A year ago I saw the Appalachian folk duo Jeni & Billy for the first time and was blown by not only their songs, but also their knack for storytelling. Last night, they returned to Barnsley Folk Club to a good and eager crowd.
As usual, any guest performance at the club is preceded by a slow session, wherein musicians play along with each other to a selection of traditional tunes selected there and then, and a number of floor spots offered to regulars and new visitors. There were a number of performances, taking in shanties, comedy songs and version of American folk songs too.
The Nashville duo play a number of songs already known to me and the rest of the audience, some of which had turned up especially for this performance. Their songs and stories tell tales of Jeni’s upbringing in West Virginian, church schools, her Uncle Roy Lee’s pink Chevy, the tragic death of her moonshining Great Grampa and maybe most notably for Barnsley audiences, the social history of Jewell Ridge’s mining community. Amongst them are the upbeat numbers, If I Ever Get Ten Dollars, Chicken Ridge and Picnic in the Sky; each one so full to bursting with vivid colour and images and choruses just made for singing along to that you just can’t help yourself.
Then you have the sad songs, and what is folk music without the grit? Oxycodone tells the story of coal miners injured in a local mining disaster who were prescribed the drug to help them cope with the pain but then became addicted, Tazewell Beauty Queen – a sad song of escape, and my very favourite Middle Creek, sung from the perspective of grandchildren trying to braid together the strands of their moonshining grandfather’s life and to understand his outsider status in their community (I’ve been playing and singing this to myself since I first heard it last year). Sweet Song Coming Round ends their set, luminous in its optimism.
For someone who isn’t overly familiar with Appalachian folk music, it’s hard to place references here. I can say though that if you are a fan of The Carter Family and June Carter, then you will be over the moon having found this pair. Jeni is instantly likable. She’s a formidable story-teller with a beautiful authentic old country voice, a fantastic musician, and a great flat-foot dancer to boot! Billy is the perfect foil. As a banjo player he is second to none and when he does join in to sing backing or harmonies, it’s spot-on.
The world they sing of seems a million miles away, yet some of those songs of life in a small mining town ring very true and are actually much closer to home than first seems, and would easily sit side-by-side with some traditional Yorkshire folk songs. Their website and album sleeves are adorned with many images of generations of Jeni’s family and Jewell Ridge locals. One EP was even recorded and pressed to trade for fabrics while on tour, to make a quilt as they travelled the word. I love their stories and I love what they do.
I cannot recommend Jeni & Billy enough and assuming they visit Yorkshire again next year, you’d do good to track them down.
To find out more about Jeni & Billy visit jeniandbilly.com and facebook.com/jeniandbilly
To keep up to date with future Barnsley Folk Club event, follow the club at facebook.com/pages/Barnsley-Folk-and-Acoustic-Night/106566706084254