living but finding joy in family and friends. The pair play guitar, banjo and mandolin while Jeni Hankins carries the vocals with Billy Kemp adding counterpoint. Together they create a warm, honest sound as natural as flowers in a field. With a mixture of traditional and original songs they sing of drunkards, jilted lovers and ruined lives. Half of these songs could be turned into tear-stained movies, “The Ballad of Sally Kincaid” tells of a girl seduced by a thieving preacher who hangs himself leaving her to end her days in shame. “Father Will You meet Me In Heaven” is the story of Johnny cash’s brother, Jack’s tragic death seen as a redemptive moment for their father’s godless ways. A previous album, Jewell Ridge Coal, documented the lives of miners in south-west Virginia and here they sing a song for Cecil Roberts, the President of the United Mine Workers of America. It’s a reminder that even these days mining is dangerous, deadly even.
A pretty stunning album for anyone into old-time Americana. Jeni and Billy are currently touring in England.
Totally genuine and beautifully melodic sounds . . . Longing for Heaven is recommended.
Although it was actually recorded in a secluded cabin in the Carolina mountains in the dead of winter, Longing For Heaven is a wonderfully warm record, an album of companionship and quiet magic, and once under Jeni and Billy’s spell you’ll want to remain thus; longing for more of this heavenly kind of music in fact.
Jeni & Billy's latest album – Longing For Heaven – plopping on my doormat this morning has given me more joy than I can express and if I seem hyperbolic it’s because That’s What They Do To You.