Jeni & Billy

Jeni & Billy

 Nashville, Tennessee, USA
BandAmericanaFolk

Jeni & Billy create new old music rooted in the sounds and spirit of Appalachian culture. Jeni is a coal miner's granddaughter with a writer's wit and spark. Billy is a Grand Ole Opry alum whose virtuoso guitar and banjo always fit right in the groove of the story being sung. Together, fire & magic.

Biography

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.

Lyrics

Sweet & Toxic

Written By: Jeni Hankins & Billy Kemp

She came into his life like a devil
She came into his life like a dream
So sweet and toxic, thorn & petal
And she ruled his heart just like a queen

She offered up her body and her soul
She offered up her heart’s desire
So sweet and toxic, diamonds & coal
And she lit the match that set his world on fire

There was broken glass and broken hearts
and everything in between
And the trailer park incense
smelled of trash and gasoline
But it was nothing that her kiss could not redeem

She left one day just ‘cause she could
She left one day just like she blew in
So sweet and toxic, wine & blood
And he never saw the world the same again

There was broken glass and broken hearts
and everything in between
And the trailer park incense
smelled of trash and gasoline
But it was nothing that her kiss could not redeem

Miner's Reward

Written By: © 2007 Jeni Hankins & Billy Kemp, BMI

I ain’t seen the sun
in many long days.
Get up in the dark
and go home that-a-way.

‘Cept Sunday, Thank God,
when my work is all done.
I wake in the morn
to the light of the sun.

My God, He is mighty,
as Exodus says.
My God, He is humble,
for me He chose death.

Though death will not spare me,
I’ll fear not the grave.
No mines up in Heaven,
just sunshine in spades.

No, I ain’t seen the sun
in many long days,
but I’ll see my reward
in Heaven some day.

Yes, I’ll see my reward
in Heaven some day.

Tazewell Beauty Queen

Written By: © 2007 Jeni Hankins, BMI

If you don’t mind the low seam,
and if you don’t mind the dark,
if you don’t mind the black face
that is every miner’s mark,

you can make a fortune
and you can buy a dream --
go cruisin’ in a Chevy
with the Tazwell Beauty Queen.

If you don’t mind the short fuse,
and if you don’t mind the smell,
if you don’t mind a summer
in a place as black as hell,

you can make a fortune
and you can buy a dream --
go cruisin’ in a Chevy
with the Tazwell Beauty Queen.

If you will make a gamble,
if you will bet your skin,
you can get your wish in
tires and chrome and fins.

You can make a fortune
and you can buy a dream
and go cruisin’ in a Chevy
with the Tazwell Beauty Queen.

If you will make a gamble,
if you will bet your skin,
you can get your wish in
tires and chrome and fins.

You can make a fortune
and you can buy a dream
and go cruisin’ in a Chevy
with the Tazwell Beauty Queen.

You might be dusty now
but you’ll be coming up so clean
drivin’ in your Chevy
with the Tazwell Beauty Queen.

Oxycodone

Written By: © 2008 Jeni Hankins & Billy Kemp, BMI

As I tip up my white paper cup,
I think on what Daddy once said,
“If you go along, to get along,
Son, you’d be better off dead.”

But the methadone seeps in my bones
and Daddy, he loses his hold.
A twelve dollar fix, the methadone clicks,
and, then, it’s down to the coal.

Down in the cave, ain’t nobody saved
from fear it’ll be their last time.
Daddy once said, “Son, keep your head,
‘cause life, it can turn on a dime.
Son, just look at mine.”

A mobile home, disconnected phone,
a fortune shot up my veins.
It’s three a.m., to the clinic again,
the county says “its a shame.”

Oxycodone has wrecked my home
and I ain’t seen Daddy for years.
Our last goodbye I was high
and Daddy was fightin’ back tears.

Down in the cave, ain’t nobody saved
from fear it’ll be their last time.
Daddy once said, “Son, keep your head,
‘cause life, it can turn on a dime.
Son, just look at mine.”

Daddy once said, “Son, keep your head,
‘cause life, it can turn on a dime.
Son, just look at mine.”

Chicken Ridge

Written By: © 2007 Jeni Hankins & Billy Kemp, BMI

Goin’ up Chicken Ridge
Don’t you wanna go?
If you’ve a notion
we could do-si-do.
Curves on Chicken Ridge,
kissin’ back to back,
make a crooked road
and there ain’t no turnin’ back.

Goin’ up Chicken Ridge
Goin’ up Chicken Ridge
Goin’ up Chicken Ridge
Don’t you wanna go?

There ain’t no shoulders,
ain’t no lines,
just a little mule road
cut between the mines.
Houses up on Chicken Ridge,
lonesome and squat,
left by the miners
the company forgot.

Goin’ up Chicken Ridge
Goin’ up Chicken Ridge
Goin’ up Chicken Ridge
Don’t you wanna go?

The top of the world
is closer than you know.
Take my hand, we’ll
catch a cloud and go.
Up that windy road
we’ll spin from ear to ear
and find ourselves
in that high atmosphere.

Goin’ up Chicken Ridge
Goin’ up Chicken Ridge
Goin’ up Chicken Ridge
Don’t you wanna go?

McHenry Street

Written By: © Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp

Down on McHenry street the sidewalk glitters
with broken glass bottles and household litter?houses are vacant, burned out and shuttered
and weeds grow knee high in the cracks of the gutter

While the sign on the trash can says to believe
and the sign on the fire house seems to agree
Believe in Jesus, Believe in Baltimore,
Believe in something you ain’t never seen before

Kids make guns and flags, pickins from scraps of trash
or sit on their front stoops just kicking at the glass
They sail down the alley in a box spring canoe
while grandma in the kitchen prays, “Lord, what we gonna do?”

While the sign on the trash can says to believe
and the sign on the fire house seems to agree
Believe in Jesus, Believe in Baltimore,
Believe in something you ain’t never seen before

There ain’t no promise it’s gonna get right
with a city-watch camera and a flashing blue light
‘cause down on McHenry Street the sidewalk glitters
with broken glass bottles and household litter

While the sign on the trash can says to believe....

Are You Meant for Me?

Written By: © Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp

Are you meant for me? Are we meant to be?
Could I begin to trace the answer in your face?

Am I in your dreams among other themes
like the fire and the flood and signs not understood?

Am I in your veins? These questions still remain.
How deep do we run? Or have we just begun?

Am I meant for you? Am I just someone new?
Are you only passing through the way that lovers do.

Are we meant to be? Are you meant for me?
Will you break my heart? Won’t you break my heart?

Am I in your veins? These questions still remain.
How deep do we run? Or have we just begun?

Am I in your veins? These questions still remain.
How deep do we run? Or have we just begun?

Are you meant for me? Are you meant for me? Are we meant to be?

The Robin and the Banjo

Written By: © Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp

There hung a banjo
alone on a wall
hung there for years
making no sound at all
till along came a Robin
in the window to sing
and oh how that banjo did ring

She sang, “I’ve been flying
in a nearby wood
where the air is clear
and the water is good,
the pines so sturdy
and their needles so green
and oh how that banjo did ring

He said, “I travelled
with a hobo and rode the steel rails
and I joined that hobo
in many wild tales.
Now that old hobo
is naught but a dream.”
and oh how that banjo did ring

One day the old house
with the banjo fell down
and the Robin, she cried
when she heard the sound.
She sang a tune
so sad and true
of a hobo and a banjo
and the rambles they knew
and in the rubble
she heard the strings
and oh how that banjo did ring

She took the strings
and the ebony pegs
she took the bridge
and the old broken head
all to her nest
where together they sing
and oh how that banjo did ring

all to her nest
where together they sing
and oh how that banjo does ring

If I Ever Get Ten Dollars

Written By: © Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp

If I ever get ten dollars
gonna buy me a three piece suit and
gonna buy you a diamond ring
gonna marry you

If I ever get ten dollars
gonna find us a piece of land and
build a house with a picket fence
with my own two hands

If I ever get ten dollars
gonna quit this railway car
hang up my walkin’ shoes
and stay right where you are

If I ever get ten dollars
gonna buy me a three piece suit and
gonna buy you a diamond ring
gonna marry you

Sweet Song Coming 'Round

Written By: © Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp

Sweet Song Coming Round

© Jeni Hankins & Billy Kemp 2011

I heard some trouble came your way
just flew on in the other day
It shook you up, knocked you flat
left you hurting quick as that

I’m no doctor, I’m just a friend
who’s had his share of old dead ends
I’m no preacher, but here’s what I know
You take it easy, take it slow

When tales of sorrow chase you down
leave you lyin’ on lower ground
Don’t you listen (don’t you listen) to that sound
there’s a sweet song comin’ round

I’m no doctor, I’m just a friend
who’s had a share of old dead ends
I’m no preacher, but here’s what I know
You take it easy, take it slow

When tales of sorrow chase you down
leave you lyin’ on lower ground
Don’t you listen (don’t you listen) to that sound
there’s a sweet song comin’ round

Discography

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

Set List

CONCERT:

Original Songs written with an eye on Appalachian musical traditions.

WORKSHOPS:

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 balla