Funny how things come back to haunt you. Well, not haunt exactly but Jeni & Billy got in touch with Blabber’n’Smoke a few months ago asking if we wanted a copy of their new album, Picnic In The Sky. Back in 2010, we listened to their album, Longing For Heaven describing it as the sparse folk sound of the mountains and backwoods folk, god fearing, hardworking, scraping a living but finding joy in family and friends and giving it a big thumbs up. And so it was that Picnic In The Sky winged its way here. It’s fair to say that all we said about Longing For Heaven could be said about Picnic In The Sky with one caveat. The duo’s sparse sound is supplanted by some accompanying musicians, a situation that was not planned per se but came about as a result of some serendipitous goings on including a waitress taking a food order and then disappearing for some time.
The result is an album of Jeni & Billy with Craig Eastman, David Jackson, Denny Weston Jnr. and Dillon O’Brian filling in on fiddle, slide guitar, lap steel, mandolin, bass, accordion, drums, keyboards, claps, feet, shovel, rake and baking pan (!). It’s still raw country music, still what you might expect to hear on a porch, just this time you might need a bigger porch. The expanded instrumentation does allow for a degree of sophistication with The Days Of The Blue Tattoo, a song about a white woman captured by Yavapai Native Americans, brimming with lush guitars, bar room piano, accordion and fiddle and sounding for all the world like an Emmylou Harris song from the late seventies. However it’s testament to their homespun qualities that the band songs retain an earthiness that harks back to the early recordings of The Carter Family with the two best examples being Are You Meant For Me and The Mill Hurries On, the latter being the song that features the shovel and rake percussion on a wonderfully woozy and sepia stained waltz. There are numerous delights here with the opening song, The Robin & The Banjo an excellent example of raw Appalachian music complete with flatfoot dance steps while Picnic In The Sky flies along borne on lilting slide guitar as it paints a picture of bygone days. And for anyone hankering for the simplicity of their earlier recordings there’s The Old Hotel, a plaintive and raw monochrome capture of a desperate lover, armed with a gun and a fifty dollar bill, returning to that hotel looking for the will and the way to end it all. Great stuff indeed.
Jeni Hankins assures me that she and Billy Kemp will be in Scotland next year. In the meantime this is as fine a slice of delicate, bruised and uplifting roots music you’ll hear in a while.