ARTIST: JENI HANKINS AND BILLY KEMP

TITLE: JEWELL RIDGE COAL

LABEL: JEWELL RIDGE RECORDS

Release Date: Autumn 2008

By Susie Glaze

Jewel_Ridge_Coal_CD_Cover.jpgI recently became acquainted with the Appalachian folk music duo of Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp (they bill themselves as "Jeni & Billy") when I met and played alongside them at the FAR-West (Folk Alliance Regional) Music Conference in Irvine in early November. We shared a discussion panel on Appalachian music, and later we shared songs in a roundtable showcase room. It was, by virtue of the close confines of the room, a wonderfully intimate experience of their work, but also intimate by virtue of their art, their writing and performance style, and their honest, loving, warm and authentic presence.

I didn't fully appreciate then the complete depth and power of their work until I had a deep listen to their newest CD (released about a year ago) Jewell Ridge Coal. This, their second recording together, is a very fine project and an album you should hear. The writing is so clear, so poetic and honest, actually courageous in its simplicity, that you'll think you're listening to something very old. Indeed, they have been compared to the old-time masters, both in writing and in performance. Among modern composers, they also strongly remind me of the early work of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, both thematically and stylistically. In this comparison, though, Jeni and Billy bring an authenticity that belies sophistication, and to the extent that the old songs came from European origins, Jeni and Billy are carrying on with a deep cultural tradition, and this is, to me, the most important and profound element of their art.

Jewell Ridge Coal has been called "a love letter to the forgotten coal mining community in Southwest Virginia" and this is certainly true. The ten songs reflect painful and sweet memories and truths about the agony and ecstasy of that culture, dependent as it was on the mining companies and their cruel histories. With wonderful spare accompaniment (really beautiful guitar work from Billy), the songs are about specific people but evoke universal themes. The arc of the album tells a story of the Southwest Virginia coal mining community of Jewell Ridge and is often devastating in its power, ranging from actual miners' life stories, to union and striking, to drug addiction. Jeni and Billy share writing credits on a few of them, but Jeni's voice is dominant in the storytelling, as her upbringing was steeped in the area. She writes in her liner notes: "Without Jewell Ridge I don't know if I would have ever written a song. People up there seem to live between the extremes of joy and despair, with a love so fierce and determined it's almost dangerous...It seems to me I've been called to tell about his place..." And you hear that calling in what she writes.

Miner's Reward tells about a man who doesn't ever see the sun except on Sundays when he's off work but knows that his reward will be in "Heaven someday." Local 6167 is a brilliant melody that will stay with you for awhile, describing the abandoned train tracks and strike shack:

John Lewis called the mines a blood and bones machine

that grinds up the miner for the American Dream.

Or on the title track Jewell Ridge Coal:

Well we all want something we can never hold

And we keep on digging like to save our soul.

But there ain't no light in a pitch black hole

No, nothing's shining down in that coal.

Or on the fast and furious (thrilling, actually) love song Sweetness Keen As Pain:

And I can't get enough of that Jewell Ridge Girl

Over my heart she reigns.

From that coal black jewel all the sweetness I knew

Was a sweetness as keen as pain.

Though most of the tracks on Jewell Ridge Coal feature Jeni & Billy only, Grammy award winning artists Jim Lauderdale and Randy Kohrs add harmonies to a few songs, and fiddler Shad Cobb of the John Cowan Band adds on to a couple as well. Singer-songwriter Kim Peery Sherman lends a harmony and guitar work to Tazewell Beauty Queen, a great classic car/lust song. Jeni also plays guitar, and Billy does a fine banjo and harmonica.

Even though they've been winning serious acclaim for their work (this album debuted at number 5 on the International Folk & Bluegrass DJ Chart), the greatest description I've read about Jeni and Billy comes from a quote on their website from an 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...the music you two make [is] - inspired, true-to-your roots ... I like silent places in music . . . Quiet, silent places give you time to listen, and also time to think - they are vastly underrated." I couldn't agree more.

As live performers, Jeni and Billy offer beautifully chosen accompaniment and performances that are "never rushed." I like that description (also from their website). Being never rushed, they make you listen, they invite you to slow down. Another great one: "Their music is quiet enough to be heard and just loud enough to be unforgettable." You'll want to slow down and hear these stories of real life, handed down through a new generation once again, one courageous and clear-headed enough to make them new again for all of us.

Award-winning recording artist and critically-acclaimed Bluegrass powerhouse vocalist, Susie Glaze has been called by BLUEGRASS UNLIMITED "an important voice on the California Bluegrass scene." Her album "Blue Eyed Darlin'" was the winner of the Just Plain Folks 2006 Music Award for Best Roots Album and Folkworks Magazine's Pick for Best Bluegrass Album of 2005. "One of the most beautiful voices in bluegrass and folk music today." (Roz Larman of FolkScene). Susie's new release "Green Kentucky Blues" and additional recordings can be found at www.susieglaze.com.