This is me, Jeni Hankins
in case we haven't met before or haven't met for a little while.
Dear friends and readers,
Happy Thanksgiving to my friends in the USA!
I have some new readers here on Substack and it’s been a few years since I’ve been on an extended concert tour and had the chance to see folks in real life. So, I thought I would re-introduce myself and speak about these letters I write.
Why not start with some music? If you click the “play” arrow below, you can hear my most popular song – “Tazewell Beauty Queen.” I’ve never missed playing it at a single concert since 2006. My Uncle Roy Lee told me the story which inspired it. He was the story. He was my grandmother’s brother.
|LISTEN NOW · 3:19
The letters I write now grew out of e-mail notices that I used to send out about upcoming concert tours. Back in 2005, I started asking folks to sign up for the Jeni Hankins and then the Jeni & Billy (my ole duo) newsletter at concerts. That way people would know when I was going to be back in town or when my new CD was coming out. As I began to tell more stories in concert, I also began writing stories on social media and in these newsletters. Many of these stories have their roots in my own roots in Appalachia.
So, who am I?
I was born in the Southwest part of Virginia – that diminishing triangle part of Virginia which comes to a point around Bristol, the town in the two states of Virginia and Tennessee. My hometown is Richlands, Virginia, and also the coal mining community north of Richlands up Highway 67 called Smith Ridge. My great-great grandfather John Rufus Smith built a cabin up on Smith Ridge in Tazewell County in the late 1800s. He and his wife Susie Ellen had eleven children. My great-grandmother was also one of eleven children. She was called Narcie. She and John Rufus’ son Avery were both born in 1903 only a few days apart. They married and settled on Smith Ridge, too. She was a quilter, a mother, and she grew a lot of her family’s food. He was a coal miner and bee-keeper.
The things I love best in the world all come from this place three thousand feet up in the Appalachian mountains. I sing, play instruments, write songs and stories, and I sew, dye, paint, and print. These loves are my family inheritance. Every day, I wake up ready to make something spoken, sung, written, or felt. I’m often collecting things both physical and mental to put together into a made thing. I also collect things because we Smiths (and my Mom’s side of the family, too) always have. We are gatherers-up of things. It’s as though we have magnets which draw dollies, bits of fabric, tunes, paintbrushes, and words to us. Some days, I get distracted or I have to do the taxes or renew insurance and not much else happens, but the best days are days of making.
Just as I was finishing graduate school twenty years ago, I started writing songs about my childhood home in Appalachia. This happened for a few reasons. As an undergraduate at Davidson College, I read the book Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith. This was an alarm clock ringing in my brain to say “Wake up and WRITE about home.” I read “Richlands” in her novel for the first time and I realized that I, too, could write about this place, my home.
My Dad had always played guitar, harmonica, and sung folk and country songs to my sister and me. I thought this was like magic. He decided he wanted to build a banjo at a camp, so I went with him and we both built banjos. Then we both began playing banjo. I’m much more interested in playing an instrument if I can sing with it. And, it turns out, I’m especially interested in playing an instrument if I can sing a song that I wrote with it. I grew up in band (trombone), choir (church), and musical theatre. This was my destiny.
Another thing that really set my brain on fire about songwriting was going to Merlefest (massive roots music festival in North Carolina) with my Dad and hearing the women from the group Polecat Creek sing an unaccompanied song called “The Bottomland.” It was written by a North Carolinian named Cindy Castevens. It’s a sad and provoking song about a woman who dies in childbirth and what happens to her family. What Laurelyn and Carrie sang was not prettified, but it was honest and real. I wanted to write and sing the stories of my ancestors in an honest straightforward way.
I started gathering up as many stories about our family as I could. I looked at photos and asked my grandmother and her sisters questions. Their answers became songs and stories which my fans came to know in the way that some of us might know Little House on the Prairie or Anne of Green Gables. Uncle Roy Lee and his Chevy. Aunt Erma and her Gingerbread. Watching Days of Our Lives. Going up Chicken Ridge.
In 2005, I started playing songs at open mics in the Washington DC area. In 2006, I formed a duo with Billy Kemp and we toured the UK, Canada, and all across the USA for ten years. When the duo finished, I moved to England in 2017 and I continued to tour on both sides of the Atlantic until the pandemic hit. During the pandemic, I released three albums and dyed stacks of fabric with plants I collected on walks along the Lancashire hedgerows.
In the course of it all, I’ve lived in ten states and five countries, and played concerts in third-five states and four countries. I have three degrees none of which are in music (but in philosophy, art, and English literature), and I drive on both the right and the left side of the road, but not at the same time (ideally). I used to know how to twirl a baton, throw it up in the air, and catch it without a disaster.
That’s me, abridged.
I’ve been writing songs and stories about my family up on the mountain ever since it occurred to me that I could. And YOU have read my letters, sung my songs, written to me, and told me stories of your own.
I think it can be tricky on the internet to share sincere thanks because so much seems “produced” and “curated,” but I’m going to thank you right now. I have been able to have many adventures and meet many wonderful people who I now call friends because my stories, songs, and stitches and your reactions to them built a bridge between us. You learned about me and I learned about you. I am grateful for this because the world seems increasingly fragmented and fragile. I am glad to be holding one end of this thread when I know you are holding the other end.
There are so very very very many things to read, watch, and hear online. I don’t know how everyone else out there is wading through it all and making choices. I choose things that speak to my heart, make me laugh, and give me a sense of wonder and empathy. If my letters and my music can be that kind of good place for you, I am glad.
Love and hugs, big hugs,
To read an essay about my great-grandmother’s quilts and Jane Austen:
To read about my family’s cabin:
To hear one of my most recent songs:
Find me on: