Jewell Ridge Coal is the new record from acoustic duo Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp. Drawing from Traditional Country, Appalachian, Old-time, Country Blues, Bluegrass and Folk music to create their original songs, Jeni & Billy have crafted a unique sound that is truly their own. With their sparse sound and absorbing lyrics, they have caught the attention of Americana greats Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller and folk-rock artist Jim Reilley of the New Dylans. Yet one of their favorite reviews comes from Asheville, North Carolina, antiquarian map dealer John Ptak who writes, “I knew within 10 seconds that you guys were for real . . . Jeni\'s voice is that clear Mother-M kind of quality that I love. I like the music you two make – inspired, true-to-your roots, spare (excellent) guitar. I like silent places in music . . . Quiet, silent places give you time to listen, and also time to think – they are vastly underrated.”
Jewell Ridge Coal chronicles the changing fortunes of the Southwest Virginia coal mining community of Jewell Ridge. Though the subject is regional, the songs are meant to present universal themes -- earth & heaven, rich & poor, love & loss, work & rest. Local 6167, named after the UMWA Local in Jewell Ridge follows a laid-off miner as he rambles and reminisces among the places that boomed in big coal’s heyday. In Oxycodone, a song based on a January 2008 Washington Post feature story by Nick Miroff, a miner contemplates the advice of his estranged father after a prescription drug addiction has left his home in shambles. Middle Creek is sung from the perspective of grandchildren trying to braid together the strands of their moonshining grandfather’s life and to understand his hardness and his outsider status in their community.
Though many of the tracks on Jewell Ridge Coal feature Jeni & Billy only, they couldn’t resist inviting a few friends to take part. Grammy award winning artist Jim Lauderdale and his Grammy award winning producer Randy Kohrs sing harmony. Virtuoso fiddler Shad Cobb of the John Cowan Band lends his soulful strokes to a couple of tunes. And singer-songwriter Kim Peery Sherman lends a gorgeous alto harmony and twinkling guitar to the ballad Tazewell Beauty Queen.
Jeni comes by her mournful, lonesome voice honestly. Born in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia, her singing has been compared to that of Mother Maybelle Carter and Hazel Dickens. A born storyteller, she has been a writer almost since she could put pen to paper, a vocation inherited from her journalist father and grandfather. Jeni honed her powers of observation and turn of phrase as a student of Pulitzer Prize winning Northern Irish poet (and sometime rock lyricist) Paul Muldoon who with his typical brevity called Jeni & Billy’s 2006 EP Sweet & Toxic “Great Stuff!!!”
Billy comes to the duo with a long history of music-making. He has been everywhere from Germany to the Grand Ole Opry playing his guitar and singing. A Baltimore native, he was introduced to the world of country music through the fateful movie house experience of seeing Bonnie & Clyde. He loved the music of Flatt & Scruggs so much he went back just to listen fourteen times. He has played numerous bluegrass festivals sharing stages with Jim & Jesse and Jimmy Martin. Billy has also performed solo at nationally known venues such as the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, the Lonestar Cafe in New York, the Kennedy Center and the Birchmere, opening for Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Kathy Mattea, Janis Ian, and Joe Ely among others. He has leant his talents to the shows of many folk luminaries including Oscar Brand, Christine Lavin, and Tom Paxton, as well as producing and touring with Debi Smith.
Together, Jeni & Billy will draw you into captivating narratives of heartache and hard living, of true life blues and unexpected grace. Images of coal & crowns, trash & trailers, and glass and gasoline recur, and Jesus and the Great Speckled Bird are never far off.