Jeni and Billy_PicnicInTheSky2

Picnic In The Sky
Waystation 003

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.

Rob Weir


JENI and BILLY’S BIG PICNIC BAND: Picnic In The Sky — 4 Comments

  1. Indeed a wonder-full record and another lovely day trip of the mind, spent in the Appalachians surrounded by tangible people with lovely or haunting stories to tell. Thank you Jeni and Billy for inviting us into your mountain heart yet again, each time a trip worth taking, full of songs that just run over you like a waterfall of rediscovered memories.

    If you have not met Jeni and Billy before, this is a picnic you will always remember.

  2. Jeni & Billy are certainly a throwback to when there was no way to enhance your voice or your instrument prowess. What you heard was what you got. And aren’t we all better for it!

  3. This is the review I have been dreaming of ever since I decided to hang up straight poetry and start putting my poems in song form about 12 years ago. I was sitting in the Old-time tent at Merlefest listening to Polecat Creek sing a bone-chiling a cappella ballad about a widowed man overwhelmed by his children. They were singing, what to me, was a poem. Later that same year, I heard Anne Hills sing a haunting song with a Tibetan singing bell, and I felt she was calling to me to lift my voice and sing simply about “them that made me.”

    The place I come from in the coalfields of Appalachia is one of the the most beautiful and misunderstood places in the world. And it is my aim in life to continue to tell the stories of my home as best as I can. If I am called to turn my pen to other places like West Baltimore, then I will follow that call and bring my best words to it. I am ready to tell every story that comes to me and I can only hope that someone like Mr Weir will take notice. Absolutely, because it feels great and encourages me. I cried when I read this review. But I also hope this review will mean that the stories of these places and these people who called to me, will reach others who may need to hear these particular stories.

    I have been sustained, galvanized, soothed, and troubled by storytellers, including mentors like Hazel Dickens and Sarah Ogan Gunning, in my life and I hope very much to “do them proud” as Mawmaw would say. This review encourages me to keep at it.

    Thank you very much, Mr Weir, from me, Billy, and the Big Picnic Band!