June 1, 2009

In Her Blood...

Folk Songs, It Turns Out, Were in Diana Jones’s Blood
May 31, 2009

DIANA JONES has been writing songs since she was 11, and she’s been
studying people’s faces, as a portrait artist, for nearly as long. But
it wasn’t until Ms. Jones, who was adopted as an infant, met her birth
mother’s family and heard the folk songs they’d been singing for
generations that she discovered her true artistic calling.

It was an unlikely transformation for a woman who was raised on Long
Island and trained early on as a classical vocalist. Yet after finding
her birth family in East Tennessee in the late 1980s, Ms. Jones
discovered that she had an uncanny affinity for Appalachian music.
Gradually she began claiming it as her own.

“Better Times Will Come” (Proper Records), her unvarnished new album,
marks both the culmination of this process and the arrival of a fresh
and distinctive voice. The music on the record is built around the
familiar fiddles, mandolins and harmonies of rural Appalachia, and yet
there’s no regionalism to speak of in Ms. Jones’s supple, loamy alto.
She sings of the hard times, murderous urges and chilling loneliness
that haunt the old Anglo-Celtic ballads but, with one exception, sets
her plain-spoken narratives resolutely in the present. She approaches
the mountain-ballad tradition not as a curiosity or antique but as a
renewable vernacular that’s just as capable of speaking to the human
condition now as it was 80 years ago.

In her record’s title track, for instance, she explores global
recession and hostility, while in “Soldier Girl” she fears for the
safety of a young enlisted woman. The lyrics don’t mention a specific
war, but the urgency in Ms. Jones’s voice leaves little doubt that her
protagonist is bound for Afghanistan or Iraq. Many of her songs reveal
strong empathy, something she attributes to being adopted.

“I was always looking at faces, always searching for people who looked
like me,” Ms. Jones said of her childhood while sipping hot tea on the
porch of her home, a converted shotgun shack in the Shelby Hills
neighborhood, a blue-collar section of the East Nashville area. “It’s
that longing for connection, I think, that’s also there when I write

This longing is most poignant in “All God’s Children,” a song about
orphans. “Shifted from family to other families/some have been hurtful/
and some have been kind,” she sings with an equal mix of sadness and
resiliency, surrounded by plaintive strains of mandolin, fiddle and

Ms. Jones, 43, is still mostly unknown outside folk circles in the
United States, although her 2006 record, “My Remembrance of You,”
received glowing reviews in British magazines like Uncut and Q. Her
new CD is the kind of record that might have signaled a popular
breakthrough, the emergence of a Joan Baez or a Judy Collins, had it
appeared at the height of the folk or singer-songwriter movements of
the 1960s and ’70s.

Ms. Baez, who inhabits Appalachian folk songs as well as anybody, said
writers of Ms. Jones’s caliber come along only every so often.
“There’s some kind of channeling from some other lifetime going on,”
Ms. Baez said by phone from her home in Woodside, Calif. “I don’t know
the answer to these things, but all I can think of is that it must
come from some mysterious part of her soul.”

There’s little mystery but plenty of moral ambiguity in the song “If I
Had a Gun,” an updated bit of Southern Gothic in which Ms. Jones
imagines herself as a battered woman who’s had enough. “If I had a
gun, you’d be dead/one to the heart, one to the head,” she intones in
chilling, remorseless monosyllables.

“Diana’s music has a kind of honesty to it that almost makes you want
to look away,” said the novelist Ann Patchett, who attended Sarah
Lawrence College with Ms. Jones in the ’80s. Her former classmate
reminds her a little of Iris Dement, a tradition-steeped singer whose
austere records transcend time, place and musical tastes. “Diana’s
music feels essentially American without getting into that whole
Americana thing,” Ms. Patchett added. “It’s the voice of our dirt.”

Ms. Jones said that throughout her childhood and adolescence she felt
an almost mystical attraction to rural Southern music but never
understood why. “My brother had Johnny Cash’s live ‘At Folsom Prison’
album, and I stole it from his room,” she recalled. “Whenever I heard
that or someone like Emmylou Harris, I’d be like, ‘Wow, that’s
beautiful.’ I just didn’t know where to find more of it.”

Apart from the soundtracks to musicals like “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound
of Music,” there wasn’t much culture in the home of her adoptive
parents when she was young. “I grew up in a house with little music,
no art, no books, and my dad kept moving us farther and farther into
the country,” she said.

Her father was a chemist, she said, who “wanted to do this farm thing,
and when you’re 13 or 14 years old, to be that cut off, where you
couldn’t even ride your bike anywhere, was debilitating — alienating,

In the late ’80s, after she’d graduated from college, Ms. Jones began
the search for her birth mother at the New York Public Library on 42nd
Street, discovering that the woman had been 20, single and working for
Eastern Airlines when she gave up Ms. Jones for adoption. She
described her mother, who by then had long since married and moved to
England, as an adventurer who wanted to escape the provincialism and
intolerance of the South and “experience the world in a bigger way.”

Birth mother and daughter eventually reunited and have remained in
contact, but the biological relative who played the pivotal role in
Ms. Jones’s musical reawakening was her maternal grandfather, Robert
Lee Maranville. A guitar player and singer, he performed as a teenager
at barn dances in and around Knoxville, Tenn., with Chet Atkins. Mr.
Maranville was with his granddaughter in a gift shop in the Smoky
Mountains in 1997 when she bought a copy of the CD “Voices From the
American South.” The album, the first volume in the musicologist Alan
Lomax’s Southern Journey series for the Library of Congress, included
Depression-era versions of songs like “Pretty Polly” and “Poor
Wayfaring Stranger.”

“I looked on the back of the CD, and I looked at my grandfather and
said, ‘Do you know any of these songs?’ ” Ms. Jones recalled. “So he
went down the list and went, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ Then we played it in
the car, and he sat there tapping on his leg with his fingers, singing
along to these songs that he’d grown up with. I thought, ‘O.K., this
is what I was looking for.’ ”

Ms. Jones said that not long after, she decided to throw out every
song she’d ever written and start over. “My Remembrance of You,” a
record dedicated to the memory of her grandfather, who died in
February 2001, was the first fruit of this musical rebirth. As lovely
as it is sincere, the album betrays no whiff of dilettantism, no hint
of irony.

Ms. Patchett had lost touch with Ms. Jones after college and found her
friend’s transformation to be dramatic and complete. “When I knew
Diana in school, she looked like David Bowie,” she said. “She was this
very androgynous kid who had short hair and wore white T-shirts. She
was a rocker. Then I ran into her four years ago at the gym in
Nashville. She had grown into this really gorgeous woman and also
grown into her voice and her playing and her whole identity.”

“My Remembrance of You” secured Ms. Jones a nomination as emerging
artist of the year in the 2007 Folk Alliance Awards and the chance to
tour with Richard Thompson. More validation came when Ms. Baez
included “Henry Russell’s Last Words,” a coal-mining ballad that Ms.
Jones wrote, on her 2008 album, “Day After Tomorrow.” A version of the
song also appears on Ms. Jones’s new CD.

Based on actual events, “Henry Russell’s Last Words” was inspired by a
love letter that its namesake wrote to his wife, Mary, while he and
110 other men were trapped in a mine in Everettville, W.Va., in 1927.
The mine eventually exploded, killing everyone inside. Mr. Russell
wrote his letter in coal, on a fragment of paper torn from a bag of

“It’s one of those songs where you can see it; the imagery is that
powerful and haunting,” Ms. Baez said. “You feel the lack of air and
the desperation, but also the beauty of the messages to the outside,
the connection that this man feels and that he assumes comes back.”

Just as authoritative as Ms. Jones’s pen, however, is her singing
voice, a clarion alto whose rich timbres and elongated phrasing
sometimes suggest those of a cello or viola. Ms. Jones has spent time
listening to a wide range of commanding singers, including Kitty
Wells, Ella Fitzgerald and Édith Piaf. “The thing about them all is
that they don’t sound like anybody else,” she said. “When you hear
them sing a song, whether they wrote it or not, you believe every
word, every nuance, every breath. You’re with them.

“I try to be very present to my material, to mean each word I sing,”
she continued. “That to me is the bottom line. It’s like telling a
story. You want people to understand what you’re singing, but you also
want to believe it yourself, to really get into it. And that’s really
the joy of it. It feels like flying.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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