You have to watch where you sit at a Jeni & Billy concert, because that ordinary-looking folding chair might just turn into the back seat of a big ole Buick hurtling down the switchback of a coal truck road.
That barstool might turn out to be the rock-hard sinners pew of a white-washed mountain church. That couch might be a marble stoop on a gritty street in Baltimore, and that velvet theater cushion could just be the well-worn driver's seat of a wagon headed across the windswept Texas plains.
The high twang of a banjo starts it off or the mournful lilt of the mandolin. Then, a train comes barreling down the reeds of a harmonica. The guitar catches fire and lifts two voices into the high lonesome harmonies of the Appalachian mountains, painting pictures of miners and millworkers, roustabouts and revival preachers, Buicks and beauty queens.
New York Times Bestselling 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. "
"Jeni's songs spring from the true vine. Billy is the perfect partner, skillfully accompanying Jeni with guitar, banjo and harmonies. These two are tradition bearers -- the next generation of traditional music," according to Mary Smith, Director of the Richmond (VA) Folk Music Society.
Jeni & Billy bring to their work distinct musical backgrounds that draw from the deep well of Appalachian roots music.
Jeni Hankins traces her vocal style to Virginia Lowe, the blind music minister of the Friendly Chapel Church on Smith Ridge, the Appalachian community in which Jeni spent her childhood summers. A natural storyteller and prolific writer since childhood, Jeni trained formally with Pulitzer-Prize-winning Northern Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, and earned a Masters in English Literature. While her singing has been compared to the lonesome voices of Maybelle Carter and Iris Dement, her writing has been likened to that of Southerners Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and Lee Smith.
Billy Kemp, a Baltimore native, embraced the sound of country music in the nearby community of Oella, the home of Appalachian migrants who came to the city looking for work in the mills. Fired on by dreams of the Grand Ole Opry and his passion for the sound of Flatt & Scruggs, Billy headed to Nashville and toured with country bands all over the US, Canada, Germany, and right onto the stage of the Opry. He honed and shared his skills as both student and instructor at the University of Maryland, and built a producing career working with roots artists.
Mountain roads and mountain churches, moonshine and oxycodone, snake handlers and sherbet cake -- you get to know them all at a Jeni & Billy concert. You might arrive a stranger, but you'll leave a member of the family.
Jeni Hankins - Banjo, Vocals, Guitar, feet, and Mandolin
Billy Kemp - Banjo, Vocals, Guitar, Piano, organ, Harmonica, and percussion
The Old Hotel (forthcoming, late winter 2013, produced by three time Grammy-winner Dave Way at the Waystation)
Sweet Song Coming Round (LIVE in Concert, Double Disc)
Pretty Fair Miss (EP)
Longing For Heaven
Jewell Ridge Coal
Sweet & Toxic
Awake My Soul/Help Me to Sing, appearance with Jim Lauderdale on this two CD tribute to Sacred Harp Music
Are You Meant For Me? (October Waystation Mix)
The Robin & the Banjo (October Waystation Mix)
McHenry Street (Waystation October Mix)
If I Ever Get Ten Dollars
Sweet Song Coming 'Round
Tazewell Beauty Queen - Merlefest 2010-Walker Center
Sweet & Toxic
Jeni & Billy LIVE Concert CD, FIVE STARS in Maverick Magazine
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Anyone who’s seen Appalachian duo Jeni & Billy live will have been holding their breath for this...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
New York Times Bestselling Novelist on Jeni & Billy
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Novelist Lee Smith says, "Jeni and Billy's stunningly original music is as old as the hills...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. "
Jeni & Billy-Longing For Heaven
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Duet partners Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp have brought impressive measures of inspiration, artistry,...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) BA
Stuart Mason: Fiddlefreak Recommended!
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Hard on the heels of their previous release Jewell Ridge Coal (reviewed here), Jeni and Billy have j...Hard on the heels of their previous release Jewell Ridge Coal (reviewed here), Jeni and Billy have just released another precious mountain jewel, a new collection of original and traditional music titled Longing for Heaven (Jewell Ridge Records 005).
On Longing for Heaven, Jeni and Billy have hit their stride. With its hand-drawn lettering, family photo album and quilt fabrics, the album packaging suggests what’s inside: ten down-home, honest songs that reflect Jeni’s family history in southwest Virginia. Their intertwining two-part harmonies and impeccable picking on guitar and banjo form the perfect backdrop for stories of love and longing, small-town tragedy and the redemption of Jesus. Walk with them, down a coal-littered railroad grade, with gritty union miners on strike, and into a tiny white chapel with a cross on its steeple. Jeni and Billy will take you on a gentle ride back to the green rolling hills of home.
The CD includes three music videos of songs from the record that add to the down-home mood that permeates Longing for Heaven. Shad Cobb contributes his lonesome fiddle on two tracks. Fiddlefreak recommended!
Hazel Davis: "More Joy Than I Can Express"
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Last year at Beverley Folk Festival I fell in love. Sitting in the Saturday afternoon American Pa...Last year at Beverley Folk Festival I fell in love.
Sitting in the Saturday afternoon American Party, whisky in hand, buddy by my side I witnessed the force (though force is a far too aggressive word for it) of Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp (Jeni and Billy).
Jeni and Billy are a too-good-to-be-true duo from Virginia and Baltimore respectively. Except – squeak – they are true (I know because I followed them around for the rest of the afternoon muttering “pleasebereal, pleasebereal, pleasebereal” under my breath). During an afternoon of tongue-in-cheek old Americana from dear Curtis Eller and the amazing Gandalf Murphy, their authenticity shone through like a holy light.
Modest and funny, the duo had the crowd in the palm of their hand with their simple songs of love, poverty and mountain homes. Jeni Hankins has a voice that nobody would describe as perfect but soaked in Godliness and dripping with emotion and Billy is her perfect, unassuming accompaniment.
Their 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.
Featuring a number of traditional songs from the Appalachians, some hymns and a couple of original numbers, the record was made “in the mountains of Western North Carolina in the dead of winter.” It’s exactly what this fan needed after I’d bored my household rigid with their debut Sweet And Toxic.
It doesn’t disappoint, from the gorgeous 50s fabric-and-Americana CD artwork (by Jeni, naturally) to the saccharine essay on heaven at the end which, from anyone else would be unbearable but from her is just fine. “Heaven, I imagine,” she says, “will be full of people I love. Not only are there walls of jasper and streets of gold, as they promise in the old hymns, but everyone you ever loved will be waiting for you there.” Sniff.
The original tracks, such as the deliriously catchy If I Ever Get Ten Dollars and While I Stay At Home And Weep (replete with my new favourite word “prayhaps”) blend effortlessly with the traditional numbers (their arrangement of the hymn Longing For Heaven is just gorgeous), feeling like old favourites within about one listen.
This pair does what nostalgia fetishists try and fail at doing and they manage effortlessly simply because they are the real deal.
I have owned this album for less than a day and already I am willing to throw most of my others out (apart from the Springsteen, obviously).
Richmond Folk: "The Next Generation of Traditional Music"
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Since the Richmond Folk Music Society is primarily dedicated to traditional folk music, we rarely bo...Since the Richmond Folk Music Society is primarily dedicated to traditional folk music, we rarely book singer/songwriters for our concert series. We made a exception for Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp, and we're glad we did.
Jeni's songs spring from the true vine. Steeped in a sense of place and community, her 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.
Jeni was raised in Tazewell County, Virginia, in the heart of coal mining country, and she draws the audience into the lives of the miners, their families and the little community of Jewel Ridge. 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. When they perform traditional songs, such as "Pretty Fair Miss" or "Single Girl, Married Girl" they do a cracking job of it.
These two are tradition bearers - the next generation of traditional music.
Director, Richmond Folk Music Society
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"A sweet and surprising high point [of the Beverley Folk Festival] was the Appalachian duo Jeni Hank..."A sweet and surprising high point [of the Beverley Folk Festival] was the Appalachian duo Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp. Singing songs from the Southwest Virginia coal mines, the pair melted hearts with songs like Tazewell Beauty Queen and Back Then, a heartbreaking tale of tragic love. Jeni Hankins' smile-infused Mother Maybelle voice was perfect."
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I am very impressed with Jeni & Billy. "Jewell Ridge Coal" is quite the concept piece, beautiful to ...I am very impressed with Jeni & Billy. "Jewell Ridge Coal" is quite the concept piece, beautiful to look at and listen to. I haven't been so swept away by any one CD since Gillian Welch's "Revival" came out.
Jeni & Billy are the acoustic Buddy & Julie Miller.
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I found Jeni & Billy's second album Jewell Ridge Coal to be like Billy Elliot meets the Mamas and th...I found Jeni & Billy's second album Jewell Ridge Coal to be like Billy Elliot meets the Mamas and the Papas meets Dolly Parton. A little bit bluegrass, a little bit folk, and all original, the music feels simultaneously familiar and completely new. Their combination creates this powerful and unique flavor, and they sound so natural together, it feels calming and clear. Its 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.
Original Songs written with an eye on Appalachian musical traditions.
Writing and Performing The Contemporary Appalachian Ballad (created for author John Elder's course on Ballads for the Bread Loaf School of English at UNC-Asheville).
John Elder writes: "Jeni and Billy's visit to my graduate class on ballads, followed by their wonderful concert later that evening, was a highlight of the summer. Their combination of enormous musical talent with an obvious delight in literary discussion makes them especially effective within such an educational setting. "
Since the early days of British, Scottish, & Irish settlement in the Appalachians, the inherited Ballad singing tradition provided space, particularly for women, to sing about a range of topics which might not otherwise have been aired, especially in polite conversation. These subjects could include disasters, murder, disappearances, love lost and found, and other news of the day. Mainly these ballads would have been performed unaccompanied, but sometimes with a single drone instrument, the fiddle, or rhythm instrument, the banjo. Drawing on these examples from the past as well as pulling inspiration from film, poetry, and the news, Jeni & Billy have created many new ballads on the edge of the tradition. In this workshop they will share their approach to writing and performing original and traditional Appalachian Ballads. In a longer residency, participants will be encouraged to draw on what they have learned in the workshop to write and/or present their own ballads for discussion.
Music of the Coalfields
John L. Lewis, labor organizer and former President of the United Mine Workers of America, called the mines “a blood and bones machine that grinds up the miner for the American dream.” In this workshop Jeni & Billy will explore the music that captures this hard work of the miner and that describes life in the coalfields. Mining accidents, layoffs, unionism, feuds, faith, privation, protest, black lung, migration, mechanization, and drug addiction provide the themes of songs of coal. As we move into the 21st Century questions about mountain top removal, conflicts between strip miners and underground miners, and the viability of coal as a source of our nation’s energy are taking the fore in our thinking and music making about coal. Through their own songs about the Southwest Virginia coal mining community of Jewell Ridge, Jeni & Billy illustrate the various song forms and sounds that music of coal can take. They also talk about the work of the great coalfield songwriters and artists including Hazel Dickens, Jean Ritchie, Nimrod Workman, Phyllis Bones and Kathy Matte among others. They will bring Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning documentary “Harlan County USA” into the discussion and provide a guide to various coal song recordings as well as web sites and print resources on coalfield music.
Duet Harmony Singing in Traditional, Country and Folk Music Styles
Did you ever wonder how the Carter Family, the Louvin Brothers or Conway & Loretta got that special sound that makes the hair stand up on your head? How do they make those tragic stories like "Wreck on the Highway" feel so sad and lonesome? Well, a big part of that is Harmony! Jeni & Billy are fast becoming known for their rich harmonies – harmonies learned by listening to those great old records, by following their instincts and by giving attention to the fundamentals. Jeni & Billy will illustrate the fundamentals of roots harmony singing – type of harmony, chord/harmony relationship, ornamentation and phrasing – through recorded examples and live performance. This course can be limited to a lecture style presentation or, where more time is available, can include class participation such as singing harmony as a group and in duos, and creating harmony lines to melody lines.
Song Arranging for the Stage & the Studio
Did you ever hear a song where everything just seemed to fit -- it didn’t feel too long or too short, there were nice instrumental breaks that gave you time to reflect between the singing, the music welled up or came down at moments that felt right with what was being sung? If so, then you’ve probably heard a great arrangement! Arranging a song thoughtfully can often give it that “something extra” and make a good song a great one. Through recorded examples and live performance Jeni & Billy will show how form, tempo, rhythm, dynamics, mood, and voice & instrument placement all come into play when arranging a song. This workshop can be done in a lecture style or, with more time, this can be a hands-on workshop where Jeni & Billy will listen to participants’ songs and make suggestions about arranging for performance and/or the studio.
What’s in a Name? A Melody
Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned songwriter looking for a fresh way to find a new melody, this workshop will help you write a melody using a name and a few music fundamentals. Billy created this workshop while working with residents of the Baltimore City Detention Center and discovered that it empowered people of all skill levels. This workshop can be completed in as little as three hours or over the course of several days.
Fingerstyle Guitar or Fingerstyle Guitar for Song Accompaniment
Billy can teach basic to advanced fingerstyle guitar techniques as well as accompaniment for song. Techniques would include thumb and first finger, thumb and two finger, pick and two finger, alternating base note, and standard and open tunings. An understanding of tablature and/or standard notation is helpful, though not necessary. Billy can also teach fingerstyle accompaniment for song/vocal music particularly in the folk, country, and Appalachian ballad styles.