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The high twang of a banjo starts it off -- or maybe 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.
In the past four years, Jeni & Billy have travelled from their home in East Nashville over 150,000 miles throughout the USA & Canada -- and hopped across the Atlantic three times -- just to paint those pictures in song for thousands of people. At festivals and fiddlers' conventions along the way, they have picked up ribbons in songwriting, traditional folk-singing, guitar-picking, and flatfoot dancing.
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 Old 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.