Sunday, November 30, 2014

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Special Birthday report from just outside Joshua Tree National Park, California: Happy Birthday to my mother, Marcella Hankins. My mother solves problems in the night. We can be puzzling over a quilt pattern or how to build a new wall for my laundry room and, in the morning, she has the answer. She remembers all kinds of names of people and places. Her brain is buzzing all of the time with encyclopedic knowledge of everything from where I accidentally hid my rotary cutter from myself 400 miles away in Nashville to complex multi-step stain removal.

When I was working on my novel a few weeks ago, I was speaking to her about my characters' nicknames and she came up with perfect Christian names for them and a couple of plot points as well. She did that in the middle of talking about the next animated movie that was coming out that she wanted to see with my Dad and talking about my dress for the Big Picnic Band Concert.

We sometimes call my mom, Martha Junior, because she knows as much about crafts and decorating as Martha Stewart, but she's way funnier. My mom laughs and laughs just like her mom. The biggest bone in her body is her funny bone.

When I was a kid, my mom could make a coloring book page into a true work of art. She was the master of the coloring book in our house. She brought the scarecrow and Dorothy to life --even coloring Toto seven different colors of brown, black, and grey until he was ready to sit down on the page and bark.

My mom can pack a suitcase better than a salesman who flies five days a week. It's down to my mom's training that I was able to fly a hand crank sewing machine home from England and make the flight attendants reminisce about their mums sewing clothes for them when they were toddlers rather than fretting over my baggage weight. My mother has never surrendered a souvenir of foreign or domestic travel at the hands of a ticketing agent and I am determined to follow in her footsteps.

People ask me how I learned to tell stories and I can only explain that I come from a colorful family which makes for an endless supply of material, but that I also have a mother who read to me, who taught reading to other children, and who treasures books, especially children's books, like other people treasure gold or fresh air.

My mom is a quilter, a newspaper publisher, a photographer, a comedian, a master of pies, a vanquisher of stains, a house painter, a gardener, a movie nut, and, with my sister, my best girl friend. She has been cracking me up for a long time now and I expect there are many more hijinks, quilts, and pies up her sleeve.

To Marcella Hankins, Happy Birthday, long may you laugh. I love you, Mom.

Photo of Mom and me having a deep consultation about millinery at Davidson College. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

To be an artist, you have to fill your own shoes

Report on the occasion of leaving Los Angeles, California: When your cup runneth over with joy, sometimes you need to go stare at big old rocks. As our friend, Joseph, says, it's time for us to "be light and be salt." So, that's where we are headed today and for Thanksgiving -- to the land of big old rocks, Joshua Tree National Park. 

In some ways, we'll be coming full circle by driving back into that particular desert, because we were coming out of it two Mays ago when Dillon O'Brian called and invited us to the Malibu Inn to hear Moonalice. The terrible waitress at the Malibu Inn meant that Dave Way and Billy had to go find our drinks (even our austere water) and then they hatched the plan to have a recording session on my birthday. Billy doesn't generally remember about presents and holidays, but when he does, I get something like a whole recording session! Maybe I should send that waitress a thank you card.

I have always been a Jill of all trades. I have been a poet, beekeeper, painter, singer, sewist, booking agent, tour manager, journalist, graphic designer, travel agent, and accountant. When I was a kid, I was on math team, but also a ballerina. I went to a brainiac summer school for astronomy and sold my own book of poetry in the mall when I was 13. When I grew up, I was unwilling to give up any of these things. And with the encouragement of my parents, I found the one job that allowed me to combine all of the things I love. And shortly after I decided to be a performing songwriter, Billy appeared in my life. 

In the last year, and especially in the course of this Way Out West tour, I have, for the first time in my life, felt like a true working artist. Because there isn't really such a thing as singer-songwriter and storytelling school, I have always felt a bit unsure if I was qualified for my job. If I had wanted to be a nurse, gone to nursing school, and was now an RN, I wouldn't hesitate to think of myself as a Nurse. My schools were not only colleges and universities, but also children's theaters, football fields, symphonic halls, ballet bars, church choirs, and hard pews. But no one ever handed me a piece of paper that said I was officially a performing artist. So, I have been trying to grow into my own vision of what that calling would look like.

After hundreds of shows and 250,000 miles, five records and five quilt backdrops, something began to shift in me. I began to own my vocation right down to my red dancing shoes. 

And all of you have helped because you believe I am an artist and talk to me just as if I am. So thank you! Your friendship is one of the great joys of my life and so very nourishing.

Billy and I will be in the desert a few hours from now until Saturday, so we wish you a beautiful Thanksgiving and we send our friends in Canada and Britain love and warmth as well. 

Thank you to each and every one of our friends for being our light and salt. We love you. 

Photo by the wonderful, Amber Cross.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Paradise Pickers in LA

Report from Van Nuys, California: I have been in a bar about three times in my life, all within the last nine years. Bars make me nervous --  maybe because they are generally loud and I'm very sensitive to loud noises and loud places.

But, Wednesday night, our friend Dillon invited us to hear some friends of his play at Irelands 32 in Van Nuys. When people in Los Angeles invite you to hear their friends play, don't be surprised if their friend turns out to be Merle Haggard's bassist. Just act casual, like it happens every day.

At some point, the band invited Dillon up to play and sing and then the late Etta James's guitarist offered Billy his guitar. It seemed like a casual enough act, but then he sat down beside me and said, "I never let anyone play that guitar, but I know there's some history there." He closed his eyes and listened with a smile.

And so for the first time in 32 years, Dillon and Billy played country blues together. And for the first time in nine years Billy played electric guitar. 

After a lifetime of playing and producing country, blues, rock, Eastern Indian, and folk music, touring on spiffy buses, and performing at the Grand Ole Opry, Billy heard my songs and offered to go out on the road with this unknown Appalachian storyteller and songwriter. He believed in me completely and has stood there on my left through hundreds of concerts over the last nine years. And I am ever mindful of the deep love he has for music and the lifetime of performance he brought to our leap into Jeni & Billy.

Here's to Billy, my true love, and here's to Dillon O'Brian, our true blue friend. It was pure joy to hear you Baltimore Boys together again.

Friday, November 21, 2014

California Dreaming at Caltech

Short report from Pasadena, California:

When your dreams come true,

sing a new old tune,

wear a yellow dress,

bring your friends,

so they can dream with you.

When dreams comes true,

have your true love by your side,

wear a yellow dress,

and have your heart open wide.

The Big Picnic Band at Caltech on November 15, 2014 -- including fellow dreamers, Craig Eastman, Dave Way, Dillon O'Brian & Denny Weston Jr. (special guest Carolyn Baker not pictured here). Also not pictured, dreamer Alison Moynihan-Eastman, right hand woman, and dreamer Patricia VanOver, Filming guru.

Photo by dreamer and songstress, Fur Dixon.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Birthday Tour Report from Los Angeles, California: Happy Birthday to my Dad, Greg Hankins!

When I was seven, my Dad took me to a graduate seminar in religion at Harvard, where he was a student. I played with my Raggedy Ann doll and colored in the corner of the room. I was home sick from elementary school, my mom was at work, and there were no sitters available, so I went to Harvard for the day. 

I saw how serious the students were and I listened to my Dad talk with a voice that has always sounded kind and tree-like to me. I couldn't easily understand what they were speaking about, but I loved the music of their discussion. I also noticed they were all writing things down. Their paper was not grey with big lines like mine, but white with skinny lines and all bound together. I had discovered the notebook.

After class, I asked my Dad for a notebook and he took me to The Coop in Harvard Square. When we got home, I asked him what I should write in it. He said, "Write me a story." So, I wrote about Will and Dill, two pickles who were forgotten in the back of the fridge. My next story was about kumquats. And so it began, my life of finding the best words.

Here's to my Dad who taught me to write and to play music, who sang to me, and sang with me -- to my Dad who took me to concerts and festivals, plays and museums. When I sat with my Dad in the Old-time tent at Merlefest, I had an epiphany about poetry, art, and music, and found my calling -- this calling.

The other day I was trying to tell my Dad this without making him feel too sheepish and he said, "Well, I took you to NASCAR, too, so you could have gone in a whole nother direction." 

That's my Dad!

Photo: Starting my education early at Davidson College, Davidson, North Carolina, at my Dad's graduation. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Big Picnic Band

Short Report from Sherman Oaks, California: The Big Picnic Band! Thrilled to pieces, chuffed to bits! Photo by Alison Moynihan-Eastman!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Rehearsal time

Short Report from Los Angeles, California: On our way to rehearse with the Big Picnic Band! Concert tomorrow, Sat Nov 15, Pasadena Folk Music Society at Caltech. 8pm start.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Grandaddy Long Legs

Report from Burbank, California: Grandaddy would only listen to Roger Miller or Willie Nelson. For him, you could find all you needed in Roger and Willie and all other music was superfluous. I distinctly remember a Thanksgiving shortly before he crossed over when he held my hand as we stood in the doorway of Mom and Dad's kitchen and he sang "England swings like a pendulum do, Bobbies on bicycles, two by two, Westminster Abbey, the tower of Big Ben, the rosy red cheeks of the little children."

He could remember Roger Miller, but I wasn't sure if he remembered me because he had Alzheimer's by then. It didn't matter in the grand scheme of things, though, because I was happy to be standing with my grandfather, hand in hand, listening to him sing through his big Hankins gap-toothed smile.

He was in the Navy and didn't like it much, but he served his time when called. He spent the whole time in dry dock in Norfolk, Virginia, chipping paint and editing the ship's newspaper. He got out and became a newspaper man after having having made his start as a kid sweeping the floors of the Richlands News Progress when his own Dad died of black lung at the age of thirty-three.

I didn't know him so well growing up, since he and my grandmother divorced when my Dad was a kid. But our paths crossed now and again in my childhood and then more so when I got to college. I lived with him for a summer while I was in college. He let me work at his newspaper in Troy, North Carolina, where I did weddings and obituaries, and manned the front desk and the main telephone line. He assigned me two feature stories and one got picked up by the Catholic Reporter. He ate a pack of nabs (peanut butter on cheese crackers) and drank a coke for lunch each day. I rode with him to and from work and the tenor of his conversation was about how I needed to get a job after graduation and think big. And he continued in this vein all through our steamed vegetable dinners at night.

I think his itchy feet must have been passed on to this hobo girl who does her own kind of reporting in songs and stories. I began these tour reports on a whim, but as the weeks have worn on, I have felt a true resonance with Grandaddy and my own father and mother who publish a local newspaper in North Carolina. It's good to be in the family business.

Thanks, R. Guy, for the gap in my teeth that followed me through school pictures, for the solar calculator I still have in my desk drawer, for the way I squint my right eye in photos, for the white teddy bear I named Poltergeist, for always carrying tic-tacs, for your big barrel laugh, and for being our very own Grandaddy Long Legs. 

Robert Guy Hankins 1930-2002

"The river flows on like a breath
In between our life and death.
Tell me who's the next to cross the borderline."
– Ry Cooder, Jim Dickinson, John Hiatt (as sung by Willie Nelson)

Monday, November 10, 2014

A song for love by Jeni Hankins

Report from Studio City, California: A song for love by Jeni Hankins inspired by Love found on a haystack on Laurel Canyon Boulevard.
Love travels with us wherever we go. Love is tin cans trailing from the back of our car. Love is the song we sing. Love is the story we tell. Love takes us everywhere and we find love when we get there. Love wakes us up and love sings to us at night. Love holds us gently in the ever-growing light. And we all, dear friends, are love's messengers. Let's go and be love.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Shop girl

Short Report from Sun City, California:

Shop girl, shop girl,
Carries her shop around.
Quilts, songs, and stories
for your dollars or your pounds.

When I was a kid, I always wanted to have my own mercantile and now I do! 

Jeni & Billy at McCabe's Guitar Shop!

Report from McCabe's Guitar Shop, California: I kept it under my hat that I had some butterflies last night. It's not normal for me. I've been performing since I was four. But McCabe's is one of the most famous venues in the USA, thus the butterflies. 

At the very beginning, I knew things were going to be alright because they laughed. God bless the laughing crowds, they give my stories wings and inspire me to create new ones on the spot. God bless the woman who nearly fell out of her chair she was so touched in the funny bone. And bless the people who came out after and said they wanted the CD with the stories.

One of those folks was one of my TV heroes, Dann Florek, who played on Law & Order for years! Oh my goodness. And it's always a terrific honor to have a fellow songwriter come to see us which the brilliant Ernest Troost did. And his beautiful wife, Louise, who looks as though she just popped out of a storybook, brought me fabric that belonged to her mother.

There aren't enough thanks for Susie Glaze & her Hilonesome Band who have adopted us as their own ever since our first trip out here to California. They could have had the whole night to themselves, but they chose very generously to insist that we open for them.

And so a very special performing dream came true for us last night and it was a barrel of fun and, best of all, the folks at McCabe's want us back. Ta-da! Woooohooo!

Photo of us from the top of the stairs by the fabulous fiddling Mark Indictor. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

From Jewell Ridge to Burbank and back again

Report from Jewell Ridge, Virginia and Burbank, California: "What do the people up on Jewell Ridge think about what you're doing?" I get that question from time to time after our concerts. 

For one thing, they probably think it's a bit funny how I have become the Jewell Ridge Girl, but I actually grew up on Smith Ridge, which is named after my great great great grandmother whose parents owned the ridge. The coal company was called the Jewell Coal Company, thus Jewell Ridge, thus the song "Jewell Ridge Coal." But Smith Ridge is in the Jewell Ridge zip code as are a lot of obscure hills and hollers up on that mountain. In fact, where Chicken Ridge is now was the original Jewell Ridge, but when the coal company built their rows of coal camp houses on over from the originialJewell Ridge, they did not pause to call the new community Jewell Ridge and rename the old Jewell Ridge, Chicken Ridge.

I have a lot of cousins in southwest Virginia, Florida, and east Tennessee. We don't see much of each other though we share the common experience of watching Days of Our Lives or Another World with our grandparents and hearing the obituaries read out on WRIC in Richlands. We went to the rec park to swim and we at Fruity Pebbles for dinner if we wanted.

Facebook keeps all of us cousins in touch with each others lives – the babies, the fireworks, the day in and day out – and when they comment on our travels or our music, I feel a sense of elation because they are, in some ways, the people who know most whether I am telling the truth of where we come from. We all had our different raisings (Facebook doesn't think that's a word, but I will argue for it), but there's no getting around that these are real people and real places I've chosen to share with our listeners from Los Angeles, California, to Scarborough, England. I am a storyteller, but the stories have roots in flesh and blood, dirt and coal.

When I wrote about the Little Drum Majorette for a week, my cousin Camie wrote me back to say that her older boy had been reading the stories to her younger boy every day. This, my friends, was one of the greatest compliments I have ever received. She said they had all kinds of questions they wanted to ask the Little Drum Majorette about the parade and her life! 

And now, Camie and her sister Annie helped their children, James, Blake, Briar, and Sadie, make birthday cards for Don, the World War II vet I posted about. Camie said that this was an important opportunity to teach them a life lesson about Veterans and the meaning of Veterans day.

So, when people ask me what my travels and songs about Jewell Ridge mean to the people up on Jewell Ridge, and, in particular, my family, I think about James, Blake, Briar, Sadie, Camie, and Annie and I feel like they are proud of me, their wandering cousin, because they know that I take them and all of my family and the spirit of our mountain wherever I go. 

Cards by James, Blake, Briar, and Sadie. Photo of Jeni by Billy Kemp.


Report from Burbank, California: You know you are writing a southern novel when you have to verify the spelling of hebejebe. And you feel you've arrived as a southerner, when you see that you've spelled it right.

This is a photo from my great-grandmother's photo box which furnished most of the pictures for our CD covers and booklets. I've always loved this lady, but her name is not on the back of the photo and no one in my family seems to know who she is. 

But for right now, she's standing in for Charlene, the mother in my novel. That's the great joy of making things up.

Time for bed!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

NaNoWriMo, time to write a novel

Report from Atascadero, California: Call me crazy, but I have started a new novel even though I didn't finish the first one, yet! It's national novel writing month. Yes, there is such a thing! And though I was tempted to revise and complete the novel that I started last November, I just had the faintest idea for a new one and decided to go for it. 

So, even though we are on tour, and my days are wild already, I am going to do this thing because I am already enjoying it. 

NaNoWriMo, the folks that put these strange novel-writing notions into the heads of thousands of people each year, has a term for people like me. I am a "pantser." This means that I am writing the novel by the seat of my pants. Well, I am literally, because novel writing involves a lot of sitting still and concentrating on one task - not checking facebook, not checking email, not making a tea, not wandering into the kitchen for a lovely piece of Irish soda bread made by Anet . . . no, no, no (to quote Ringo Starr). Pantsers made no plans, did no research, outlines, flow charts, before November 1. We just sat down and wrote the first sentence and then, like someone pacing off for a duel, we put another sentence after the first and prayed that we would not be vanquished by the third sentence, and so on. 

Even though we had two concerts this past weekend, I have managed to eek out 2007 words of the 50,000 word goal which means I am behind, but not desperately so. 

As a pantser, I find great solace in this quote by E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I once had to do this kind of driving for my Mawmaw Ann up on Smith Ridge. She has a large buick; we did not go off a cliff; we got home and ate some sherbet cake to calm our nerves.

This gives me courage to keep on going and see where Chip leads me. Chip is the name of my protagonist and she will be my companion for the next month. 

Winnie-the-Pooh has also agreed to help out. He's very quiet and doesn't mind when I talk to myself.

It's not too late to go ahead and sign up to write a novel, too. We can be writing buddies! I know you'll write something wonderful, come along! 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Don is a Veteran of World War II, kept bees, and chased wild horses

I thrilled to say that I have just received permission from the VA to re-post my report about Don, the 95 year old WWII veteran who will be celebrating his 96th birthday on Armistice Day, November, 11, at the VA Hospital. If you would like to send this wonderful and kind man a birthday card, please send me a private message and I will reply with his address. Let’s make this birthday extra extra beautiful for him.

Report from a Veteran’s Affairs Hospital in California: He likes green and yellow and country western music. He grew up in Utah and Nevada and loved to chase wild horses when he was a kid. He was drafted into the 27th infantry division in 1942. He was 23 years old. He fought at Okinawa, the bloodiest battle of the Pacific theater, and survived. He came home to Utah and followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and his father to become a commercial beekeeper. He worked in the bee-yard his whole life. He is nearly blind. He held my hand tightly. When I asked him if we could have a hug, he smiled widely and his eyes lit up. This is Don and when he turns 96 on November 11th, he said that no one will be coming to see him. And on his birthday, he may not remember that his wife came to see him, because he often forgets people and things.

The staff at the VA tell me that forgetfulness is much more common in vets than other people because of the physical and emotional trauma they experienced in combat.

So, I sat with him a bit longer. I found out he loves watermelon, corn on the cob, biscuits, and gravy. I sang to him to him a capella -- The Tennessee Waltz and Gold Watch and Chain -- and he never let go of my hand. I am honored that we got to play country music for Don today, and Mr. J who did four tours in Vietnam and showed me how to two step, and Mr. M who was a paratrooper in Korea and requested rock-n-roll -- Billy was happy to oblige with a rendition of Nadine.

We had a beautiful afternoon with a group of music-loving veterans because of Bread & Roses and Marian Hubler. Thank you, Marian, for this opportunity, and thank you Don, for keeping me company today.

Blabber & Smoke on Picnic in the Sky

How wonderful to get a spot-on review of Picnic in the Sky from the fine ears and able pen of Paul Kerr up at Blabber & Smoke in Scotland. He completely "got" our aim.

"This is as fine a slice of delicate, bruised, and uplifting roots music you'll hear in a while."

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A ghost song from Jeni & Billy

Special Musical Report from Atascadero, California: To celebrate Halloween, the Day of the Dead, and All Saints Day, you can hear our ghost song, The Dominecker Hen, streaming free on Bandcamp for the next week!

This is the first song that Billy and I ever recorded together on our own in his former studio in rural Maryland. After this, we knew that we wanted to work with each other from then on.

I wrote "The Dominecker Hen" after watching the film Wisconsin Death Trip. The imagery in the film is so evocative and much of it comes from the historical photographs of small town photographer Charles van Schaick who took the photo I'm featuring.

The filmmakers also highlight the tremendous struggle faced by immigrants who chose to settle in Wisconsin without being prepared for the harsh climate.

There were also a lot of unexplained phenomena in the late 1800s in Wisconsin, if we are to believe the film.

All of this combined with my great grandmother's statement that a crowing hen meant a death coming in the family, moved me to write a ghost song.

We don't often perform this song because a lot of audience members have felt a bit un-nerved by it when we do perform it. It's a ghost tale, after all. 'Tis the season. Boo!

Historical photo by Charles van Schaick.

Passing the prison in Salinas

Report from Soledad, California, outside the Correctional Training Center: When I was a kid, I was very determined to be good. Nearly all of the time I did the chores I was asked to do. I finished my homework each night. I practiced my trombone most of the time. I didn't like disappointing my parents and they expected me to work hard at everything that I did. And they were always there to help with homework and ferry me and my sister around to our extra-curricular activities. I was very lucky.

If I unwittingly made friends with kids at school who wanted to wreck things, steal things, or cheat, I found a way not to be around them. And, eventually, they found someone else to help them set books on fire in the teacher's yard (yes, that really did happen!).

But sometimes I wonder if I wanted to be good because my parents were very good. They read to us. They sang to us. They colored in coloring books with us. Even though they were broke college students, they took us to art museums, concerts, and movies. I distinctly remember going to see a claymation movie festival when I was eight with my Dad in Harvard Square. Mom & Dad encouraged us to think we could do anything and everything -- piano, children's theater, choir, dance, and on and on.

If I wanted to make a replica of a Swiss village out of clay, my Dad was in. If I wanted sew my own clothes, my mom got out her machine. We had good teachers and bad teachers. We went to excellent schools and some that were considered poor. But my parents were always our first teachers.

My sister and I argued, we threw tantrums, we were cranky, and we went through growing pains many times over. We weren't perfect, but we did try to be our best, all of us, as much as we could.

So when Billy and I rode by one of the nation's most famous overpopulated prisons (at 170% of capacity), I couldn't help wondering what kind of person I would have been if I didn't know where my next meal was coming from, if I'd never had anyone read to me, if I couldn't read, if my neighborhood was full of gangs and my parents were working three jobs each, never home. What if I was threatened every day of my life? What if my childhood had been full of guns, drugs, and fear, instead of ballet shoes, pizza night, and laughter. Would I be the same me? Or would I be one of the 200,000 women in federal prison in this country or one of the 1 million women on probation or parole. 

Or would I, like the girl I saw on McHenry Street in West Baltimore, have been able to find my way in the other America, the invisible America, to making flags out of a trash heap and a color guard out of a bunch of girls just as vulnerable as myself? 

Most of us will never be tested in this way.