Tommy Kahi was the city’s leading guitar teacher in the early 1960s and Blackadder was his top student. But when Max Merritt called on Kahi for the cream of his crop and found out she was a young blonde girl, he invited “second-best” Peter Williams to join The Meteors on guitar instead.
She found an old four-string banjo in a junk shop; it became her instrument of choice
Some years later, Jenny Blackadder acquired an old four-string banjo found in a junk shop. It became her instrument of choice, and she made her way to country music, winning awards, releasing albums and performing all over New Zealand and in Australia and the United States.
In 2007, she was inducted into America’s Old-Time Country Music Hall of Fame in Iowa, and two years later received the Queen’s Service Medal in New Zealand for services to country music. Blackadder has been unable to play for the past few years since being diagnosed with dementia and she is now living comfortably near family in Blenheim.
Jeanette Lesley Simpson was born in Christchurch in 1947 and started playing ukulele at the age of eight before taking up guitar. While still at Avonside Girls’ High School, she was taking lessons from Tommy Kahi, eventually leaving school to become his assistant teacher. Around 1965 she was briefly guitarist in Christchurch’s all-female rock’n’roll band The Chikadees that Kahi helped put together.
When she was 22, Jenny came into possession of a four-string tenor banjo that her father helped repair and she taught herself to play old-time, ragtime and Dixieland jazz by copying what she heard on records. Her late uncle had been a banjo player.
She put an ad in the paper to form a Dixie band and for seven years her Garden City Trad played every Friday and Saturday night at the Phoenix Tavern in Papanui. By now married to Brian Hern, it wasn’t uncommon to have children Debbie and Geoffrey tag along to gigs when a babysitter couldn’t be found.
Jenny became interested in country music, even taking up the pedal steel guitar. She soon adapted her Dixieland banjo method to country tunes, steering clear of the Earl Scruggs bluegrass style in favour of strumming chord melodies with a plectrum like her hero Eddie Peabody. His recording career in the United States lasted from the 1920s into the 1960s.
ON BANJO, SHE STEERED CLEAR OF THE EARL SCRUGGS BLUEGRASS STYLE, PREFERRING THAT OF HER HERO, EDDIE PEABODY
In the mid-1970s, Jenny married Ross Blackadder, father of future All Blacks captain Todd Blackadder. With her husband’s encouragement, Jenny dipped a toe into the New Zealand country music awards circuit.
She won four awards, including South Island Overall Country Music Artist, at the South Island Country Music Awards in Christchurch in 1979, and Top Instrumentalist and the eponymous prize at the New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards in Gore in 1980. The latter led to the release of albums Banjo Party and Banjo Country on Music World, trips to Australia and the newspapers calling her “New Zealand’s queen of the banjo”.
Jenny and Ross Blackadder moved to Oamaru and capitalised on the awards success by putting together the New Zealand Gold Guitar Road Show that travelled New Zealand annually from 1982 to 1986. The tours featured other past winners such as Patsy Riggir, Noel Parlane and Vicki Galloway, as well as guests including Suzanne Prentice and Toni Williams.
Finding a rhythm section that could keep up with the rapid pace of Jenny’s banjo pieces was often difficult. For at least one tour, she took her teenaged bass-playing son Geoffrey Hern out of school to join the backing band.
“That was probably the biggest eye-opener of my life to see what they were all up to on the road,” Hern told AudioCulture. “One of the things you see on the road is the friendships that they had and the fun that they had together. We did all sorts of shows together over the years. She always got me to come and sing on her shows or play bass for her.”
In Oamaru, the Blackadders converted the basement of their home into a performance space and bar for South Canterbury and North Otago musicians. In a separate room in the basement, Jenny Blackadder continued to teach guitar in the same fashion she had learned from Tommy Kahi two decades earlier.
She appeared on prime-time TV show That’s Country and its successor Patsy Riggir Country and switched to RCA in 1986 for the New Zealand’s Queen Of The Banjo LP. She toured New Zealand with American stars Johnny Tillotson and George Hamilton IV. The Blackadders returned to Christchurch in the 1990s, starting a successful business importing Japanese cars, but they divorced in 2003.
In 2002, Jenny Blackadder was included in the Hands of Fame in Gore for her ongoing promotion and contribution to New Zealand country music, and five years later was inducted into America’s Old-Time Country Music Hall of Fame at the 32nd National Old Time Country Music Festival in Iowa. She returned there in 2008, when she was crowned Queen of the Banjo for her work keeping banjo music alive around the world.
“The main stage at the festival was outside in front of thousands of people,” Blackadder wrote at the time. “My shows were becoming bigger and bigger by the day; they came in droves to hear this Kiwi girl who was so different to listen to. The only four-string plectrum player there. All the slick-pickin’ five-string guys came up to me and asked me all about my four-string OME banjo and how I did it.”
She travelled to Nashville, where she appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, and remained in the States for several months as she came to terms with how well she had been received. “I had not realised that I was such a unique entertainer to the Americans. I was playing the early American style that no one played anymore.”
In Nashville, she found, “They all loved my Kiwi accent and were interested in my style of music.”
A host encouraged her to ring as many agents as she could and try to drum up some work in the country music capital. “They all loved my Kiwi accent and were interested in my style of music. Some of them said, ‘Jenny, just keep on talking.’ Once I had worked down the list, I mailed all my packages out to them.”
Since 2008, Blackadder has released albums on BMG (Banjo Gospel), Rajon Music (Banjo Favourites, Country Gospel, Country Banjo) and Ode (It’s Now Or Never). Revered jazz guitarist Bob Heinz was a constant presence on Blackadder’s recordings as guitarist, producer and arranger.
Heinz once wrote of Blackadder: “Jenny’s executed melodies and sparkling tremolo lines present the authentic banjo sound – rich, vibrant, and in every way a harmonically complete solo instrument.”
Blackadder moved to the Wellington region in 2015 and spent a few years there before returning to Christchurch. “I was pretty lucky to get that five or six years with her,” her son Geoffrey Hern said. “But she started getting sick and wanted to go back to Christchurch.”
In a Facebook post on Mother’s Day 2022, Hern wrote, “For those who don't know, Mum has dementia. It’s painful seeing an amazing talented woman losing her memory. But we have a lot to be thankful for too. She’s in a great dementia care facility, with amazing staff, who let her be the queen diva that she is.”
He told AudioCulture that Blackadder could no longer play music, but her children and grandchildren have taken up the baton. “The part I’ll miss the most is being able to sit around and just jam with her,” he said. “It was so much fun playing with Mum. We can still hang out, but we won’t be able to play music together anymore. I’m so grateful for everything she taught me. She may not be able to play but we’ll keep playing for all of us.”