Without fail, if you attend a Jeni and Billy show, you are greeted by the folk duo as such:
Jeni: Hi, I’m Jeni, and this is my true love, Billy.
Billy: And I’m Billy, and this is my true love, Jeni.
That opening struck me the first time I saw them in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. You can see, not only onstage, but in getting to know them, that there is an aura of sweet, almost child-like innocence, enthusiasm, and unabashed love that radiates between and from them. And once you hear a few of their stories and songs homespun straight from Appalachia–true-life tales about a coal mining community in Virginia called Jewell Ridge, your curiosity will nag you to hear more.
Listening to Jeni and Billy is like taking a step back into the past. It’s not just that Instruments like guitar, banjo, mandolin, and harmonica (and fiddle on some of the recordings) are part of the package–its the way they are played that puts the listener in a time machine set for the 1920’s or 30’s. Billy Kemp grew up in Baltimore in a community called Ellicot City where paper, flower, and textile mills employed workers who had migrated from Appalachia for better pay. As he put it, “Fortunately for me, my friends’ parents brought the music with them from Appalachia. I was also fascinated by the Flatt & Scruggs music used in the film Bonnie & Clyde. I was an immediate convert to Appalachian and folk music. I got a banjo and told my brother to play the guitar and we played coffee houses. I was always drawn to the stories that came with that music. As I became a professional musician, I worked in blues, country, rock, gospel and folk music. But when I met Jeni, I felt I was returning to those Appalachian musical roots.” You can hear the application of all he must have learned in their recordings–an old time guitar accompaniment that echoes the sounds of Woody Guthrie or Leadbelly, and a three-finger banjo style common in Appalachian music. Jeni also plays guitar and banjo (she even made a banjo that she performs on in gigs), and both members of the duo play in accompaniment to Jeni’s old time Viriginia twang, which has been compared to Maybelle Carter and Iris Dement. But she credits Virginia Lowe, the blind music minister at the Friendly Chapel Church near Jewel Ridge, as the inspiration for her sound. In a recent phone interview with the duo, Jeni Hankins told me, “Virginia Lowe would shake when she’d sing and give it her all. She preached through her singing, and she showed me that you have to believe in the song you’re singing and get behind it.” When you hear Jeni sing you will notice a little “hiccup” at the end of many of her lines–this was a technique she learned through imitating the minister during worship as a child when she spent summers with her grandmother in Jewell Ridge. During that time she soaked up tales of her rich history of kinfolk who had worked in the surrounding coal mines or supported those who did. The stories she took with her would become material for the landmark recording Jewell Ridge Coal.
Last December Jeni and Billy celebrated the five year anniversary of this album, which launched them into a touring career and has attracted a large group of devoted fans in the US, Canada, and the UK. In 2005, Jeni had begun writing songs inspired by her relatives’ stories with a recording project in mind she called Jewell Ridge Girl when she first met Billy. He had a recording studio in rural Maryland and she wanted to work on the project with him. But when Billy heard her tunes and her unique singing style, he had a desire to collaborate with her on a performance level. Rather than a finished album, a duo was birthed of the encounter and the record was put on hold as they made plans to move to Nashville and pursue a performing career. While the Jewell Ridge project was temporarily shelved, they did release the EP Sweet and Toxic, an exploration of their evolving sound and style as a co-writing team. In 2007 they revisited her idea for an album using some songs she’d already written (“Local 6167,” “Jewell Ridge Coal,” and “Tazewell Beauty Queen” were part of the original project), but Jeni explained, “We realized we wanted to develop the project in a slightly different direction, more specifically toward Jewell Ridge songs. So we went to a bunch of Fiddler’s conventions in the summer of 2007, and that inspired songs like “Chicken Ridge” and “Ain’t Got Time for Trouble Blues,” as well as some songs that didn’t become part of the Jewell Ridge Coal project.” Jewell Ridge Coal, released in 2008, featured guest artists Kim Peery Sherman, Jim Lauderdale and Randy Kohrs on harmony, and Shad Cobb on fiddle.
Jewell Ridge Coal showcased Jeni’s story-telling capabilities, which she had honed through earning a Masters in English Literature and studying with Pulitzer Prize winning Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon. The opening track “The Miner’s Reward,” sung a capella with only the minimal interspersed strains of Cobb’s fiddle, laments the first person narrative of Jeni’s great-grandfather Avery Smith who spent six days a week “in the dark,” as Jeni put it, going to work before the sun rose and coming home after the sun had set. She never got to meet him, as he died at the age of 60 in a coal mining accident. The song sets an atmosphere of sparseness, darkness, yet hope for a reward to be obtained one day in Heaven. There are so many understated yet powerful songs dealing with subjects like addiction to oxycodone, cruising the town in a pink Chevy bought with funds raised in the coal mine, a wild car ride up Chicken Ridge, and laid off workers in Jewell Ridge (as advancements in coal mining made workers more expendable). The album took off in the US and the UK, striking a chord with those who’d had relatives in the mining industry or were just drawn to the concept. Jeni commented on how this particular subject has garnered success for them:
We were really thrilled with how the CD was received since it was a project to which we had given so much thought and time. And the thing we learned very quickly was that coal touches the lives of everyone, some more than others, and people want to talk about that. We also learned that people have a passion for Appalachian culture and that we both had something to share in that regard. I was born there and grew up there in the summers. Billy grew up in West Baltimore next to Appalachian migrant mill workers in Ellicott City who brought the music of the mountains with them. Coal and Appalachia turned out to be two things that so many people can relate to–so many people are curious and even passionate about it, from Vermont to California up to Canada and over to Great Britain.
Jeni and Billy have had much success in the UK, having just completed the latest in a string of tours there. In particular, they like to visit the area of Yorkshire, where lies a rich coal mining history and a devoted audience that grows yearly, sharing that common interest with the duo. They credit Chris Lee, an Americana enthusiast from England, as the one who helped jump-start their UK success. He had picked up their album and written a review back in 2008 on the Bob Harris Chat Site (a famous DJ for the BBC). Grateful for the positive press, Jeni started a dialogue with him, and a friendship sprung from there. Lee, along with his partner Sue Jenkinson, hosted a house concert for the duo at their home in Beverly, and have since organized other concerts in the area for them. As Jeni puts it, “He (Lee) goes to great lengths to present artists whose music he loves, but he also has his regular job, and he and Sue run a terrifically charming gift shop in Filey called the Red Box. What he does is very much a labor of love and we are lucky that he loves our music. Friends like Chris and Sue make it possible for us to tour full time because they provide a home away from home on the road, full of laughter and encouragement.” Besides the help of these friends abroad, Jeni and Billy have also nestled their way into the UK folk festival circuit in a touring career worthy of envy.
Jeni and Billy’s latest recording Sweet Song Coming ‘Round (2013) was done as a collection of live performances recorded by the duo themselves while on tour in the western US in 2012. The double CD set is unique in that it features not only fourteen song tracks (many off of their Jewell Ridge Coal and Longing For Heaven albums as well as some new tracks),but interspersed between each is a story with its own track. The stories are titled colorfully, examples being “The Mug N Muffin,” “Mirage Hotel Shampoo,” “Jane Austen and Days of Our LIves,” and “Shelly West & Pie Banjos.” The stories are just as entertaining as the songs, so in the course of a listening to this album you feel that you sat live in one of their concerts and experienced everything short of actually “seeing” them. For instance, the story “Mirage Hotel Shampoo” recounts the couple’s whole experience of being invited to sing at a convention for the unveiling of a memorial for a man who had died in a mining accident in Kentucky, and how at the event she met the president of the UMWA (United Mine Workers of America) Cecil Roberts (with a humorous description of his unique qualities), how they sang at his inauguration, and how that event led to their writing a song about him called “Cecil Roberts’ Hand,” which is the subsequent track in the CD set. The story concludes with the duo being invited to play again, this time for the UMWA national convention in Las Vegas, and a humorous summary of how her hair was so soft and shiny after she used the Mirage Hotel’s shampoo. When asked why they wanted to do this album, Jeni explained:
Our impetus for making the live CD was two-fold. We had a lot of requests after shows for recordings of my stories. When we started performing steadily back in 2008, we didn’t know that storytelling was going to be part of the show. Billy is really careful about tuning and I didn’t feel I could just stand there, so I started telling stories to give him time to tune between songs. And people were laughing at what I said and enjoying it, so the stories began to develop and become part of our identity as a duo. We also wanted to make the live CD because we had been doing the Jewell Ridge songs and stories for about four years by the time of our spring 2012 tour out west and we thought that everything was sounding really tight and that we had found our way through that show, so we wanted to document it before it all changed and we started heading in new directions.
Jeni and Billy often do library gigs in the US, and after doing so many shows and talks about coal mining songs, they wanted to add some new material and do something fresh. She came up with an idea after writing the song “The Mill Hurries On,” which is based on the novel by Elizabeth Gaskell titled North and South (a novel centered around cotton mills in England). She wondered to herself how many other songs she had written based on novels, as Jeni has always been an avid reader of British and American literature, and had done other songs that had been inspired by novels. Among them were “Sweetness Keen As Pain” taken from a line in the novel “Member Of The Wedding” by Carson McCullers. “Silver Rocket” tells of a romance similar to that of two characters in Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. She soon realized she had at least ten songs in this vein, so she wrote a brochure for a one hour library program titled “Songs By The Book.” The show sports songs based on authors such as Lee Smith, Ruth White, and the aforementioned authors, among others. Ruth White is an award winning author whose book Little Audrey is based on her experiences growing up in Jewel Valley. Her writings have become material for Jeni as the two are from the same area, yet Jeni discovered the author through a festival presenter in California who suggested she read the book. From it came “Jewell Valley Blues.”
It is often the case that true “artists” find multiple ways to express their creativity. Jeni Hankins pushes the “folk” envelope further than her musical niche with a penchant for quilting. She decided to merge her quilting abilities with her music in a unique project she called “The Great Fabric Exchange.” She had actually woken up one morning with the idea to do a quilt project with their fans prior to a 2010 tour and sent out a mass call for fans to send pieces of fabric that she could sift through and eventually piece together in a challenging pattern known as a “trip around the world” quilt. The front includes 1300 squares of fabric that she cut ahead of time, planning to take her materials to the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina to work with renowned quilter Georgia Bonesteel, taking classes on the special technique. As the fabric poured in, so did stories from the fans who sent it. “One woman gave me blue, white, and red fabric that her mother used to make her dress for a Queen Elizabeth Coronation party in 1953,” Jeni declared. “Another young woman shared a piece of her mother’s apron and the story of a vision she had after her mother passed away. Some people went out of their way to find something very unusual like a pattern with cats wearing snorkel gear. And other people
used it as an opportunity to recycle fabric that would have otherwise gone to Goodwill. I feel so honored that I have all of this in my quilt!” Jeni and Billy produced a three song EP titled Pretty Fair Miss as an old time barter item to trade with fans that sent or gave them fabric in person. Seeing as the quilt is all hand stitched, Jeni is still working on it, but she sent me some fabulous photos of what looks like an almost completed quilt. She said that some fans sent her large pieces that she didn’t want to cut up, so the back of the quilt is a combination of large and small pieces. I’m sure she will be thrilled once she can show this quilt off at her shows, as she already does with ones made by her female relatives from the past.
Folk music in its purest form in America came in the guise of hidden treasure buried in the Appalachian Mountains, the Mississippi Delta, the “hollers” of the rural South, and many other secret places. With time, that music migrated with the folks that held it close to their hearts and memories, and eventually, transformed to entertain the masses. But what Jeni and Billy have done in their rare and other-worldly collaboration is to capture the essence of what pure, unadulterated folk music is in a society where the music industry is so commercialized, even within the “folk” genre. It is truly a “seek and ye shall find” task to come across music that goes beyond a mere “folk” label, music that does not sell out to embrace all that is “modern” in our society. If you wish to find some buried folk treasure, to take that journey back in time, listen to acoustic instruments recorded in their purest form, or listen to voices unspoiled by a commercial edge, then familiarize yourself with Jeni and Billy. A journey with them is a journey to remember.